Three Small EVs Could Have Car-Phobic Youth Buyers on Their Side

By · January 06, 2014

Young People Love the Fiat 500e

Future EV buyers in the Fiat 500e at Trumbull High School. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Writing for Sunday’s New York Times last week, I compared three small electric cars, the Fiat 500e, the Chevrolet Spark EV and the Smart Electric Drive. They all had virtues but I declared the Spark the first-place finisher “by an electron.”

The 500e is a designer’s dream, and as cute as a bug. The Smart ED is made for fun in the sun, pioneering a potentially significant market for electric convertibles (especially since so many EVs are sold in California). But as I reported in the Times article, my daughter Delia’s enthusiasm for the Spark EV was fascinating—she hardly ever notices cars. If I drove home in a supercharged Duesenberg she’d take it in stride. She loved, of all things, the body-color painted dashboard. And the compact size really hit home.

What Young Car Buyers Want

Delia’s a high school senior, and she’s been driving for only a few months. If we were going to get her a car, she said, this would be the one. That’s good news for Chevy’s marketing plan, because they’re aiming the affordable Spark—in all its forms—at young drivers. In general, this is a segment that is somewhat turned off to buying cars at all, so it makes sense to find niches they’ll opt into. The electric car just might push their buttons, and the $199 to $239 a month lease prices don't hurt, either.

I guess I could compare the Spark EV to the 1962 Chevy Nova convertible I drove in high school, though the Spark has a much better infotainment system and the Chevy II was a prodigious polluter. GM knew how to build youth-appeal cars then, but it lost its mojo in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The Chevy Spark EV

The Spark EV has young admirers, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The 500e, a rare beast on the east coast because of its California-only marketing plan, has a lot of potential appeal to young drivers, too. I took mine to a local high school as part of a show-and-tell on electric cars. The students swarmed over it, pronouncing it ultra-cool and an object of desire. “That’s what I’m talking about,” said one.

20-Something Buyers

The Smart ED, with its diminutive size and full-length sunroof/convertible top, is another potential youth car. Looking at forums, I get the sense that the EV version has sold to a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, who like the affordability as a starter electric. But Ken Kettenbeil, a Smart spokesman, said that buyers of the Smart (all kinds) are “defined by attitude and lifestyle rather than age and income.”

Expanding on this theme, a Zpryme survey a few months ago found that the age groups most likely to buy an EV in the next year are suburbanites in two age groups, 18-24 and 25-34. Daughter Delia fits into the first category.

The appeal of small cute electrics to younger buyers is important for a long-term vibrant future for EVs. In fact, it could be a critical factor in proving the federal government wrong in its prediction—via the U.S. Energy Information Administration Annual Energy Outlook report for 2014—that only 1 percent of total vehicle sales in the U.S. will be pure EVs in 2040, with another 1 percent for plug-in hybrids. That forecast seems completely pessimistic, especially considering California mandates that by 2040 will require 100 percent of passenger vehicles sold in the state to be either purely electric or hydrogen fuel cell. The groundwork for future mass appeal of EVs is being laid by the affordable youth-oriented electric cars available on the market today.

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