We’re definitely gearing up for an alternative-fuel golden age. Toyota put itself right on the bleeding edge of the hybrid-drive wave with the first Prius — and the company’s diving hard into fuel cells with its way-sexy Mirai — but right now, electric cars are the buzz-concept of the day. From the big-ticket supercars and luxury sedans that laid the foundation to the more down-to-Earth electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles coming out now, the trend is towards real mass-market gasoline-free transport. And mass-market is where the magic happens when you’re trying to move and shake an industry like this one.
Look, at the end of the day, the move away from gas is driven by oil prices for sure, and then there is the game-changing factor of California’s zero-emissions guidelines, but the underlying narrative on the consumer side is all about the environment. And you’ll never save the world by depending on high-end buyers and hobbyists.
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept boring cars. Remember the ZENN? Nobody else does, either. No, to make you reach for your wallet, an e-car’s got to have a little zing and a whole lot of zoom; it’s got to look, move and feel like a real car. Here are ten right-now or very-soon electrics and plug-in hybrids that you’ll actually want to drive, from well-priced every-day drivers to lottery-win specials.
10 Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid
If the thought of an alternative-fuel Porsche makes your head spin, then you’re not alone. But here it is anyway. So, what do you get for a hundred G’s? Well, using the electric-only base setting will give you just 20-ish miles of range before the gas engine pops in to top it back up, so true electric-car enthusiasts will likely give it a pass. But that gas engine is a 3-liter V6 that hums along at 333 horses. Drivetrain aside, this car is pure Porsche, from the curvy exterior to the luxurious cockpit.
There’s a plug-in hybrid Cayenne as well, but the sportier Panamera is the one to be seen in. And there’s the thing: you don’t want this car because it’s a viable electric city car, you want it so you can enjoy a hip, green image while driving a Porsche.
9 Mercedes-Benz B250e
You’d expect an electric Mercedes to hit pretty hard on the hundred-grand mark, but the B250e clocks in way under half that. It’s got a Zero Emission Electric Drive whirring away under the hood, offers the usual bevvy of luxurious options and... even has a web page?! No kidding: you can log into your personal car to preheat the interior or check how much range is left, then find the nearest charging station. At 87 miles to the charge, this isn’t exactly a great road-tripper. But for driving to work or heading out on the town, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to run out of juice even on a day’s worth of errands.
8 2016 Audi A3 Sportback e-tron Plug-in Hybrid
Think of a plug-in hybrid as an electric car without the range anxiety, thanks to the second engine. The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron boasts a 102-hp electric engine, plus a four-cylinder gas motor. Your estimated mileage is a combined 86 “mpg-e,” which is the electric car equivalent to miles per gallon. But it’s a good thing that gas burner is sitting under the hood, because your all-electric range is 31 miles. Aside from that, it’s all straight-up Audi: it’s got the familiar understated sleekness, the leather, Xenon headlamps, heated exterior side mirrors, dual-zone climate control… We could go on for pages, but the point is that this is no electric golf cart with an Audi badge on it.
7 Smart Fortwo Electric
The Smart is like your first pretentious car. While your friends are buying their first Civic, this baby says “I don’t care about getting four seats and trunk space for my 15 grand; I’m all about style and exuberance.” The electric version? Same deal, just for the Earth-lovin’ hipster — so long as he has bucks to spare: that electric plug comes with a price premium that puts this little guy in Prius territory. But you’re not buying a Smart because it’s a sensible choice; what you want is the boisterous look and maybe even the cabrio magic. Trunk space and four seats? No sweat: that’s what a second car is for.
6 BMW i3
This ain’t your rich uncle’s Beemer: the i3 takes all the BMW style you love and gives it a sci-fi update. Giving such a time-tested style a Tron overhaul could go epically bad, but the i3 keeps things classy — in a stout, tree-hugger sort of way. It’s got a youthful, hip exterior with an almost anime look, but pop open the doors and you’re greeted by a wide-open world of glass and swoopy lines. Opt for the top-end finish and you can even get real eucalyptus wood panels! Oh, and about 25 per cent of the interior is made from recycled materials.
