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Plug-In Vehicle Roundup

A Guide to the Best and Worst of the Breed

It's hard to believe, but the first mainstream plug-in electric vehicles offered for sale to the general public are just barely turning four years old. Model-year 2011 saw the introduction of the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid, and the Nissan Leaf, a pure electric vehicle.

Now well into 2014, those two stalwarts continue to battle it out, but now they're part of an 18-car (and counting) field of contestants. New thinking has brought fresh ideas to market, and the head start the pioneers enjoyed is fading fast.

The new plug-in vehicle entries are nearly evenly split between pure electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. But which are the studs and which are the duds? We run them down from worst to first.

Your List May Vary
There are many competing factors in play, from range to charging time, cargo capacity to performance. Prices are also all over the map and federal tax credits vary from car to car. And then there's the essential question: pure electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid?

How your list looks depends on your specific needs, your commute and your budget. Do you have a place to install 240-volt charging equipment? Do you live in a state where the vehicle you want is sold and serviced in the first place?

We've attempted to take everything into account in the making of this list, but we know that individual buyers will focus on certain factors and ignore others.

For example: We're not putting much stock in manufacturer claims about rapid charging because there's a Betamax-versus-VHS war going on between CHAdeMO (the world's worst acronym) and the SAE Combo Charger. Neither network is big enough to be useful yet, but maybe you live next door to one or the other.

In our view, EV drivers had best count on 240-volt Level 2 charging with professionally installed charging equipment, preferably at their own home. Plug-in hybrid drivers can get by on Level 1 home charging using the supplied cord unless they buy a Volt or ELR, in which case our advice matches EVs. As for Tesla, charging options abound, and their coast-to-cost Supercharger network is in a league of its own.

Missing in Action
A few cars are missing from our rundown. Honda has cancelled its Fit EV program. You might still see them on the road, but new leases are no longer available.

The 2015 Kia Soul EV and the Audi A3 E-tron plug-in hybrid are just around the corner, but they're not for sale yet and technical details are incomplete. Same goes for the Mercedes-Benz S550 plug-in, the Volvo XC90 plug-in and the Volkswagen E-Golf.

We also left off the outrageous hypercars. Believe it or not, the 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder, Ferrari LaFerrari and McLaren P1 are all plug-in hybrids. But they're also limited-run million-dollar machines that are pretty much sold out.

18. Mitsubishi i MiEV

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 62 miles
  • Base MSRP: $23,845
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: 49 states (sorry, Alaska)

The Mitsubishi i MiEV is the sort of stereotypical golf-cart electric vehicle that the naysayers envisioned when the EV concept first surfaced. It looks weird, drives weirder and it offers just 62 miles of range. Along the way it is ponderously slow, requiring more than 14 seconds to reach 60 mph.

What's more, the piddling 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger needs 7 hours to replace those miles on 240-volt charge equipment. That's less than 9 miles of driving for every hour on the plug.

It is the cheapest EV on the market, though. Too bad that applies in all senses of the word. As for safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave it just three stars in its side-impact test.

17. Smart Fortwo Electric

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 68 miles
  • Base MSRP: $25,750
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: all 50 states

Put the Smart ED in the same category with other EVs that drive better than their gasoline counterparts. In this case make that way better, because a gasoline-powered Smart Fortwo is a pretty awful machine. Here the irksome automated-manual transmission is gone, replaced by the smoothness of an electric motor and a direct-drive single-speed transmission.

But that's not enough. The stubby chassis is still horrid. Crosswinds and road seams still have their way with the little Smart. And every truck that pulls up behind you still feels like an impending rear-end collision.

Acceleration is OK in town, but this little machine isn't well adapted to freeway travel. Top speed is 78 mph, and range plummets if you spend much time in the fast lane. The Smart Fortwo ED is best thought of as a city car.

16. Cadillac ELR

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 37 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 33 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $75,995
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide

Cadillac doesn't want us to compare its ELR to the Chevrolet Volt, but there's no avoiding it.

Mechanically, there are only minor differences. The rear suspension has been lightly modified and the front struts are more sophisticated. All four corners sport impressive-sounding magnetorheological dampers. Mostly, this stuff just offsets the drawbacks of the gargantuan 20-inch wheels.

