2015 Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
Three and a half years after modern electric cars entered the mass market, there are now no fewer than 17 models on sale in the U.S.
But that impressive number shouldn't disguise a fundamental truth about the current state of the plug-in electric cars offered today: Only three of them are widely available nationwide.
Those three are the Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S.
Holding back the market
"The single biggest issue holding plug-in electric vehicles back at this point is lack of available product," says noted electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton.
2014 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
"It's counter-intuitive, but it's true--even as there are many other challenges to address."
And it's not clear that buyers who don't follow the market closely recognize the differences in availability among electric cars they may read about or see on television.
Plug-in cars on sale today fall into roughly three groups--though there are exceptions and qualifiers for many of them.
Volume or maybe specialty car
The Nissan Leaf, the best-selling electric car in the world, is available as a standard part of Nissan's product line at most dealers--and the same applies to the Volt at Chevy dealers.
Sales of both cars are clustered in certain areas, though, so while dealers may have one car on the lot, the Leaf or Volt may not be a high-volume item for some dealers. In Plains states or locations with no incentives for plug-in cars, it may be viewed by dealers as a specialty car more akin to a GT-R or a Corvette than a volume car.
Tesla Store Los Angeles [photo: Misha Bruk / MBH Architects]Enlarge Photo
Still, you can get a Leaf or a Volt from at least one dealer in all 50 states.
And as for the Tesla Model S, because you order the car online, it can be delivered in any state as far as we know.
On the other end of the scale are the California compliance cars, whose makers sell them in very low numbers solely to meet the state's zero-emission vehicle requirements.
Those are the Chevy Spark EV, Fiat 500e, Honda Fit EV, and Toyota RAV4 EV.
The Spark and Fit are offered in a few other states (Oregon and the Northeast, respectively) whose regulations match California's, but all four cars are limited in volume to what's needed to meet the California law.
Arguably the Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid falls into this category as well; its sales roughly track those of the Fit EV, and it's only sold in California and the Northeast as well.
2013 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive Cabrio, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Aug 2013Enlarge Photo
Low-volume, in-between cars
It's between those two poles--compliance cars and volume cars--that things get more complicated and qualified.
The common thread, however, is that these nine vehicles are not widely available--for a variety of different reasons--and they sell in low volumes.
Take three cars with plugs that are about as diverse as you can get: the Mitsubishi i-MiEV battery-electric minicar, the Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid, and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive.
2015 Ford Focus Electric, 2014 New York Auto ShowEnlarge Photo
All three makers simply have far fewer dealers than the volume car companies, so simply finding a place that might sell you any of their cars is harder to start with.
Smarts are a specialized car largely sold in cities; Porsches are wildly expensive and dealers are sited largely in affluent communities; and Mitsubishi is a struggling volume brand that doesn't have the resources to go head-to-head against the likes of Chevrolet, Nissan, and Toyota.
The Ford Focus Electric stands in its own category: Ford makes it available outside the California-rules states, at least nominally, but it sells only at compliance-car levels.