Bottom Line/Personal: What are the best hybrid and electric cars for 2015?

I’m Steven Kaye, Editorial Director at Bottom Line Publications, and today my guest is auto analyst Karl Brauer, Kelley Blue Book Senior Director. There are all kinds of permutations now of hybrid cars on the market, full electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and Karl’s going to help sort them out for us and figure out which ones are the best.

Karl, thank you very much for offering to do that for us today.

Karl Brauer: Absolutely. Fun to be here.

Bottom Line: This is a category that is now exploding, and everyone from the lower end all the way up to BMW and Audi, they’re all coming into the hybrid and electric space, and of course there’s Tesla with full electric. You have a few favorites in the category.

But before we talk about those, I just wanted to talk about an observation I have about this category in particular, is that some cars in this category are perfect for some people, and perfectly wrong for other people. More so than in any other category. If you don’t have a place where you can plug in your car, obviously a full electric car is not of much use to you. You might be able to make use of a plug-in hybrid, or maybe that’s a waste.

And so it’s very individual, and I was hoping you could sort some of that out for us.

Brauer: Yeah, and you have people who want to have an electric car and also have only one car. To have an electric car as your primary car could potentially be problematic because maybe you get a call out of the blue that says you’ve got to go to your relative who’s just gotten sick, and they live 200 miles away, and you don’t have time to try to get on a plane; you need to get in a car and go.

No electric car short of the Tesla can go 200 miles. Even the Tesla, if you had to go and come back quickly and you couldn’t find a supercharger in between that 200 mile roundtrip or 400 mile roundtrip, you’d be in trouble there. So that’s one example.

Then you have people who are fine with having their hybrid electric vehicle as a second or third car because they’ve got a conventional gasoline engine. You’ve got people who live in the city, you’ve got people who live out in the country.

You really have to make sure you match your driving needs to the vehicle you’re getting in general, and that particularly is important when you buy a hybrid or electric car, because if you don’t do that, you’re either going to be out of gas or you’re going to be getting charged on the side of the road and having to be picked up by a wrecker.

Bottom Line: Doesn’t mean it’s not a fine car, but it just isn’t a car that matches your needs.

Brauer: Exactly.

Bottom Line: Just to define some of the terms here, a hybrid car needs gasoline, and it uses the gasoline to run an electric motor that then makes your car go. A hybrid plug-in does all of that, but you can also plug it in and charge the battery from the wall, not just from gasoline. You can also drive a certain amount just on the battery with a hybrid electric. And then of course, a full electric, the easiest to understand – it’s just electric. When the electricity is gone, there’s no gas tank, and you’re either charging or you’re trying to find a tow truck.

Brauer: Right.

Bottom Line: Okay, so the individual preference and need is very important. That being said, you have some favorites in this category, some cars that you think really do a fine job filling whatever the need is that they’re trying to fill. I think the first one that we’re going to talk about is the Fiat 500e.

Brauer: Yeah, and I have to tell you, I was on the press event for this vehicle recently. It was pretty amazing, because the Fiat 500e has this impression and this reputation as a fun to drive vehicle. Most electric cars aren’t necessarily that fun; they feel kind of heavy. They’re not necessarily slow, because they have great torque right off the line, but they certainly don’t have the most dynamic, twisty road orientation normally.

This one still does, and I think that was my biggest surprise and my biggest joy in driving the car, that made me think this is not a bad way to go if you have to or want to go pure electric. It drives like the standard 500. The battery pack is low; it keeps the center of gravity low in the car. And it doesn’t even comprise really the space inside the car or in the cargo area.

So really, with the exception of the range limit on the vehicle, which is, like most of them, between 70 and 100 miles depending on how you drive – with the exception of that, there’s really no downside to this car. You don’t compromise the typical Fiat 500 fun vibe by buying one of these, and I thought that was really neat.

Plus, there’s some pretty aggressive lease and financing options on these cars. You can lease one of these cars with all the incentives rolled in for like $99 a month in some states and some counties.

Bottom Line: $99 a month without much upfront?

Brauer: Yeah, with like $1,000 or $2,000 upfront. Pay $1,999 upfront and $99 a month. And in some counties – again, states and counties have different incentives – you can do $1,000 upfront and $99 a month.

Bottom Line: So 70 to 100 miles on one charge. If the temperature is dropping, the colder it gets, the less range you’re going to have.

Brauer: Faster you go, highway versus in town will wear it out.

Bottom Line: Faster, less. And then of course, if the temperature rises and it gets hot and you have to run the air conditioning, then again, you’re coming down.

Brauer: Exactly.

Bottom Line: This is a small car, very stylish. People seem to like driving it. But how is it on the highway at 65, 70 miles an hour with that electric motor?