The engine, electric motors and battery are the same, but the software has been tweaked to make the ELR about a second quicker to 60 mph by dipping into the battery a bit more and, later, when the charge runs down, allowing the gasoline engine to run harder. Electric range is down a mile compared to a Volt, and the ELR burns more gasoline (33 mpg vs. 37 mpg) in hybrid mode.

Mostly this is a design exercise in which a sleek two-door body and a lavish interior have been grafted onto an existing chassis. The effect is transformative, but we can't stomach what amounts to a doubling in price for the look of the thing.

15. Toyota Prius Plug-In

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 11 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 50 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $30,800
  • Federal tax credit: $2,500
  • Availability: CA, OR, WA, AZ, ME, MA, VT, NH, RI, CT, NY, NJ, MD, VA, HI

The Toyota Prius Plug-In is simply a Prius with a slightly bigger battery and a place to plug in. Only 11 miles of electric range are on offer and they're rarely pure EV miles because of the way it's configured.

Toyota engineers know that their gasoline engine is more efficient than battery propulsion at periods of high demand. A full battery won't prevent the engine from starting if the Prius Plug-In is accelerating onto the freeway or cruising above 65 mph. It's logical, it uses less overall energy, but those who want a pure EV experience until the juice runs down won't necessarily get that in the Prius PHEV.

Even if that's OK with you, those 11 miles of EV-ish behavior cost about $8,000 over the price of a regular Prius. Save your money. Buy a regular Prius (if a Prius you must have) and use the savings to buy gas for the rest of the car's life. That is, of course, unless you are only in it for the carpool stickers.

14. BMW i8

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 15 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 28 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $135,700
  • Estimated federal tax credit: $3,751
  • Availability: nationwide

The BMW i8 is an amazing collection of engineering ideas wrapped up in a supercar skin. It's also a toy.

Like the BMW i3, the basis of the car is a carbon-fiber passenger cell. An electric motor drives the front wheels for the first 15 miles, after which a three-cylinder turbocharged gasoline engine begins pushing from the back. In Sport mode both work together to produce wicked acceleration to the tune of 4.5 seconds to 60 mph and 12.6 seconds and 111.8 mph in the quarter-mile.

Scissor doors and bulky carbon sills make entry a gymnastic exercise, but the accommodations are exquisite once you're there. But only two of you; the rear "seats" are recommended only as cargo space, which you'll need because the trunk is jokingly tiny.

The i8 is stunning, outrageous and compelling, but it's also immensely impractical. You could have the same speed, more comfort, vastly more cargo space and about the same cachet for less money with a Tesla Model S.

13. Toyota RAV4 EV

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 103 miles
  • Base MSRP: $50,660
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: California

The Toyota RAV4 EV has a distinct edge when it comes to cargo capacity, which is undiminished compared to its gasoline counterpart. The higher-riding stance of a crossover SUV made it rather easy to slide a large Tesla-supplied battery under the existing floor. Powered by a Tesla-supplied electric motor, the frisky RAV4 EV can travel 103 miles, and our testing indicates a careful driver might eke out 135 miles or more.

But at over $50,000 this is a costly marriage. And it's not terribly efficient as it gobbles up 44 kilowatt-hours of electricity every 100 miles, some 38 percent more than a Focus Electric. And Tesla's involvement didn't extend to the calibration of the brakes and steering, which are about as detached and vague as a well-worn first-generation Prius.

Toyota clearly isn't fully committed to the RAV4 EV beyond what's necessary for regulatory compliance. It's still built on the last-generation chassis, for one thing, and you can only get one in California in limited numbers.

12. Porsche Panamera S E-hybrid

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 16 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 25 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $99,975
  • Estimated federal tax credit: $4,585
  • Availability: nationwide

At first glance the Porsche Panamera S sedan seems an unlikely candidate for the plug-in hybrid treatment. Then again, Porsche made a regular hybrid Panamera S last year, and this car is large enough to hide an enlarged lithium-ion battery without too much trouble.

