2014 Electric Vehicle and Plug-in Hybrid Buying Guide

The 2014 Electric Vehicle and Plug-in Hybrid Buying Guide from CarPreview.com is your handbook to the small but expanding class of plug-in vehicles. This class consists of electric vehicles (EVs) and Plug-in Hybrids. EVs use no gas at all and produce zero tailpipe emissions. Plug-in Hybrids team an electric motor with a gas engine. Both are alternatives to “conventional” fuel vehicles, but achieve their fuel savings differently.

EVs rely solely on battery power. They charge their batteries by tapping an external power source. When the battery charge is depleted, they can’t be driven. EVs can travel roughly 62 to 240 miles on a charge, depending on the model.

Plug-in Hybrids can draw an initial charge from an external power source to extend their battery-only driving range — around 11 miles for the shortest to 38 or more for the longest. When that charge is depleted, they can still be driven as a “traditional” hybrid. That is, on a combination of electric and gas power, with onboard sensors determining the optimal blend based on such factors as acceleration demands and battery charge. Like traditional hybrids, Plug-in Hybrids can recharge their batteries while underway by harnessing energy otherwise lost during braking and coasting.

The market for plug-ins began in 2010 as a niche category with two vehicles, Nissan’s Leaf EV and the Chevrolet Volt, an EV with an onboard gas generator. By 2013, it contained 14 cars from nine automakers. Growth continues in 2014 with new models from Cadillac, Porsche, BMW and new entries expected from Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Volkswagen, Tesla, and Audi.

This growth is primarily the result of government regulation. A driving force is California, America’s largest car market. In that state, 3 percent of an automaker’s sales must come from zero-emissions vehicles starting with the 2015 model year. A few other states, mainly in the Northeast, have adopted similar regulations. That’s why most EVs are offered only in select markets or in limited numbers.

Among EVs, today’s choices range from the urban runabout two-seat Smart ForTwo, to the Ford Focus EV compact hatchback, to the luxurious Tesla Model S sport sedan. Electric motors date to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and recent advances in battery technology enable EVs to not only provide driving ranges that serve an owner’s daily commute but, as in the case of the Model S, travel more than 200 miles on a full battery charge.

Plug-in Hybrids also continue to proliferate, but their number can still be counted on the fingers of two hands. They’re more expensive than traditional (non plug-in) hybrids, but eliminate the range anxiety associated with EVs. With electric-only driving for short commutes backed up by a hybrid powertrain that provides propulsion for longer distances, some Plug-in Hybrid owners manage to drive weeks or months without filling the gas tank. And electricity is about one-third the cost per mile of gasoline. If you are interested in hybrid driving without plugging-in, check out CarPreview’s 2014 Hybrid Vehicles Buying Guide, as well as CarPreview’s The Best Hybrid Vehicles of 2014.

The 2014 Electric Vehicle and Plug-in Hybrid Buying Guide addresses EVs first, followed by Plug-in Hybrids. In both categories, base prices cited do not include federal or state purchase incentives or optional equipment but do include manufacturer destination fees, which average around $800.

In the EV section, fuel-economy ratings are expressed as miles-per-gallon-equivalent. To explain: Since electric vehicles don’t use gasoline, the traditional fuel-economy measurement of miles per gallon doesn’t make much sense. To compare consumption of electricity with that of gasoline, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed a miles-per-gallon-of-gasoline equivalent (mpg-e) metric. Burning one gallon of gasoline generates 115,000 BTUs. The electrical equal is 33.7 kilowatt-hours (kwh). Therefore, the distance an EV can travel on 33.7 kwh of electricity is comparable to the distance a gas-powered vehicle travels on one gallon of gasoline.

In the Plug-in Hybrid section, we list the both the mpg-e rating achieved during electric-only driving and the conventional miles-per-gallon (mpg) rating achieved during gas-electric hybrid running. As per EPA reporting, the mpg-e figure is the city-highway combined rating and the mpg figures are the city/highway/city-highway combined ratings.

Here is our 2014 Electric Vehicle and Plug-in Hybrid Buying Guide:

Electric Vehicles

2014 BMW i3
Base-price range: $42,275-$46,125
Fuel-economy rating: Not yet rated

2014 BMW i3 6

A marvel of lightweight engineering and electric proficiency, the i3 is BMW’s first all-electric car. Its quirky, futuristic look is unusual from any angle and won’t be mistaken for any other car, outside, inside, and everywhere around. Using a carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) unibody structure, the i3 is the lightest EV on the market. A minimalist interior is trimmed in sustainable materials and features a purpose-built version of BMW’s ConnectedDrive system with two displays, one behind the steering wheel, another mounted in the middle of the dashboard. Driving the rear wheels, a powerful 170-horsepower electric motor can scoot the little four-door city car to 72 mph in an impressive 7.2 seconds. BMW claims a driving range of 80-100 miles from the 22-kilowatt hour lithium-ion battery pack. For those with range anxiety, BMW also offers the i3 with a range extender, a two-cylinder gasoline engine that acts as an onboard generator; it’s good for an additional 60 to 80 miles and adds $3,850 to the i3’s $42,275 base price. The i3 is not yet EPA rated.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

Base-price range: $27,495-$27,820

Fuel-economy rating: 128/109/119 mpg-e city/highway/combined

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

Even if it wasn’t intended, Chevrolet’s Spark EV is the hot rod of small electric cars. Drinking juice from a 21.3-kilowatt hour lithium-ion battery pack, the oil-cooled electric motor packs a powerful punch of 140 horsepower and a whooping 400 pounds-feet of torque. This zippy, fun little runabout can whisk from 0 to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and its short wheelbase, heavy curb weight, and sport-tuned suspension give it a planted feel. There’s way more room for four adults inside than its diminutive exterior suggests. Like the gas powered Spark, interior trim is low grade, but the design is hip and a digital instrument cluster borrowed from the Chevy Volt adds a bit of high-tech air. With a full charge, Spark EV has a rated range of 82 miles. Charging times range from a mere 20 minutes using a DC Fast Charging unit, to 7 hours on a 240-volt line, to 20 hours on a standard 120-volt outlet. The Spark EV’s sole purpose is a California compliance car, but Chevy decided to let Oregonians share in the fun.

2014 Fiat 500e
Base price: $32,600
Fuel-economy rating: 122/108/116 mpg-e city/highway/combined

2014 Fiat 500e

A purely economical or environmental means of transportation? Hardly. With its stylish Italian persona, the diminutive Fiat 500e two-door hatchback is as fun to look at, as it is to drive. Based on the conventionally powered 500, this electric version uses a 24 kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack for an 87-mile single charge range, but it can regularly crest 100 miles between charges in city driving. The exterior’s charm carries into the cabin, and up front occupants won’t get the feeling of a tiny car thanks to chair-height seats, fairly large windows, and a low dash. Those consigned to the rear, however won’t find the same comfort. As an incentive to choose the 500e over other EVs, owners get the use of a free loaner vehicle for long journeys. Unfortunately the free loaner is only good in California because the 500e is a compliance vehicle.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]