7 Green Cars That Paved the Road for the Model S

As Tesla plans to open its “Gigafactory” to produce lithium ion batteries on a massive scale, imagining electric cars in the mainstream is now possible. Electric vehicles that cover hundreds of miles, cost less than $40,000, and wow onlookers could feasibly sell in the hundreds of thousands every year. Brilliant engineering and the ever-grand vision of Tesla CEO Elon Musk are changing the auto industry.

It’s useful to remember that Tesla didn’t invent electric cars; it is just trying to perfect them. A decade after an experimental electric offering from General Motors exited the scene, the precursors to the Tesla Model S are apparent. They represent breakthroughs in electric range, style, efficiency, and pure imagination. Without them, it’s difficult to see today’s EVs hitting their mark. Here are seven cars that paved the road for the Model S.

GM EV1

1. General Motors EV1

To find the most influential (and controversial) electric vehicle of all time, we journey to 1996. The location: Planet Earth; the automaker: none other than General Motors. Sporting a lead-acid battery pack and serving up 137 horsepower, the so-called General Motors EV1 had an impressive range of 70 to 90 miles per charge when it debuted.

By contrast, the 2014 Chevy Volt gets about half that mileage. Its full story is told in the documentary Who Killed the Eletric Car?, but the short version is the EV1 was available only on lease. In 2003, GM collected all its pioneering electric cars and summarily crushed them into scrap metal. Nonetheless, the seeds of the electric dream had been sown.

640px-Fisker_Karma

2. Fisker Karma

Depending on whom you ask, the Fisker Karma is either a punchline (most people), an embarrassment (the Obama administration), a prop for hateful rhetoric (the tea party), or just a car in your garage (Leonardo DiCaprio). Peeling away those distractions, one sees a work of art on wheels. The Karma supercar brought supercar sexiness and performance to electric vehicles that the public had rarely seen before its 2011 debut. A Karma is able to go about 50 miles on a full charge.

Numerous awards went Fisker’s way for the Karma, including Top Gear’s ”Luxury Car of the Year” in 2011 and Automobile Magazine’s award for ”Design of the Year” in 2012. After recalls, bankruptcy, and debt buyout, the shine is off Fisker. However, design work by Fisker actually went into the construction of the Model S, and the Karma’s embodiment of a first-class green car raised the bar in the industry.

imiev-hero.78875fa7

3. Mitsubishi i-MiEV

It’s no Karma, but what the Mitsubishi i-MiEV lacks in style and class it makes up for in efficiency and cost. It was the top-rated car of 2012 when the EPA declared its electric miles-per-gallon equivalent at 126 MPGe. Making large-volume all-electric cars available to the mainstream at the lowest price on the market is a huge achievement for Mitsubishi.

At a base price of $22,995 before federal tax credits, the Mitsubishi EPA-estimated 62 miles of range seems like a steal. The iMiEV is never going to inspire designers or wow passersbys, but its ability to bring affordable EVs to the market has kept the industry’s prices in check.

640px-DCA_Prius_1Gen_12_2011_3593

4. Toyota Prius

The hybrid that started it all made its debut in 1997 in Japan. Since then, Toyota has sold over 3 million models from the Prius line that now includes plug-in models as well as the hybrid system that increased efficiency. Toyota’s insistence on pushing the innovation envelope while enjoying success across its divisions is what made the automaker top dog in the industry.

Never pretty to look at or powerful out of the gate, the Prius did the boring job of improving efficiency through the use of electric motor technology. Back in the 1990s, the Prius 1′s 40+ mpg was eye-popping. It may have taken more than 15 years for the revolution to be official, but Toyota certainly won the long game. In fact, conquering hybrids was only one of many efforts. The automaker may upend the industry once again with fuel-cell technology it believes is even better than lithium-ion batteries as a fueling option for EVs.

Nissan Leaf

5. Nissan Leaf

Until the Mitsubishi i-MiEV bumped it off the podium, the Nissan Leaf had been the most efficient, greenest car on the road. In 2011, the EPA rated the Leaf the winner in terms of MPGe. Awards such as “World Car of the Year” and “Green Car of the Year” followed the Leaf’s 2010 debut.

The overwhelming praise for an EV capable of getting 75 miles on a charge paved the way for automakers hoping to enter the mainstream with zero-tailpipe-emissions vehicles. If a car that isn’t much to look at can win so many awards, why not take the concept to the next level?

640px-Lexus_LS600H

6. Lexus LS 600h

Another one of Toyota’s moves clearly paved the way for the rise of the Model S. In the automaker’s luxury division, the Lexus LS 600h was the first V8 hybrid to make it to production when it appeared in 2007. It could crank 439 horsepower with its 5.o-liter engine, but it could also get 20 mpg in the city for its well-heeled drivers.

Seven years later, a performance luxury car with an electric motor called the Tesla Model S is the talk of the industry. When Toyota introduced the Lexus LS 600h in 2007, the concept of a six-figure hybrid luxury dazzler was truly an anomaly. In many ways, it is the spiritual precursor to the Model S.

Tesla Roadster 1

7. Tesla Roadster

Even Babe Ruth got three swings before he struck out. In Tesla’s case, it only took one car prior to the Model S to capture the public’s imagination on a grand scale. The Tesla Roadster debuted in 2008 in a very limited edition before reaching more car buyers in 2009. At a price tag of $109,000, it was clearly limited in its audience, but its dazzling style and unprecedented electric range proved the automaker was a force to be reckoned with.

Of course, critics loved the quality of the drive. To have an all-electric vehicle sprint from 0-60 in under 4 seconds was thrilling and unexpected. Tesla has continued to win over most drivers who gets behind the wheel. Horsepower, aerodynamics, and torque have a way of tossing politics and philosophies out the window.

More from Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

More from The Cheat Sheet