How does GM’s fabled EV1 stack up against the current crop of electrics?

1996 General Motors EV1

The electric car isn’t exactly thriving, but it’s a lot healthier than it was in 2003. That’s the year General Motors terminated leases of its EV1 electric two-seater, setting in motion the events that would form the backdrop of the documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?

When GM hauled its EV1 fleet off to the crusher amid protesting consumers, the car became an automotive martyr and was used as evidence of a conspiracy against EVs.

Ten years later, GM is building electric cars instead of crushing them, and the political and consumer climate has changed considerably. Filmmaker Chris Paine even made a sequel: Revenge of the Electric Car.

What about the EV1, though? Some say it was the right car at the wrong time, others say it just wasn’t good enough to be commercially viable. So, did political machinations and consumer skepticism kill the EV1, or was it just not a very good car?

The EV1 was the first serious modern attempt at an electric car by a major manufacturer, but its short range and long charging times earned it a spot on Time’s 2008 list of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time,” and a place of dishonor in Richard Porter’s book Crap Cars.

The EV1 was somewhat of an outlier when it was actually on sale. Now, though, there are other production EVs to compare it to, giving us an idea of what the EV1 was like as a car, and whether EV technology really needed 10 years of maturation to be good enough for consumers.

1990 General Motors Impact conceptThe Car

The EV1 went into production in 1996 as a production successor to the Impact, a 1991 concept car. It was compact two-seater roughly the size of a contemporary Saturn SC2.

Unlike most current electric cars, the EV1 was almost entirely bespoke. It featured an aluminum space frame, aluminum suspension components, and plastic body panels, to keep weight down. It also had electric power brakes and steering; the latter is a common feature on cars of 2013.

Although all EV1s look the same, they actually belong to two generations. Gen I cars had a three-phase AC induction motor and a 16.5-kWh Delphi lead-acid battery pack. In 1999, GM released Gen II cars with 18.7-kWh Panasonic lead-acid batteries, and later upgraded them further with 26.4-kWh nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries, the same type used in the Toyota Prius and most first generation hybrids.

The EV1 was so different that it became the first car in GM history to be sold under the General Motors nameplate, instead of being assigned to one of the company’s divisions (it was sold through Saturn dealers). That begs the question: Would renaming the Chevrolet Volt the General Motors Volt really increase its appeal?

1996 General Motors EV1 cutawayPerformance

While its lozenge-shaped body and digital dashboard suggested a futuristic speed machine, the EV1 performed more like an average compact car. All versions had the same electric motor, which produced 137 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque.

GM advertised the EV1’s range as 70 to 90 miles and while, we can’t drive one of the cars to confirm this, it compares favorably with current EVs on paper.

The EV1 could reportedly go from 0 to 60 mph in nine seconds, while Car and Driver’s 2011 Nissan Leaf SL long-term test car did the same in 10 seconds. If the Leaf is acceptably quick, then so is the EV1.

Top speeds are also pretty close. The EV1 was electronically limited to 80 mph, while the Leaf’s limiter is set at 92 mph. The EV1 also matches the Mitsubishi i-MiEV’s top speed although, at 13.0 seconds to 60 mph, the Mitsubishi takes a lot longer to get there.

Charging

One of the most shocking (no pun intended) aspects of the EV1 was its short range and hours-long charging times. Ten years after the last EV1 left the road, things have improved, but haven’t completely changed.

GM said the EV1 could go 70 to 90 miles on a charge, depending on conditions, which mainstream EVs haven’t really bettered. The 2013 Nissan Leaf gets a 75-mile range rating from the EPA, while the Mitsubishi i-MiEV can only go 62 miles. The Honda Fit EV ekes out a slightly better performance at 82 miles.

A Gen I EV1 took approximately 15 hours to recharge from a 110-volt household outlet. GM’s 220-volt MagneCharge system could do the job in three hours. By 2001, GM had installed over 1,000 MagneChargers in private homes and public locations like malls, hotels, and airports. GM encouraged customers to use the 220-volt system, and only plug into standard household outlets as a backup.

This should sound familiar. Both Nissan and Tesla are working to build national networks of public charging stations for their respective EVs. Tesla has a handful of Supercharger stations in California and on the East Coast, and hopes to open 100 by 2015. Nissan wants to have 400 of its DC quick chargers ready by next year.

The performance of these new chargers is a vast improvement over the MagneCharger. Tesla says the Supercharger can add 150 miles of range to an 85-kWh Model S in 30 minutes, while Nissan’s system can charge a Leaf to 80 percent capacity in the same amount of time.

A full charge at home still takes awhile, though. A 240-volt Level 2 charger takes about four hours to charge most cars, so 2013 EV owners aren’t in a much better position than 1996 Gen I EV1 lessees.

1996 General Motors EV1 chargerPrice

In 1996, an EV1 stickered for around $35,000. That was somewhat nearer to a BMW 328i ($32,900) and about the same as a Mercedes-Benz C280 ($35,250) at the time. While that might seem like a lot for a front-wheel drive compact, it’s not bad considering that the EV1 was basically hand built and shared virtually no components with other GM vehicles.

In 2013, a Nissan Leaf costs $28,800, but last year it was $6,400 more. GM’s own Chevrolet Spark EV will cost around $25,000 when it goes on sale later this year. However, both 2013 EVs benefit from tax credits, including a $7,500 federal credit.

Just like in the 1990s, EVs are generally more expensive than their gasoline-powered counterparts. The Spark’s $25,000 base price may be low for an electric car, but it’s almost $10,000 more than a loaded 2013 Spark 2LT. The EPA consider the Leaf a midsize car, and Nissan’s own midsize Altima starts at $21,760.

Did the EV1 deserve to die?

On paper (and pixels) the EV1 comes pretty close to the 2013 EV standard in terms of performance and convenience. It’s impractical two-seat body and the unknown long-term reliability of its batteries are the only major drawbacks.

A 70 to 90-mile range and minimum three hour charging time also sound like drawbacks, but EV drivers in 2013 aren’t much better off. Two generations of battery technology have eased, but not completely erased, range anxiety.

Today’s political climate may be friendlier toward EVs, but buyers still have to decide if zero-emission motoring is worth a major sacrifice in flexibility. So, for some, the EV1 may never have been a good car. It was a good electric car though, so maybe it didn’t deserve to die.

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