What's The Best Electric Car To Buy For The Average Consumer?

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2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

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Automotive journalists often use each other as information sources, or to get reality checks on new material.

Recently, a colleague asked, "If auto journalists had the choice of only driving electric, which production electric car would you purchase--and why?"

Which seemed like an excellent topic for an article on choosing battery-electric cars.

2014 Tesla Model S owned by Tom + Jeff of Palm Springs, California

2014 Tesla Model S owned by Tom + Jeff of Palm Springs, California

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Below is our response, slightly edited for context. We highlighted several points.

(1) At the moment, many people view the Tesla Model S as the best electric car on the market. It's also very expensive, so eliminating it from the discussion makes sense it if your story is aimed at mass-market buyers.

DON'T MISS: Electric Cars: Some Are Real, Most Are Only 'Compliance Cars'--We Name Names

(2) But, if your story IS aimed at mass-market buyers, you do them a disservice if you don't distinguish between (a) the handful of battery-electric cars whose makers are building them in volume, and (b) those that are strictly "compliance cars," sold only in California and a handful of other locations, in numbers just high enough to meet that state's zero-emission vehicle sales requirements.

The first group includes (alphabetically) the BMW i3, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S.

2013 Tesla Model S and 2014 BMW i3, Hudson Valley, NY, Nov 2014

2013 Tesla Model S and 2014 BMW i3, Hudson Valley, NY, Nov 2014

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The compliance cars are the Chevy Spark EV, the Fiat 500e, arguably the Ford Focus Electric, the Honda Fit EV (lease-only, now winding down), and the Toyota RAV4 EV (also winding down).

It's not yet clear whether the Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen e-Golf are compliance cars, or will sell only in similarly low numbers. Kia's refusal thus far to release sales figures is not an encouraging sign.

The Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive now sells only in those low numbers, as does the two-seat Smart Electric Drive (for different reasons).

ALSO SEE: Plug-In Electric Car Sales In Nov: Leaf Grows, Volt Wanes

For reference, compliance cars tend to sell in volumes of around 200 per month. The i3, Leaf, Model S (and also the Chevy Volt range-extended electric car) sell at rates five to 15 times as high.

If your target buyer plans to keep the car for several years, a compliance car almost surely poses greater servicing challenges than a volume EV.

2016 Chevrolet Volt sneak peak for owners, Los Angeles, Nov 2014

2016 Chevrolet Volt sneak peak for owners, Los Angeles, Nov 2014

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(3) By far the highest-production electric car in the world is the Nissan Leaf, at more than 150,000 built globally and sales rates climbing.

Nissan is seriously committed to its battery-electric car in a way that only a couple of other makers are--and it's the leading volume entry in the segment.

MORE: Nissan And Renault Together Pass 200,000 Electric-Car Sales

Nissan dealers may also be, on average, more committed to the Leaf as a part of their lineup than are dealers for the much lower-volume or limited-distribution cars.

Dealers are their own separate story; the writer's hypothetical buyer may need preparations to withstand sales pressure NOT to buy a plug-in electric car, but instead to sign on the line for a similar-sized gasoline car.

Why? Because that's what the dealer knows, sells a lot of, and needs to move out of stock--today, right now--with a special deal just for you.

2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

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All of those factors together make the Nissan Leaf arguably the safest and smartest purchase by far.

(4) Finally, as several commenters point out, DC fast-charging is a must.

RELATED: BMW Promises CCS Fast-Charging Blitz For 2015, Details In Detroit

Five years hence, we'll likely have several thousand fast-charging sites in the U.S., most of them offering recharges using either of the two competing mass-market standards (CHAdeMO and CCS).

Every Leaf has CHAdeMO fast-charging capability, whether standard or optional. The Kia Soul EV (and the tiny, low-selling Mitsubishi i-MiEV) are the only other vehicles that can say that.

On the CCS side, the e-Golf and the BMW i3 have fast-charging standard or optional as well (so does the compliance-car Spark EV). And there will be many more to come.

Discuss.

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