So, are electric and hybrid cars the next big thing or are they doomed to be the playthings of affluent gadgeteers and green consumers? As with many things, it depends what dataset you want to look at.
Look at the conflicting evidence from just the last few days:
- Tesla amazed its critics, reporting a first-quarter profit of $11 million and upped its sales projections to 21,000 for the year;
- Perhaps even more amazing, Consumer Reports gave the $90,000 Tesla S a score of 99 out of 100 -- the highest score it's ever given;
- But Swapalease.com reported that Chevy Volt drivers are trying to get out of their leases after less than 12 months while Prius drivers are trying to escape their leases even earlier, after only 9 months;
- An AAA survey finds that nearly 80% of American consumers say they are "unsure or unlikely" to buy an electric vehicle.
It may be that the Tesla results are an exception to overall electric vehicle trends. The sleek, fast and expensive sedan has a range of up to 225 miles, about twice what other all-electric cars can achieve. Given its luxury status, it's likely it is not the only car for most of its purchasers.
Volt drivers bolt?
The Chevrolet Volt, on the other hand is targeted to a mainstream market of middle-income buyers and is priced, after government rebates, to compete with the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. It's also not a "pure" electric, since the Volt has a small gasoline engine that kicks in when the battery runs low, thus extending the car's range to match most gas-powered cars.
Nevertheless, Swapalease reports that the Volt is now regularly appearing in its transfer marketplace, as leasees seek to get out of their leases despite the enthusiastic reviews of drivers like Dennis Dineen, who in 2012 reported getting 203 miles per gallon in his Volt. Drivers are listing the vehicle for an average of $384.86 in monthly payments. What’s more, drivers are listing their Volt leases for transfer just under 12 months into their 36-month lease term.
In comparison, the Toyota Prius hybrid shows list prices averaging $432.00 monthly according to April data. Drivers are looking to escape their Prius leases even earlier, with the average Prius lease getting listed less than nine months into the contract.
“The falling gas prices may be having an effect on lease drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles,” said Scot Hall, Executive Vice President of Swapalease.com. “Most drivers look to exit their lease between 14-16 months into their lease, but we’re seeing a much shorter period for people exiting their Volt and Prius. The falling price of gas may be causing people to re-evaluate their decision to lease a hybrid or EV vehicle.”
No place to plug in
Rapid adoption of all-electric vehicles has, of course, been hampered by the lack of charging stations. While cars can be charged overnight at the driver's home, consumers are still nervous about driving a car that has a range of only 100 or so miles. Just one unexpected errand or surprise detour can throw off even the most cautious driver's energy budget for the day, as Los Angeles Leaf owner Rob Eshman has learned.
This anxiety perhaps explains the AAA survey finding that 80% of Americans are unlikely to buy an electric car anytime soon, even though the number of charging stations has increased 959% since the debut of the Nissan Leaf in 2010.
“There have been major advancements in electric vehicle technology and the supporting infrastructure,” said John Nielsen, AAA Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair, “However, it will take time and education for the general motoring public to understand just how far these vehicles have come, and recognize the many resources available to those who drive them.”
Modern EVs typically have a range of 60-100 miles, more than enough for the average driver’s daily commute which the U.S. Department of Transportation says is around 16 miles one way, Nielsen said.
The AAA survey also finds many consumers citing the higher cost in general of an electric vehicle as a reason they would be unlikely to make such a purchase, although Nielsen says electric cars are actually cheaper to maintain.
Lower maintenance costs?
“Battery improvements, increased competition, and economies of scale are all likely to drive down costs associated with buying an EV,” Nielsen continued. “With no need to change oil or filters and less brake system wear and tear, maintaining an EV is actually more affordable than a conventional vehicle.”
While that may be true of pure electric vehicles, it's not what some Toyota Prius owners have experienced.
"My battery on my 2007 Prius (134k miles) just died and it would cost $3,000 to replace," said Eric of Spring, Texas, in a ConsumerAffairs posting. "The dealer was shocked and said it was one of the few times he has seen this happen. Is that true or is this a more regular occurrence?"
Mike of San Francisco might take issue with AAA's assertion that oil changes and other regular maintenance are less costly and less frequent in electric vehicles.
" Most of the time, when I go to a dealership to get scheduled service, I wind up having to take about three hours out of my day. This is for an oil change and regular service. Given that I commute over 100 miles per day, this means that I have to do this every couple of months and it gets really annoying," Mike said.
AAA says it's gearing up to support electric cars, developing specially equipped road service trucks that can charge an electric vehicle in about 15 minutes with enough energy for about 10 miles of driving.