Start out in EV mode and that battery can propel the big Porsche for 16 miles all by itself. Or you can set the car in Sport mode and have the 95-horsepower electric motor add its might to that of the 3.0-liter supercharged V6 and bring 416 total hp to bear.

The Panamera's hatchback design makes it more resistant to the intrusion of the battery, which only takes a 10 percent bite out of the available space; there are 40.1 cubic feet back here instead of 44.6 cubic feet.

The price difference between a Panamera S and a Panamera S E-hybrid stands at just $5,800, most of which is covered by the tax credit. The bigger question is this: Is the modest EV experience worth giving up the amazing seven-speed PDK transmission for an eight-speed automatic? And do you really want to saddle your Porsche experience with another 700 pounds?

11. Ford Focus Electric

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 76 miles
  • Base MSRP: $35,995
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide

We were mighty impressed with the Ford Focus Electric when it first came out. It's still a solid choice, but in the face of newer competition a few things hold it back.

On the plus side, it's a solid-handling machine that rides on a chassis we admire. As with its gasoline counterpart, the steering is engaging, the brake pedal is sure and it's not afraid of corners. The powertrain is nearly as eager as a 1.6-liter Focus SE, but with the added sophistication and noiselessness of zero-shift electric drive.

It looks good on the road and the interior is mostly easy to get along with. There's a nifty brake feedback meter that helps you maximize brake regeneration and range. And the standard 6.6-kW charger can refill the battery in just 3.6 hours.

But we'd like to see a bit more than 76 miles of range, and we wish the battery pack didn't take so much of a bite out of cargo capacity. The usual hatchback utility isn't here. As for the price, $36,000 is a little steep.

10. Chevrolet Spark EV

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 82 miles
  • Base MSRP: $27,495
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: California, Oregon

The tiny Chevrolet Spark doesn't light our fire in gasoline trim, but the EV version has a few things going for it. The all-electric drivetrain makes it feel infinitely more sophisticated and provides enough oomph to scoot from zero to 60 mph in as little as 7.5 seconds. What's more, it carries sufficient battery capacity to last 82 miles, and with careful driving it actually completed our 105.5-mile evaluation loop.

It's let down by its 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger, which means it takes 7 hours to refill an empty battery on a 240-volt home or public charge station. The sad fact of slower charging reduces the Spark EVs overall flexibility and makes it hard to complete a full recharge during the overnight discount period.

Priced at $27,495, it's one of the cheaper EVs on the market. That's a lot of coin for such a dinky machine, but the deal gets more attractive once you deduct $7,500 for the federal tax credit and compare it to the $15,820 base price of the gasoline-powered Spark 1LT automatic. It's only available in California and Oregon, though.

9. Ford C-Max Energi

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 20 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 38 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $35,460
  • Estimated federal tax credit: $3,751
  • Availability: nationwide

The Ford C-Max Energi delivers the same plug-in and gasoline performance as the Fusion Energi but in a different wrapper. But instead of a stylish sedan you get functional styling (some might say homely) that comes with a higher seating position and a somewhat elevated roof line.

The battery delivers 20 miles of electric running, after which the engine comes to life and begins sipping fuel to the tune of 37 mpg. Through it all you'll enjoy steady handling and a polished ride. On paper there's more cargo space than in a Fusion Energi, but the batteries are awkwardly placed. And C-Max rear-seat passengers must make do with about 2 inches less legroom.

The C-Max Energi comes only in SEL trim, and costs just over $5,000 more than the SEL variant of the C-Max hybrid. The federal tax credit of $3,751 wipes out a good chunk of the difference, which makes this plug-in C-Max worth considering if the form factor suits you.

8. Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 87 miles
  • Base MSRP: $42,375
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: CA, OR, MD, NJ, NY, ME, VT, NH, CT, MA

You may have read that Mercedes-Benz owns a small chunk of Tesla stock. That relationship shows up here in the 2014 Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, a car that has no gasoline counterpart in the United States.

A Tesla-sourced battery hangs underneath the floor and a Tesla electric propulsion unit sits crossways under the hood. Interior volume and cargo capacity are unchanged from the gasoline and diesel versions sold in Europe.