Brauer: It’s fine. It’s got all the power you need, even at those speeds. It’s still quiet. The ride quality is still good, even over expansion joints and stuff on the L.A. freeways. There’s really no downside, and I think that’s why it really jumped to mind when I thought about a fun electric car.

Between the price and the incentives and the lease rates, the lack of compromise versus the standard Fiat 500, you just need to have a driving circumstance that doesn’t need more than 75 to 100 mile range without being able to charge it. If you really are in an urban environment or you have a short work commute, I think you’d be surprised how much fun you’d otherwise be having without worrying about the range issue.

Bottom Line: You could drive it to work, drive it home from work, charge it overnight at your house.

Brauer: Do it again.

Bottom Line: And you’re good to go the next morning. And then you’re getting a very cost-efficient per mile charge for what you’re doing. That’s good.

So let’s move up in size a little bit. Your next car is a little bigger, and that’s the Kia Soul EV?

Brauer: Right, and the Soul EV is another all-new one. This one’s brand new; it just got introduced. It’s Kia’s first dedicated electric car for the U.S. market. But they’ve paired their pure electric car with really one of their most successful models and one of their best models, which is the Soul.

Unlike the 500e, which is maybe a little bit small and a little tight, but still very fun to drive, this is a very functional car. It’s that box style that the regular Soul has, so you still have all this cargo space that you can utilize as well as all the passenger space. If you want to fold the seats down, fold them up, it’s your choice. But you can carry a lot of things around.

I like the tweaks they did on the styling to this vehicle. It looks distinctively different from the regular Soul. It’s very clean, and almost appliance-like looking, but I think that’s okay when you’re talking about an electric car that works. To me that’s just a perfect marriage; when you take the functionality of the Soul and you add in electric power, you end up with a very functional electric vehicle.

Bottom Line: Does the battery still allow for the cargo room that the Soul is known for?

Brauer: Yeah, they packaged it real low for center of gravity, just like in the 500, so you don’t end up with a big compromise in terms of functionality.

Bottom Line: And range and price?

Brauer: Range is about what they always are, so it’s going to be, again, somewhere between 70 and 100, 110 miles depending on how it’s driven. And price is, again, like most of them, somewhere between thirty and forty – though with incentives, you can get that to drop into the twenties easy.

Bottom Line: This is a car, it sounds like, that has leapfrogged a little bit over the Nissan Leaf, which really came and broke open this segment.

Brauer: Yes. This one feels a little more modern and with a little more functionality, a little more space. And I think Kia is very interested, like they are in a lot of segments, about making a real statement here and making sure they aren’t left behind, and people realize that they’re in the game too.

Bottom Line: Okay. And then the final car that you wanted to talk about in this segment today is one that sometimes seems like every other car on the road, is this car.

Brauer: Can’t get away from it.

Bottom Line: You can’t get away from it.

Brauer: And if you really like hybrids, you shouldn’t try to get away from it, but it’s the Toyota Prius. One of the things that’s great about the Prius is first of all, it’s a hybrid. It’s not pure electric, so there’s no range issue.

There is a plug-in version, so you could also go that route if you wanted to plug it in and try to go a 15 mile range. If you had a 5 mile commute each direction, 10 roundtrip, you could theoretically be running on pure electricity most of the time. But if you want to go longer, the car will go indefinitely on regular gasoline.

When we run all the cost to own numbers on hybrids and electric vehicles, the Prius almost always comes out toward the top because its incremental price over a non-hybrid of about the same size isn’t that high, and its mileage is high enough that you can actually pay it off in like 5 years. A lot of electric or hybrid cars, it’ll take you 10, 15, 20 years to pay the vehicle back if all you cared about was the reduced fuel bill paying you back for the extra cost of the hybrid. But the Prius will do it in like 5 years on a typical calculation.

Bottom Line: So the Prius gets you a lot of what people are trying to get with pure electric, but without the novelty of pure electric. But just in terms of what it costs you to drive that car, what it costs to go a mile and what it costs to own it in terms of resale value, it sounds like if you’re willing to give up the novelty of an all-electric, and if you like the Prius – it’s not a driver’s car.

Brauer: No. It’s not a driver’s car; it’s a fuel-miser’s car. It’s a person who hates going to the gas station and loves the idea that they can reduce that to as little as possible without fully compromising range and worrying about range anxiety.

Bottom Line: And for cars that need gas in the tank to go, the Prius still does that the best, it sounds like.

Brauer: It still has that 50+ MPG rating, which is hard to find on anything short of a pure electric car that doesn’t need any gas.

Bottom Line: Okay, so that’s the story on hybrids and electrics. Thanks very much, Karl.

Brauer: Yeah, absolutely.