Electric Cars: How Much Does Size Matter?

With rave reviews for its new sedan and visitors to its small collection of flagship stores numbering in the millions, Tesla Motors is riding high. The California-based automaker released its hotly anticipated Model S luxury electric vehicle (EV) to a fanfare of publicity last month.

Although Tesla has not yet given figures for the Model S’s first month of sales, the company anticipates selling 20,000 of them in 2013. Were this to happen, as well as being a massive shot in the arm for the U.S. EV industry, it would also raise some major questions about the future of EV technology.

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image via Tesla

Up to now the conventional wisdom has been that mass market appeal for an EV will only come in a small car.

To this point the top-selling all-electric vehicle in the U.S. car market has been the Nissan Leaf. In designing the Leaf, Nissan banked on the idea that take up for an electric car is going to be the greatest among people searching for a small runaround, practical for getting to the office and picking the kids up from school, but not designed for long journeys. This type of consumer isn’t troubled by range anxiety (still, arguably, the biggest barrier to EV’s large-scale commercial success) and is presumably evolved enough not to get an inferiority complex from the size of his vehicle.

However, Nissan has sold only around 13,000 Leafs in the U.S since the car came on the market in December 2010 and sales for the first half of this year are down to a disappointing 3,148.

At the same time medium-sized hybrids like the Chevy Volt have performed better. The Volt, which also came out in December 2010, has achieved sales of 16,500 over the same period. Meanwhile, the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid — another medium-sized sedan — has clocked 2,552 sales from late February (when it first came out ) to May.

Of course the success of the Prius Plug-in and the Volt is not just down to their size. The hybrid technology means that buyers needn’t worry about the car running out of charge; a major turn-off for a lot of consumers.

nissan-leaf

image via Nissan

But the same can’t be said about the Model S and so far (though we’ve yet to receive the concrete figures to confirm it) demand for Tesla’s all-electric has been very high.

Could it be that conventional wisdom is wrong? Could the future for EVs be big, rather than small?

There are certainly some major advantages to building big.

A bigger chassis means more engine space and more room for batteries. As a result the Model S can manage 0-60 in 5.6 seconds, with the highest rated battery option on the car coming in at 85 kWh, which translates to a 300-mile range. Compare this to the Leaf’s range, which has been rated at just 73 miles by the EPA.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.

  • BrianKeez

    The Nissan LEAF has a passenger volume is 98 cu.ft., Volt – 90 cu. ft, Prius 94 cu.ft. So it is the ‘size’ champ out of the three cars you mention. The Chevy Volt only seats 4 while the LEAF and Prius seat 5.

    The Mitsubishi i is 100% electric and starts at $29k before rebates.

    • http://www.earthtechling.com/ earthtechling

      Thanks for the catch on the Mitsubishi i – we’ve updated the story to reflect that.
      Nino
      EarthTechling

  • Vulcanalex

    I like the Leaf’s size and its range would be good for commuting or local use.  You could charge it at home at night so that would be acceptable.  What is lacking is price, simple charging and off hours reduced cost electric.  Also some need to think with their heads, not emotionally and accept some limitations and planning in using their car.

  • Earthteching

    Got the Nissan Leaf because it seats 5 adults comfortably, while GM Volt seats only 2 comfortably. The article fell short for me.

  • MichaelGJK

    Why aren’t there any EV minivans? If you’re going to be green, wouldn’t it make sense to bring more people along? And for those of us who have large families, the offerings from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and (cough) Chevy, are laughable at best.