Top Five: Moments in modern electric vehicle history
Although electric vehicles have a history that stretches back to the 1800s, with European inventors coming up with battery-powered one-offs, the first recognizably car-like EVs took off around the turn of the Twentieth Century.
And these would have gone from strength to strength had Henry Ford's Model T not made ICE power affordable and available, relegating electric cars, despite favorable interest from the public for their quiet operation and zero tailpipe emissions.
Thus, EVs have only had a bit-part to play in automotive history, with interest picking up in the 1970s, thanks to fuel crises, and properly getting going in the mid-1990s, which is where our Top Five picks begin:
#1 – GM EV1
How many? 1,117
The first foray into the world of modern electric vehicles came courtesy of GM. The two-seat, aerodynamic EV1 coupe was leased to customers in California and Arizona. 660 cars were offered with a lead-acid battery, giving a range of up to 100 miles, while a second-gen car arrived in 1999 with a NiMH battery that took range to 140 miles.
Despite favorable reports from customers, GM cancelled the EV1 project in 2003, citing the fact that battery tech had not advanced quickly enough, and the car was too costly to make, although critics accused GM of jumping the gun.
Controversially, GM recalled and crushed all but 40 cars – the latter having their powertrain deactivated and donated to museums. However, in accordance with their policy that all vehicles in its collection must be operational, the Smithsonian does have a fully working first-generation EV1.
GM is now firmly back on the EV train with a new global platform that will underpin a huge range of models, plus extras designed by Honda.
#2 – Toyota RAV4 EV
How many? 1,484/2,489
Not content with helping to popularize the dreaded crossover with its first-generation RAV4, Toyota also created an all-electric version for lease in California. Its NiMH battery gave a range of 95 miles and took five hours to charge. Unlike the EV1, when the leases ended, Toyota sold 328 RAV4 EVs, with a number known to still exist.
The second-gen model (above) is also noteworthy, as it was produced as a joint venture between Toyota and Tesla, before the Japanese car giant sold its stake in the Californian firm in 2017.
Again sold or leased only in California, the RAV4 used a Tesla Li-Ion battery pack and electronics related to those used in the Model S, with Toyota using the project to continue learning about EVs, and Tesla fine-tuning its knowledge of EV SUVs ahead of the launch of the Model X in 2015.
#3 – Nissan Leaf
How many? Over 470,000
Although others – namely the Mitsubishi i-MiEV – claim the title of first mass-produced modern EV, the Leaf was the first to take electric vehicles global, selling in decent numbers in Europe, Asia and North America. The Leaf is built in Sunderland, UK; Oppama, Japan; and in Smyrna, TN, US for each respective market.
The first-generation model started with a 24kWh li-ion battery that gave around 73 miles of range. Over the past decade and the introduction of a new, second-generation model, the Leaf now features the option of a 62kWh li-ion battery, giving a range of around 239 miles. This car also features Nissan's latest suite of ADAS tech, including its ProPilot lane keeping assistant.
#4 – BMW i3
How many? Over 165,000
While the Leaf is aimed squarely at the mainstream, BMW took the electric vehicle into premium territory, albeit in pint-sized form, when it introduced the i3, first with the option of a gas-powered range extender, and now just as a pure EV.
The i3 was one of the first mass-produced cars to use a lightweight, five-door CFRP body to help boost range. Unlike the Leaf, which is most popular in Europe, most i3s have found homes in the US. Launching with a 22kWh battery, the i3 can now be had with a 42.2kWh unit, giving a maximum range of 153 miles.
Although BMW has not confirmed a successor to the i3, it has confirmed that the existing model will continue to be offered, albeit with updates, until at least 2024.
#5 – Tesla Model 3
How many? Over 500,000
No list of game-changing EVs would complete without at least a small nod to Tesla and its impact on popularizing the technology. While the original Lotus Elise-based Roadster broke new ground – selling 2,450 units, with one currently flying through space – it's the firm's volume models that really matter.
The Model 3 has managed to pull off a number of significant tricks. It is desirable – becoming the first EV to hit 500,000 global sales in early 2020 – and also practical – able to fit five adults and luggage.
The Model also has surprising performance – capable of the 0-62mph sprint in a little over three seconds, while offering a minimum range of 220 miles from a 54kWh battery, up to 322 miles from the 75kWh battery.
Add in the fact that it is the firm's most affordable model to date, and it is no surprise that the Model 3 is proving extremely popular. The Model Y crossover, based on the Model 3's underpinnings, is just coming on stream, too.