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Best Electric Car For The Average American

Ah, that mythical creature — the “average person” or “average American.” What is the best electric car for the “average American?” It depends on what you consider average, but I’ll present a few scenarios below.
First of all, the average number of cars per household is just above 2. Generally speaking, that means that even if the household has one short-range electric vehicle, they have another vehicle that can be used for long-distance trips.
But for regular daily use, is a short-range electric car like the Nissan LEAF (84 miles of range), BMW i3 (81 miles of range), VW e-Golf (83 miles of range), or Kia Soul EV (93 miles of range) really adequate for the average person?
Considering that ~99% of trips are under 50 miles (leaving plenty of room for buffer) and ~90% of days have a total of just ~70 miles of driving (with plenty of time between trips to charge — whether from a charging station or a typical electricity outlet), I’d say it’s a given that >70 miles of range is plenty for the average person’s regular, daily needs.

Show Me The Money

But what about cost? Last I checked, the average price paid for a new car in the US was >$31,000. However, I think most people don’t buy cars new. Either way, though, a new Mitsubishi i-MiEV ($22,995), Smart Electric Drive ($25,000), Chevy Spark EV ($25,995), VW e-Golf ($28,995), Nissan LEAF ($29,010), or Ford Focus Electric ($29,170) fall below the average new car price… even before you subtract the $7,500 federal EV tax credit and any other incentives available in your state or city. Alternatively, a used version of one of these models (prices are really low right now) is an option for used-car buyers.
If this “average American” wanted to stretch a little bit, or simply did the math and realized they could chop the price down by $7,500 with the tax credit alone, the Kia Soul ($33,700) would be in the running. If this person was really smart and calculated in the projected gas savings, I imagine that even the Mercedes B-Class Electric ($41,450 before incentives, $33,950 after the US federal tax credit) and BMW i3 ($42,400 before incentives, $34,900 after the US federal tax credit) very easily come in below the average new car price mentioned above (~$31,000).
So, basically, any electric option on the market is as cheap or cheaper than the average new car bought in the US. If you want to focus on used cars, non-Tesla electric cars have seen higher depreciation than gasmobiles, so you can actually get better deals on used electrics right now.

Best Car Options/Features

So, now that we’ve determined that an average household can, in all likelihood, very easily have an all-electric car as one of their two cars, and also that basically all of the non-Tesla electric cars on the market are as cheap or cheaper than the average new car, of these 100% electric cars, which is the best electric car available today? Of course, that depends on your preferences to some degree. Aesthetics is a big part of the buying decision, as are issues such as interior space and design. But when it comes to electric cars, there are a couple of things that are quite important — the size of the car’s onboard charger and whether or not the car has the capability to “fast charge” at CHAdeMO or SAE Combo fast-charging stations.
Several of the electric cars noted above lack a fast-charging option, while a couple of others have only a 3.3 kW onboard charger, which allows the car to regain only ~10 miles of charge in one hour of level-2 charging. I would cross all of these “compliance cars” off the list. Electric cars without fast-charging capability include the following:
  • Fiat 500e
  • Ford Focus Electric
  • Mercedes B-Class Electric
  • Smart Electric Drive
Electric cars with fast-charging capability but with only a 3.3 kW onboard charger include:
  • Chevy Spark EV
  • Mitsubishi i-MiEV
So, that leaves the:
  • BMW i3
  • Kia Soul EV
  • Nissan LEAF
  • Volkswagen e-Golf
Now, we really getting into personal preferences. The BMW i3 has quicker acceleration than any of the others here (7.1 second to 60 mph versus 11.8 seconds, 10.2 seconds, and 10.4 seconds, respectively), and also has a bit more of a “luxurious” interior. Additionally, it uses more-expensive carbon fiber, a lot of recycled materials, and some green materials like bamboo and eucalyptus that are quite nice but not as cheap as plastic. This all adds a bit of a luxury, performance, and green premium. (Note that the BMW i3 was named “World Green Car of the Year” in 2014, “2015 Green Car of the Year” by another ranking team, and is technically the most efficient car on the entire US car market.) However, it only seats four and it has less interior + storage space than the other three cars on this final list.
On the whole the Soul EV, LEAF, and e-Golf have similar specs but very different styles — check out their webpages (I just linked to them on their names there) to compare he details and aesthetics for yourself. And here’s a BMW i3 link for good measure.
Lastly (for this section), something that may be important to note is the fast-charging standard that each of these cars use, and a certain charging perk. The i3 and e-Golf use the SAE Combo fast-charging standard, while the LEAF and Soul EV use the CHAdeMO fast-charging standard. Without a doubt, CHAdeMO stations are more common these days, as they are generally installed at Nissan dealerships. Additionally, in several states, Nissan has a “No Charge to Charge” program that provides LEAF drivers with free charging. I don’t know how important these factors are to the “average” person — most people charge at home while sleeping the large majority of the time — but it’s certainly something for any electric car buyer to consider. (That said, though, the SAE Combo network will theoretically be built out to approximately the same size and usefulness as the CHAdeMO network, and there are free programs and charging stations for some people using SAE Combo chargers as well.)

Best Electric Car For The Average American

So, we are back to the original question. In my personal opinion, I think the case is well enough made that the i3 is the best electric car for the hypothetical average American (people do like luxury and performance). But if you want more space and seating, the Soul EV, LEAF, or e-Golf probably is. If you want a normal-looking car, the e-Golf is surely your best option. If you want better fast charging options, the LEAF is probably the best electric car for you.
I think you get the point… it’s very much a personal decision at this stage. And, for that matter, it’s a personal decision if fast-charging capability is important for you. If not, the Mercedes B-Class Electric could well be the best electric car offering on the table — if you’re charging at home 99% of the time, or on level-2 charging stations because that’s all that is available at your work or at other destinations you commonly frequent, fast-charging capability may not matter at all to you, and the B-Class Electric’s superior 10 kW onboard charger may be super useful.

Wait A Sec… What About Range Security?

As I already argued, the range of these cars is probably more than adequate for at least one of the average household’s two cars. But sometimes humans are very illogical. In fact, we often are. The large majority of people know very little about electric cars, and they are generally probably nervous about switching to the technology. Additionally, they could legitimately run into significant speed bumps as they get used to it — like not realizing that the “range remaining” estimate is not precise, and that they shouldn’t drive their cars down to “0 miles of charge remaining.” Also, there are times when we suddenly have to drive more than we expected — for some reason or another.
For this reason, a plug-in hybrid electric car, extended-range electric car, or range-extended electric car may be the best initial electric car for many people… maybe even the “average American.” If that is the case, then the only car from the list above that can still be considered is the BMW i3 (with the range extender, or REx, option). However, these other cars could be good or very good options:
  • Chevy Volt ($34,170, or $26,670 after the US federal tax credit)
  • Ford C-Max Energi ($31,770, or $28,010 after the US federal tax credit)
  • Ford Fusion Energi ($33,900, or $29,893 after the US federal tax credit)
  • Audi A3 Sportback e-tron ($37,900 — not clear yet how much the US federal tax credit will be for this model, but probably ~$4,000)
Again, the subjective preferences like discussed earlier come into play a great deal here, but it’s important to note that the i3 REx and Volt offer the most electric driving range, by far. Additionally, they are the only ones that don’t have a gasoline engine kick in at certain speeds, at certain rates of acceleration, and in some other unique cases. From my experience driving plug-in hybrids, I don’t think they compare with the BMW i3 REx or Chevy Volt, but I’ll leave that to individuals to decide.
Think you’re the “average American,” or have other thought to add and want to chime in about the “best electric car” in the US? Join the conversation in the comments below!