Over 40 new electrified vehicles are coming out this year in the United States.
Until recently, if you wanted to ditch your gas guzzler and go electric, there were few choices. You could take the high road and opt for a $70,000 luxury vehicle, like the Tesla Model S, or take the low road and choose a more modest commuter, like the $31,000 Nissan Leaf.
But this year, all that appears to be changing.
Over 40 new electrified vehicles are coming out this year in the United States, according to Baum & Associates, a research firm. Models include the Honda Clarity electric sedan and a Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Even the tiny Smart Fortwo line will abandon gas entirely in the United States in favor of all-electric powertrains.
More important, say automakers, there promises to be a proliferation of plug-in hybrids similar to the Chevrolet Volt. Plug-in hybrids can drive in electric mode or use gas when the battery runs down. This technology is proving flexible enough for a variety of vehicles from sports cars to compacts — and it eases the consumer fear that a driver will run out of power before finding a charging station.
More and more, plug-in hybrid models will go head-to-head with different versions of the same car. The current Kia Niro, for example, a hybrid that relies on a gas engine and braking to recharge its battery, will compete later this year with a plug-in hybrid sibling, with similar features and amenities including luggage space — and with a price to match, around $23,000.
“We want to be price-neutral for the consumer,” says Steve Kosowski, long-range strategy manager for Kia Motors America. “When you walk into the showroom, it should be, why wouldn’t you buy this one?”
Some of the pricing parity relates to economies of scale.
“Battery prices have decreased by 70 percent over the last six years,” says Simon Mui, a director at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
Additional tax and rebate incentives can also bring electrics more in line with their combustion engine counterparts. Federal tax subsidies of $7,500 are available for some models, and some states offer additional enticements. New York recently began offering a rebate of up to $2,000 for some electric, fuel-cell and plug-in cars. With these incentives shaving up to $9,500 off the price of a car, automakers hope to attract more buyers.
The ultimate goal is to accustom consumers to treating electrification as just another powertrain option, like the choice between a V-6 and a V-8 engine or between rear-wheel and all-wheel drive.
Even Mercedes-Benz, which will have a total of seven plug-in hybrid and fully electric models by the end of the year, is adopting a similar marketing philosophy with its flagship S-Class sedan, which starts at about $100,000.
“The strategy is to make the latest S-550e plug-in the same price as the V8 counterpart,” says Paul La Penta, a supervisor in electromobility at Mercedes-Benz.
Mercedes and others are also looking to plug-in technology to give their cars a performance boost. At the recent New York International Auto Show, Mercedes trotted out a GT Concept car that produces over 800 horsepower combining a V8 combustion engine with an electric module, not unlike current Formula One race-car designs.
Indeed, one of Porsche’s performance-leading cars this year will be the forthcoming 2018 Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid, a plug-in hybrid four-door that will go from 0 to 60 mph in a little over three seconds.
“The biggest benefit of these cars is the torque,” says Frank Wiesmann, a spokesman for Porsche, referring to the superiority of electric motors in delivering an initial boost from a standing start. “With electric help, it’s faster to 60 mph and delivers a higher top speed.”
For all the optimism and hype, those in the electrification market inevitably face questions about the Trump administration’s stated goal to roll back current fuel economy standards, thus possibly killing the electric car. Federal standards adopted in 2012 require car companies to improve the average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Reducing or even eliminating such requirements could inhibit development.
However, analysts and many car companies point to California, which has a waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows the state to set its own standards. The California Air Resources Board recently voted to stick with the existing emissions goals. Twelve other states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon, say they will fall in line with California’s rules. Together they represent more than a third of the car market in the United States, Mui said.
After voicing support for the federal standards, the biggest car companies have recently appealed to President Donald Trump to loosen the fuel economy targets.
“There’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde component to automakers,” Mui says. “Engineers say, yes. Lobbyists say, no, don’t make us do this. They are conflicted.”
But like a supertanker under full power, the electrification ship may be too hard to turn around. In interviews with car company representatives, the most often repeated responses to questions regarding the easing of current regulations were: “We like to plan long term” and “We’re a global company.”
It takes several years to design and build a new car, and many electric vehicles are already in development. General Motors representatives stressed that the automotive industry was a long-term, capital-intensive business. Kia says it was already investing $10.2 billion over five years on vehicles ranging from plug-in hybrids to those running on fuel cells.