2014 Electric Cars That Could Move the EV Market, Or Not

By · September 09, 2013

Volkswagen e-Golf

Will 2014 EVs from BMW and Volkswagen, like the electric version of the mainstream Golf, move the market? (Photo: Brad Berman)

August 2013 was an impressive month for electric car sales, with the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF racking up new records. As has been the case since those first two plug-in models hit the market in late 2010, the Volt and LEAF continue to own the lion’s share of sales. In August, their combined sales were 5,771, more than half the total 11,363 purchases. The plug-in Prius and Model S each contributed about 1,700 sales. Are we locked into this pattern for the next couple of years, or could 2014 electric cars bring entirely new buyers to the market?

The best hope for expanding EV sales could rest with German automakers. BMW will introduce the small i3 next year, and VW will begin selling an electric version of the Golf.

BMW will make innovation its selling point—and of course, its reputation for high-end Germany engineering. In addition to the use of lightweight carbon fiber construction, the i3 will be the first plug-in car on the market to offer customers the choice of pure EV and plug-in hybrid options. The challenge that BMW faces is the novelty of its powertrain, and a hefty pre-incentive price tag of $42,200 for a small commuter car.

BMW i3

Will the BMW i3 be too pricey, small and quirky to make a real impact on EV sales?

Meanwhile, Volkswagen brings massive scale--and its aspirations to be the biggest car company in the world. VW officials are planning to make electric cars and plug-in hybrids an integral part of the modular manufacturing process. VW apparently wants to compete. Rudolf Krebs, VW’s head of electric-powertrain technology, told Bloomberg last week: “We deliberately positioned the electric Up! against the i3.” The diminutive E-Up! will not be sold in the United States, but, in addition to the E-Golf, VW is planning a handful of Audi and Volkswagen plug-in hybrids in the next couple of years. No word yet on the crucial question of pricing.

In a press release issued today, Dr. Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen, said, " "We are starting at exactly the right time. We are electrifying all vehicle classes, and therefore have everything we need to make the Volkswagen Group the top automaker in all respects, including electric mobility, by 2018." The statement indicated that a total of 14 models from several VW brands will be available with electric or hybrid drive technology by 2014. If there is sufficient demand, up to 40 new models could be fitted with alternative drivetrains.

Let’s not forget that the Model X is also due. That could be a decent seller, especially out of the gate. But the Cadillac ELR and Porsche Panamera plug-in hybrid are expected to be niche.

Where Will They Fall?

German automakers have not been major players in the market for conventional gas-electric hybrids. Diesel has been their primary fuel efficiency play. Yet, they apparently see plug-in vehicles as a legitimate path forward.

The current roster of plug-in cars in the United States consists of 14 cars, but it’s only the Volt, LEAF, Plug-in Prius and Model S that sell more than one thousand units per month. Most of the EVs and PHEVs are so-called compliance cars with non-existent marketing, poor dealership support and limited geographical distribution.

A year from now we should have a better sense of where BMW and Volkswagen line up in the sales rankings—potentially above the line with Volt and LEAF, as serious contenders in the electrification of the vehicle. Or will they be also-ran B players, willing to talk about the potential for electric cars, but not willing to seriously help move the plug-in market to a new benchmark?

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.