Early electric cars presented buyers with little choice. You either got a compact commuter that screamed "tree hugger" or spent your retirement fund on an expensive luxury model. But those days are over.
There are now over 40 different EV and plug-in hybrid models available in the U.S., with more to come. Models now range from button-cute all-electric Smart Fortwo cars to hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans to pickup trucks with electric assist. So, for the first time, there's real competition in electrification.
Here are the best-of-breed EV and plug-in hybrids, from least to most expensive.
A harbinger of automotive designs to come, the Ioniq was conceived from the start as a car that would accommodate several different electrified power trains, with a view to an autonomous future. The Ioniq comes in three versions: as a pure electric-only car, as a hybrid (gas with battery assist) and as a forthcoming plug-in hybrid (electric only or gas plus electric).
The versatile hatchback has a range of 124 miles in its pure EV incarnation, gets 59 miles per gallon as a hybrid and is expected to go around 29 miles before the gas engine kicks in on its plug-in hybrid version. All versions of the Ioniq come with a 7-inch touch screen and support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
The trick to getting electrics into the mass market may be to avoid telling buyers they're getting a hybrid car. That seems to be the strategy behind Honda's third-generation Insight, a hybrid that wants you to go electric without realizing that you're going electric. There's none of that off-putting Prius in-your-face design or the hassle of having to plug in every night.
The Insight is a balanced hybrid that can go electric much of the time, relying on gas only when you mash the pedal, yet you never have to plug the car in. It also has the familiar feel of a regular compact sedan, save for an occasionally annoying "shift for gosh sakes" whine under hard acceleration (even though there is no conventional shifting here). Still, this car is one of the quietest models in its class, and it includes active noise cancellation to quell most sonic abnormalities. Honda has also beefed up the safety features, making emergency braking, road-departure mitigation and lane-keeping assist technologies all standard. Better still, the Insight does all this while turning in gas-sipping numbers: 55/49 mpg in city and highway (versus the Prius' 54/50 mpg).
Pickup trucks aren't exactly known for being environmentally friendly. And the 2019 Dodge Ram isn't going to suddenly change that impression, but it does make remarkably intelligent use of electric assistance to improve its performance and squeeze out a few more mph — without making you feel like you're driving a whiny, hamstrung EV.
The Dodge eTorque package (standard on the V6 model and optional on the V8 model) is what is known as a mild hybrid system. The 48-volt package uses a belt-driven 48-volt motor/generator and a 430-watt lithium-ion battery. Coupled with the standard combustion engine, it gives the truck a kick in the pants at lower speeds (about 90 pound-feet of torque for the V6) but assists only marginally with mileage, helping to deliver about 2 mpg more.
The real benefit is that eTorque all but eliminates the clunky and tardy engine restarts that result from the automatic engine shut-off system that is designed to save fuel. The eTorque system fills in the pause that can occur in regular gas models when you step on the gas again. It's a subtle but very welcome improvement.
Credit: Dodge Ram
The first design to seriously push the idea of a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Volt eliminated so-called range anxiety (the fear of running out of battery power) by also incorporating a small, four-cylinder gas engine. Chevy calls it a "generator."
So, the Volt will go for over 50 miles under electric power only — more than enough for daily commuting — and if need be, the car can travel around 420 miles before you have to stop for gas. Most owners of this car, Chevy tells us, usually drive for weeks (over 1,000 miles) before they visit a gas station. The company tops all of this off with a slew of connected services, including MyLink remote access, teen driver limits, and support for Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay.
The source of much of Elon Musk's insomnia, the Model 3 was initially plagued by production problems. However, it seems to have finally hit its production stride, with more and more models hitting the highway. And one has to give Musk credit; this car has generated more excitement than any other EV or hybrid introduced so far. It has turtleneck sophistication, yet the Model 3 is designed for the masses.
The pure electric can travel up to 220 miles on a single charge (with the standard battery), and while this car is stubbier and plumper than Tesla's Model S, it's about half the price. With perimeter alerts; a center-mounted, all-in-one, 15-inch touch screen; and promised semiautonomous software options and upgrades for the future, the Model 3 is a definite contender.
While full-size electric SUVs still aren't practical, there is the reasonably priced Outlander plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) for rough roads and winter driving. Mitsubishi's crossover uses two electric motors and a 2-liter gas engine for the four-wheel drive system that ably handles dirt tracks. When this vehicle is in pure electric mode, expect to get about 30 miles of range.
With the Outlander PHEV, you won't have range anxiety, but should you be heading somewhere without electricity, the SUV can run in Battery Charge mode. In this setting, the gas engine literally turns into a charger for the battery. And for those who complain that built-in nav systems quickly go out of date, the Outlander eschews the added expense in favor of using mapping and navigation only from a connected smartphone.
With its domesticated, drop-nose design, the Chevy Bolt isn't the most dashing display of pure electric power, nor does it possess the latest in-dash tech (though it does offer a 10.2-inch touch screen and rearview camera). But the Bolt is unquestionably the leading example of what can be accomplished in an EV, boasting one of the longest ranges on a single charge at a price most car buyers can afford.
The 2018 Bolt has a range of 238 miles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and GM has done an excellent job tuning the ride to make this front-wheeler more comfortable than most traditional compacts. Better still, with the $7,500 federal tax break for purchasing an electric vehicle, the Bolt will cost you around $30,000, so you could buy three Bolts for less than the price of a fully loaded Tesla Model S.