We haven't tested one yet, but the EPA-certified number we care most about looks promising: 87 miles of electric range. Assuming the RAV4/Tesla collaboration is a good indicator, the B-Class should have no trouble orbiting our 105.5-mile test loop with juice to spare.

The price is reasonably attractive, and Mercedes says it has enough pop to get to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. It's on our list because it's on sale now, but without a detailed test-drive we can't do more than tentatively place it in a midpack position.

7. Fiat 500e

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 87 miles
  • Base MSRP: $32,600
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: California, Oregon

The Fiat 500e electric vehicle is in many ways a more tempting machine than its gasoline counterpart, the Fiat 500. It's quicker to 60 mph, handles better and has none of the coarse engine noise and wonky shifting found in the regular 500. The EV styling add-ons, including wider rear tires, only serve to improve an already pleasing shape.

Its low-mounted battery is large enough to give it 87 miles of range, and we were able to drive one all the way around our 105.5-mile test course. Better still, it comes standard with a 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger that can refill the battery in 4 hours, a pace of 22 miles added every hour.

It shares its main drawbacks with all Fiat 500s: The interior controls are funky, there isn't much front row headroom, the backseat is tiny and the cargo area isn't that big. If you can get past those (and if you live in California or Oregon) there's not much wrong with the Fiat 500e.

6. Nissan Leaf

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 84 miles
  • Base MSRP: $28,830 (S), $32,850 (SV)
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide

The Nissan Leaf was the first mainstream all-electric vehicle you could actually buy and own outright, all predecessors being lease-only or fleet placement specials. It was designed using the weird-is-good Prius formula, which is why it looks a bit like Jar-Jar Binks.

But don't let that stop you. The Leaf has a spacious interior and a decent amount of cargo space that's only slightly compromised by the placement of the propulsion electronics. The driving experience is smooth and serene, and it has enough sauce to keep up with city traffic. It's not as adept at acceleration up to highway speeds: zero to 60 mph takes more than 10 seconds. And we don't find it as coordinated on winding roads as some of the newer EV offerings.

The latest Leaf has been uprated to go 84 miles, but we have not yet confirmed that on our test loop. Avoid the cheaper Leaf S (or any used Leaf of vintage 2012 or earlier) because their wimpy 3.3-kilowatt underhood charger needs 8 hours to refill the battery on 240V charge equipment. Instead, buy a 2014 Leaf SV or SL to be sure you get the 6.6-kW charge circuitry that can do the deed in 5 hours or less. Note: It is possible to buy a 6.6-kW Leaf S if you opt for the $1,250 Charge package.

5. Chevrolet Volt

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 38 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 37 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $34,995
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide

The Chevrolet Volt, a past member of our long-term test fleet, has a big battery for a plug-in hybrid, large enough to deliver 38 miles of electric range. We managed to squeeze 54 miles out of ours a time or two. Folks with a light foot and a short commute stand a good chance of keeping it in EV mode much of the time.

It should therefore be no surprise that the battery is large enough that you'll need to invest in a 240V Level 2 charge station at home. Other plug-in hybrids can get by on the supplied 120V charge cord, but not the Volt.

When the juice is gone, a small 1.4-liter engine fires up to sustain a certain level of charge. At this point you're burning premium gas at 37 mpg. The engine sometimes gets clutched in to assist with direct propulsion at freeway speed and during periods of high demand.

The control layout is a failed experiment in touch-sensitive buttons that look cool but aren't. And that big T-shaped battery runs down the middle of the car, turning the Volt into a four-seater. The Volt is reasonably quiet in electric mode, but it can get noisy when the engine runs, particularly when climbing hills.

4. BMW i3

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 81 miles
  • Base MSRP: $42,275
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide

The interesting aspects of the new BMW i3 go beyond its electric powertrain and unique styling. Beneath the skin it's made of a light-but-strong carbon-fiber material. It weighs less than the Fiat 500e and Spark EV even though it's a much larger car that dishes out 3 Series room.

The lightness of the structure helps the i3 to be quick off the line and accelerate to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds. Beyond mere lightness, the carbon passenger cell is also rigid and rattle-free. And the well-tuned suspension and low center of gravity of the carbon construction imbue the i3 with a grace and poise that far outstrips its appearance.

