What a $140K BMW Teaches Us About Electric Vehicles in 2015

Scott Olson Getty Images

Scott Olson/Getty Images

While some automakers struggle to sell electric vehicles priced near $20,000 after incentives, the high end of the segment is booming. Tesla announced record sales for the first quarter of this year, and the plug-in BMW i8, retailing near $140,000, is doubling its production to accommodate demand. With long-range battery cars far down the road, today’s electric vehicle market remains as much (if not more) about exclusivity and performance than practicality.

High-end electric boom

Tesla’s best-ever quarter had the company selling 10,030 models of its Model S, a car with a starting price between $75,000 and $105,000. Estimates vary, but most industry publications agree Tesla sold half those models to U.S. buyers, with 77% of California buyers earning over $100,000 per year. Until the recent upgrade of the company’s base model, your 60 kWh Model S offered over 300 horsepower and an EPA-estimated 208 miles of electric range.

The brand’s 85 kWh models push electric range over 250 miles and from 422 to 691 horsepower. (No trouble merging onto I-405 in this car.) As far as battery vehicles go, only a hybrid electric Porsche or the i8 PHEV super coupe can challenge Tesla’s performance, but getting one of the European EV exotics guarantees you’ll pay close to $100,000.

According to BMW, demand for its i8 ($137,500) will never be met, even after the company agreed to double production volumes to try and reduce the long waits (previously, over four months) for consumers hoping to get their hands on a copy. The 2015 World Green Car is officially a hot commodity.

For automakers trying to make headway in the low end of the segment, there is no such demand for practical EVs retailing below $30,000.

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Image

Low-end EV sales stagnant

The other half is not living so large. Consider the fate of the Ford Focus Electric. Back in October, Ford dropped the price of the Focus Electric vehicle below $30,000 (pre-incentive) in an effort to move more cars. In states such as California, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, the total incentive package would bring the price below $20,000 (Georgia’s best offer: $16,670).

That’s a remarkable price for the electric version of the world’s best-selling car, which offers 76 miles of range and 110 miles per gallon equivalent in city driving. Yet December and January sales turned out to be the worst for Ford in over a calendar year, and they have remained anemic through March.

The usual complaints about range could apply here, but the Nissan Leaf has shown a similar range (84 miles) and price point ($29,010) are not major stumbling blocks for EV buyers. Nissan set a sales record for electric vehicles in America in 2014. But the Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen e-Golf — cars that offer equal or better range at a starting price near $35,000 — have both failed to gain real traction on U.S. sales charts. Through March 2015, BMW has sold more i8s (341) than Kia has electric Souls (180).

While marketing issues and the usual mysteries of auto consumer choices factor into this equation, all signs point to the electric vehicle market remaining exclusive by any estimation and niche at best. Maybe an EV will come along that provides the range American consumers need at a price they can afford. Until then, this game is largely for the rich and that small segment that values the environment above most other considerations. We’ll keep you posted.

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