Electric Cars: Some Are Real, Most Are Only 'Compliance Cars'--We Name Names

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Chevrolet Spark EV Development Testing in Southern California, March 2012

Chevrolet Spark EV Development Testing in Southern California, March 2012

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Since last year, you've likely heard a lot about electric cars. You'll hear much more in the years to come.

But whether you're a fan or a foe, understand this: A few of the battery-electric cars you've heard about are "real"--meaning their makers want to sell as many as they can.

But quite a few of them aren't. They're not meant to lure in consumers, or sell in any kind of volume.

They're only built to meet California regulations for zero-emission vehicles--which is why they're called "compliance cars."

It's important for buyers, electric-car fans, and the greater public to know which is which, because the automakers won't tell you.

All about volume

"Compliance cars" will be made in much lower volumes: only up to a few thousand, versus the tens and hundreds of thousands that makers like Nissan hope to sell.

Today, there are three battery electric cars on sale in the U.S.: the Coda Sedan, Mitsubishi 'i', and Nissan Leaf. Later this year, they will be joined by the Ford Focus Electric and the Tesla Model S.

By 2014, we'll see further new plug-in entries from BMW, Chevrolet, Fiat, Honda, Scion, Smart, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

Golden Gate Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Marin County, California

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Starting this year, California requires that carmakers of a certain size ensure that at least a small portion of their volume comes from zero-emission vehicles--either battery electric cars or fuel-cell electric vehicles.

Carmakers can meet the overall requirement using a combination of car types, including larger numbers of plug-in hybrids with partial electric range.

The first round of requirements applies only to the carmakers with the highest California sales. In order, they are: Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler.

What is real?

So what makes a battery electric car "real," and distinguishes it from a compliance car?

We'd suggest that any plug-in car has to meet the following criteria before it can be considered real:

  • It's sold outright to consumers, not only leased; and
  • It will sell at least 5,000 or more a year in the U.S. or reach total global sales of 20,000; and
  • It's offered outside the 'California emissions' states, or will be within 18 months

Any car that doesn't meet those tests at a minimum isn't a serious volume car; it's either part of a test fleet or it exists just to comply with the ZEV requirement.

Applying that test, we can find only four battery-electric cars that are or may be "real" during 2012. Three are on sale now, one isn't yet:

  • 2012 Nissan Leaf
  • 2012 Mitsubishi 'i'
  • 2012 Coda Sedan
  • 2012 Tesla Model S

The Coda Sedan just went on sale in March (and Coda refuses to say how many it's sold), so we're reserving judgement until we see if the company can come anywhere close to its first-year sales goal of 14,000.

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

2012 Tesla Model S beta vehicle, Fremont, CA, October 2011

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We're also convinced that Tesla intends to sell every Model S it can build, but that car won't arrive on the market until July, so it will take a few months more to verify its "realness."

(By the way, we also consider the Chevrolet Volt , the Fisker Karma, and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid to be real--but they have gasoline engines as well as plugs, so they don't qualify as pure ZEVs in California--so this article doesn't apply to them.)

Naming names

OK, so which cars aren't real? We believe several battery-electric cars announced for 2012 through 2014 are only "compliance cars."

Not so coincidentally, there's one apiece from each of the five non-Nissan carmakers required to sell ZEVs starting this year:

  • Chevrolet Spark EV
  • Fiat 500 Elettrica
  • Ford Focus Electric
  • Honda Fit EV
  • Toyota RAV4 EV

All are conversions of existing gasoline vehicles, rather than purpose-built battery-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S. Four of the five manufacturers are consistently opaque--for which read stonewalling--about even the basic details of their cars' technologies, launch plans, and sales areas.

And those are the tipoffs that these are all compliance cars. We'll go through them one by one.

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV cutaway

2013 Chevrolet Spark EV cutaway

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GM confirmed production of the Chevrolet Spark EV last October, and we know:

What GM refuses to say--despite our repeated inquiries--is when it will put the Spark EV on sale, whether it will be sold or just leased, which states it will be offered in, and what it will cost. In fact, the company hasn't even said when or where it will reveal the actual car.

It also won't discuss the car's battery-pack capacity, its electric range, its likely MPGe rating, its recharging time, where the electric conversion will be done, or its production volume.

But the electric conversion of the Spark remains a tiny car--far from the compact segment that's today's sweet spot for electric cars--and GM already has one plug-in halo car, the range-extended electric Chevy Volt.

Our conclusion: The Chevy Spark EV will be a compliance car, nothing more.

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