Okay, the nitty-gritty: the cockpit is encased in a carbon-fiber shell, while the rest of the car is a nice mix of aluminum frame and easily-replaced plastic body panels. Look, it’s an 87-mile car (unless you stump for a range-extended one with a gas backup engine), so this is definitely a commuter rather than a long-range solution, but it’ll seriously rock your ride to work. And check out the suicide doors!
5 Nissan Leaf
Among electric car lovers, the Nissan Leaf is a big deal. It’s got a modern look and a high-tech interior, but it doesn’t come off as a Jetsons car. The Leaf offers a head-scratching mix of comfy ride and overly plastic-y interior details, but the real magic to this car is its absolutely reasonable character. It’s got adequate cargo space and seating, a 107-hp engine with a top speed of 94 mph and a combined 114 MPG-e. Depending on your trim, you can have either 84 or 107 miles per charge. Which is pretty good compared to some of the other electrics out there.
So why do you want this car? Simple: It’s an affordable way to step into the future, but without the questionable good sense represented by the Smart EV. No wonder it’s the biggest seller in the segment.
4 Volkswagen e-Golf
Volkswagen’s e-Golf looks and drives a whole lot like a normal Golf. That’s bad if you want an electric car that broadcasts your high-tech street cred, but great if you’re the type who wants freedom from Big Oil without driving a starfighter. The e-Golf is a straight-up front-wheel drive 4-door hatch. Pretty much the only hint that there’s something different is the non-grille on the front, a couple of minor touches and the badging. Volkswagen has managed to keep the drive quality similar to the gas-powered versions, which is a plus for green-leaning driving enthusiasts. Claimed range is 83 miles, with MPG-e ratings of 126 in the city and 105 on the stretch.
The one downside is that VW is only offering this sweet ride in 11 states, including Cali and New York. Want one in Wyoming? You’re out of luck.
3 Fiat 500e
Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne doesn’t want you to buy this car. He actually said so back in 2014. He’s pretty clear about only making it to satisfy California’s zero-emissions mandate.
That being said, Sergio’s engineers likely had a different philosophy when they designed the 500e: the car boasts an image and ride quality that compare well with the rest of the line. Fiat’s guys have made changes to the body with an eye to decreasing drag and extending its range as much as possible, while sound-dampening the interior to kill road noise. Sitting inside and looking around, the overall sensation you’d get can only be described as... well, “optimistic.” No guff; the interior design is way on the upbeat side. Whether it’s enough to offset the 500’s limited interior space is up to you. Provided you live in California or Oregon, that is. Fiat’s not selling to anyone else.
2 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV
To any eco-minded driver old enough to remember the EV1 debacle in 1990s California, a Chevy of any stripe can be a tough sell for sure. But if you’re a blue-blood who loves to drive American, and you want something that goes farther than the usual 90-ish miles, then the Chevy Bolt might just be your best bet, once it shows up later this year. Right now, it looks like the Bolt is going to go head to head with the Nissan Leaf — and toast it, thanks to a claimed 200-plus mile range and slick but conventional looks. The range and $30,000-ish price tag actually puts this car right in the upcoming Tesla Model 3’s face, but the Model 3 is only slated to start moving in late 2017, and Tesla has become infamous for missing release dates.
So, why would you want this car? Simple: this isn’t a compliance commuter that’s being cranked out just to satisfy California, this is a serious car that’ll seat five in comfort. And the Chevy Bolt is a tech-head’s wet dream, too: there’s available Wi-Fi, sensors for everything from pedestrians to collision avoidance and it does the usual backup camera one better by putting the display right in the rear-view mirror.
1 Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S is the alpha male of the pack. It’s actually less a car than a mic-drop on wheels. Tesla first put the internal combustion engine on notice that its time was up with a crazy supercar, then moved on up to the four-door family sedan that is the Model S. The car comes with all the green-tech Karma points you can stuff into one vehicle. Plus, it’s sleek and chock-full of house-brand gadgets and appointments. Okay, it’s also pretty close to a hundred large once you get to the really interesting stuff. But you get 240 miles per charge at the low end of the product range, and it’ll top out at 140 or 155 mph, depending on the package. The flush-mounted door handles pop out as you approach the car, then zip back in to reduce drag. And of course, there’s that 17-inch touchscreen front-and-center in the cockpit.
From the whole look-and-feel thing to the bleeding-edge tech, being seen in the Tesla Model S will show that you’re a total jet-setter who also wants to save the world.