Despite being potentially more affordable, electric vehicles with smaller batteries are not capturing mainstream attention in the US. That doesn’t mean they can’t fill a niche.

Cost, size and range all on the rise

In September 2021, new car buyers in the US paid an average of $45,031 for their vehicle, a year-over-year increase of $4,872. Post-lockdown supply chain issues notwithstanding, it’s clear that this rise in cost reflects the size and caliber of vehicles that are most popular in the country. Indeed, pickup trucks and SUVs outsell cheaper compact cars by a wide margin.

If the above criteria are truly representative of what consumers are looking for when shopping for a car, then the average electric vehicle (EV) is ready for the masses. Many top-rated EVs cost around $40,000 and fall into the category of compact SUVs, otherwise known as crossovers. The vast majority of them can drive over 200 miles on a single charge.

The buzzworthy EVs that will hit the market in the coming years include large SUVs, pickups and luxury sedans. Increases in range have become expected, and these vehicles look promising in that regard: 300 miles traveled on a single charge may soon become the norm.

These cutting-edge advancements are sure to inspire, but do they serve those who are not shopping for high-powered, large EVs? The EV market may be expanding, but many of the products being offered cater to a similar demographic. Meanwhile, drivers in Europe and Asia are accustomed to owning smaller, less expensive cars. Perhaps this trend may find some traction in US cities where traffic congestion remains a major issue.

Urban EVs make their mark overseas

Cheap and cheerful EVs are plentiful in many parts of the world.

In China, the top-selling EV is the Wuling Hongguang Mini. It’s a three-door hatchback manufactured by a consortium that includes General Motors. It measures 115 inches long and has a base battery capacity of 9.2 kWh. By comparison, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, one of the smaller American offerings, measures 164 inches in length and comes with a 66-kWh battery.

The Hongguang Mini’s price tag of around $5,000 has made it more popular than Tesla EVs in the country.

The Chinese EV market is the most advanced in the world, and many other small cars are just as popular as larger ones. The seventh-best selling EV there is the Changan BenBen EV, a five-door hatchback with a 32-kWh battery. A three-door hatchback with a 38-kWh battery called Chery eQ1 also sells well, as does a funky city car called ORA Black Cat that features a 33-kWh battery and another three-door hatchback called Roewe Clever that features a 27-kWh battery.

Many small EVs are also available in Europe. The Renault Zoe, Fiat 500e and Peugeot e-208 are examples of compact cars that adhere more closely to American road safety laws than the Chinese models listed earlier. While those requirements add cost, those three European EVs all ring in at under $35,000 before incentives and two of them offer 50-kWh batteries.

Range isn’t everything

With all the hype around EVs that can drive further and haul more stuff, the success of small cars in other continents suggests that there’s more to the story about to unfold in the US.

Critics were quick to dismiss the 2022 Mazda MX-30 EV, a premium compact crossover, as uncompetitive largely due to its 35-kWh battery pack offering 100 miles of range. But a closer look at what the carmaker is offering reveals that for purchasing this $33,470 vehicle, buyers receive a $500 credit towards public charging, app-based remote charging and access to a Mazda loaner program that grants owners free use of a non-EV when they want to take longer trips. Mazda points out on its website that Americans only drive around 30 miles per day, and that Level 3 fast charging can be achieved in just over half an hour.

Of course, the MX-30 EV is a far cry from the truly small cars that enjoyed success in postwar Europe. Could lightweight microcars like the Isetta ever make a comeback? One company seems to think so. The Microlino, produced by Micro Mobility Systems, is a pre-production two-seater electric bubble car destined for sale in Europe. It measures just 96 inches in length and has a suggested retail price of under $15,000. Unlike the single-cylinder quadricycles of yore, the Microlino is not short on power: it can reach 50 mph and drive over 100 miles on a single charge if equipped with the 10.5 kWh battery. It’s also safer and uses less resources to produce thanks to a unique unibody structure.

Making the right choice

EVs of all sizes serve as great alternatives to cars with internal combustion engines because they are emissions-free. While the sticker price of most American EVs is on par with what average drivers pay for new cars, very few are less expensive than average. Compact cars and microcars with electric drivetrains present an affordable solution to the challenges of navigating and parking in dense urban areas.

Small EVs can be compared to toaster ovens, which are smaller than conventional ovens, but also versatile and more cost- and energy-efficient. Compact EVs may be ideal as a family’s secondary car, and deliver even more value when they can double as a backup power source for your home. Here’s hoping that more urban EVs hit American dealerships in the near future, because product diversity can lead to more competitive offerings and more convinced drivers.


Photo by Jack Nagz on Unsplash