There are 81 miles of range on offer, and those miles can be replenished in 4 hours using 240V charging equipment. We were able to travel about 96 miles on our test course with sparing use of air-conditioning and a little care.

The i3 is unique in that it offers the option of a "range extender" gasoline-powered generator for $3,850 more. Fed by a small 2.6-gallon gas tank, this optional generator extends total combined range out to 150 miles. It's not intended for cross-country travel, but it does allow the sort of impromptu side trips that other pure EV drivers may balk at.

3. Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 13 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 46 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $40,570
  • Estimated federal tax credit: $3,334
  • Availability: California, New York

Honda's Accord Plug-In Hybrid is built on the top-level Accord Touring trim, which means it's a loaded machine that includes navigation, LED headlights and adaptive cruise control. Usually this includes leather seating, too, but in the plug-in they substitute "bio-fabric."

The battery isn't terribly large, so the Accord PHEV only delivers 13 miles of electric running. On the other hand, it only takes 40 minutes to refill using 240V charging equipment.

We were able to eke out 16 miles on one run, so the Honda PHEV is going to burn gas. That's not a huge drawback because the Accord does this to the tune of 46 mpg combined. This is remarkably close to Prius territory, the difference being the Accord is a larger and more well-appointed car that's more pleasant to pilot around town and on the open road.

As with other plug-in hybrid sedans, the Accord Plug-In's Achilles' heel is its trunk, which shrinks from 15.8 to 8.6 cubic feet and loses the ability to fold the seatback on account of the batteries. And you've got no choice but to pay up for the $40,570 Touring because the less costly versions of the Accord Hybrid are not available in plug-in form.

2. Ford Fusion Energi

  • Plug-in hybrid
  • Electric range: 20 miles
  • Gasoline economy: 38 mpg
  • Base MSRP: $35,525
  • Estimated federal tax credit: $3,751
  • Availability: nationwide

Ford makes the Fusion in gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid versions. The latter goes by the name Energi, and the lithium-ion battery is good for 20 miles. As with the Prius PHEV, the engine may come on during periods of high demand, but not nearly as often or as readily.

Compared to the Prius PHEV, the price offset between Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi is smaller, and the tax credit is larger owing to its bigger battery. The difference almost pays for itself at the Titanium level.

And the Fusion Energi exhibits the same smooth ride and agreeable handling of any other Fusion. It's an adult-size car that offers generous room for all occupants. There's a lot to like here.

The exception is the trunk, which shrinks from a regular Fusion's 16 cubic feet to 8.3 cubic feet on account of the batteries. Ford fans who take issue with that might want to look at the related Ford C-Max Energi.

1. Tesla Model S

  • All electric
  • Electric range: 208 miles (60), 265 miles (85, P85)
  • Base MSRP: $71,070 (60), $94,570 (P85)
  • Federal tax credit: $7,500
  • Availability: nationwide (Tesla accommodates out-of-state shipping)

There's no denying the Tesla Model S is a groundbreaking machine. Even the base Model S 60 has a humungous battery that delivers substantial range, but there's also an 85 kWh model that can go 265 miles on a charge. Upgrade to the P85 performance model and it'll blow the doors off some high-buck sports cars...silently.

Charging options abound to suit any circumstance, and the ungodly fast (and free) Tesla Supercharger network enabled us to drive our P85 from California to New York in less than three days.

And it's a stunner, with great lines. The passenger and cargo areas are huge because the battery hangs under the floor and the motor sits low between the rear wheels. A snazzy touchscreen dominates the cockpit, but it'd be easier if some functions were controlled by a few choice buttons and knobs. And the Model S lacks expected equipment like center console storage, door pockets and an iPod connection that talks to the head unit.

We owned one for 16 months, but it was in the shop more than once. Most were same-day fixes, and service was excellent. But our car was an early sample, bought as soon as we could to get an early look. Owners of more recently built cars aren't having the same issues, and Tesla recently expanded the powertrain warranty to 8 years/unlimited miles.

Am I Ready for an EV?

EV ownership works best if you can charge at home (240V outlet) This typically means a 240V home installation, or other places your car is parked for several hours each day. Don't expect a regular household outlet (120V) to suffice.
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