Revisiting How Much Electric Car Range Is Enough: Maybe 120 Miles?

By · April 07, 2014

Toyota RAV4 EV

For the most part, the RAV4 EV looks like a regular RAV. That disguises its sizable battery pack, capable of 120 miles of range or more.

A gas-powered car with a full tank of petrol can commonly travel 300 miles before requiring a fill-up. Drivers of those vehicles probably don’t see much difference between an electric car that has 80 miles of range—versus one that can go 120 miles before needing to fill-up. But that difference, I have learned in the past two weeks, is huge.

That’s because I recently leased a 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV—when the three-year lease on my 2011 Nissan LEAF came to an end. (Toyota’s $16,500 discount on the vehicle made it hard to pass up.) The jump in range from the LEAF’s 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack—the electric version of a gas tank—to the RAV’s 41.8 kWh pack, means range has increased from about 80 miles to 120 miles.

Official EPA numbers are 84 miles and 103 miles respectively, but that doesn’t pass the sniff test. I’ll assume that the LEAF, a smaller vehicle, can go about 3.5 miles on a kilowatt-hour—yielding a little better than 80 miles of range. Meanwhile, even at an inefficient 3 miles-per-kWh for the RAV4 EV, the 41.8 kWh pack offers more than 120 miles of range.

As usual, your mileage may vary. But there’s a bigger point: in my daily driving around all regions of the Bay Area, I simply don’t worry about range anymore. The 50 percent increase in battery size from LEAF to RAV has zapped any lingering range anxiety.

Of course, I’m still not taking long road trips. For those rare occasions, I have a gas-guzzling Prius. And maybe one day I’ll buy a plug-in hybrid. (The Audi A3 PHEV looks hot.)

Meanwhile, I’m riding around in a comfortable and spacious all-electric crossover SUV with none of the worries I used to have in a compact small-battery EV.

Categories of Range

This leads me to believe that there are roughly four bands of usability in today’s electric cars, as reflected in this list of battery-electric vehicles organized by battery size. (Again, the rule of thumb is about 3.5 miles of range per kilowatt-hour.)

Just-Local Cheap EVs

  • Mitsubishi i-MiEV – 16 kWh
  • Smart ForTwo Electric Drive – 17 kWh

Just-Local-Plus Affordable EVs

  • Chevrolet Spark – 21 kWh
  • BMW i3 – 22 kWh
  • Ford Focus Electric – 23 kWh
  • Fiat 500e – 24 kWh
  • Nissan LEAF – 24 kWh
  • Volkswagen E-Golf – 24 kWh
  • Mercedes B-Class E-Cell – 28 kWh

Long-Range But Expensive EVs

  • Tesla Model S – 60 kWh
  • Tesla Model S – 85 kWh

I skipped over the fourth band, currently with a single vehicle. It's tougher to name this category, but here goes:

The Slightly Expensive But No-Anxiety Regional EV

  • 41.8 kWh Toyota RAV4 EV

My experience confirms what J.B. Straubel, Tesla's chief technology officer, told me a couple of years ago: "A functional minimum we should aim for is the 125- to 150-mile range.”

While manufacturers are still trying to bake the cost our of EV batteries, it’s going to be tricky to offer the higher end of that minimum at an acceptable price. But after driving the RAV4 EV for a few weeks, I’m starting to feel like I know which electric car Goldilocks would drive. The cars in the category with the biggest clump get 80 or 90 miles on a good day, and 60 to 70 miles if driven with alacrity or in cold/hot weather. That's not quite enough. (Mr. Auto Exec: Are you listening?)

Goldilocks might like the big-battery Tesla’s 250-plus miles of range, but it doesn’t mean much, if she can’t afford it. And then there’s the 40-kWh pack, similar to the one put into the RAV4 EV. Hmm. Until battery prices come significantly down toward the end of this decade, that’s feeling just about right.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
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  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
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  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.