Top Gear's Top 9: electric cars that tried and failed
The worst timing, the worst ideas or just the worst luck? Let’s find out
The EV1 has to be the poster child of failed electric cars. It cost General Motors an absolute bomb to make, it lost money on every one it built and less than 1,200 ever made it to customers – at a time when Chevrolet alone was reliably selling half a million pick-ups per year. And now it’s an easy punching bag for ‘worst electric cars’ lists.
The shame of it all was that it was actually really good. Low weight, high-end materials and almost prescient technology combined to make die-hard fans of its customers. And we mean die-hard: anguished customers actually protested – to the point of being arrested, in some cases – when GM respossessed and destroyed all but a few EV1s.Advertisement - Page continues below
Ford Focus Electric
The EV1’s avant-garde looks were one of many reasons pundits put forward for its failure. If only it had looked like a regular car – and had its big back seat – it would have sold. Aside from the fact that the EV1’s peerless aero, light weight and long range (later cars had as much as a 2022 base-model Nissan Leaf, in the Nineties) would have been ruined, all the evidence you need lies with the Ford Focus Electric.
It was a regular Ford Focus (rarely a bad thing), just one that you never had to take to a freezing petrol station forecourt (never a bad thing). And it was on sale in Britain from 2013 to 2018, in which time Ford UK sold... none.
Mitsubishi i-MiEV / Citroen C-Zero / Peugeot iOn
Is it right to say the i-MiEV – and its reskinned Euro versions – failed? Apparently more than 50,000 of the things found willing customers, and it holds the Guinness Record for the first-ever electric car to sell more than 10,000 units. This was an electric pioneer, surely.
Well yes, it was. But if you know your American history at all, being a pioneer doesn’t necessarily mean anything approaching a good outcome. We’ll leave that exactly where it is (given that the period we’re talking about makes Deadwood look like Disney) and explain how a car that did so many things well – and first – managed to be a failure.
And it’s simple. The i-MiEV almost permanently cemented the idea of an electric car as a novelty, a curio, an oddly styled city runabout that traded style for virtue-signalling. It took the full might of the Tesla Model S – and hundreds of YouTube drag races – to undo the damage.Advertisement - Page continues below
Honda EV Plus
Look, going through the whole saga of the California Zero Emissions mandate in the Nineties would take more time than you likely want to spend and more RSI than we want to endure. Suffice to say that quite a few footnotes in EV history have their genesis in a piece of legislation from the California Air Resources Board.
It’s easy, then, to write off cars like Honda’s EV Plus as a cynical exercise, making the most of legislative carrots and sticks. But that really undersells just how much effort it takes to design and engineer cars, and just how big said legislative stick was – not being allowed to sell cars in the massive Californian market is something of a motivator. And when Honda goes all out on complex engineering to build a simple city car, that’s about where our cynicism runs out. Yes, even that has its limits.
The phrase ‘ahead of the curve’ sounds positive, doesn’t it? Like you’re leading the pack, striking out into areas beyond the knowledge or understanding of the masses. And that’s all wonderful, unless you kind of need those masses to come along with your idea. If not... well, there’s a very good reason we also have the phrase ‘ahead of its time’.
And so we come to the Zagato Zele, an all-electric microcar that made its public debut at the 1972 Geneva Motor Show. And if that still feels inauspicious to you, go and look up ‘1973 Oil Crisis’. We’ll wait.
So, a small electric car that ran for literal pennies a day, available to buy in 1973. The perfect car for the moment, right? Well, that’s the problem with applying logic. Humans are mercurial, chemical-led little animals that possess all the grounded logic of a David Lynch film. Of course the Zele was the right car for the moment. And of course hardly anyone bought one.
Image: RM Sotheby’s
Lucas Electric Taxi
Ever heard the joke about Lucas electrics? Of course you have. Lucas – the company that invented the short circuit. Lucas three-position light switches – your choice of dim, flicker, or off. Lucas vacuum cleaners – the only Lucas product that doesn’t suck. And so on.
The fact is that these jokes are about as tired as we are of hearing them. We’ve had long-term personal experience with Lucas electrics in an old Alfa Romeo and they were the only bit that didn’t break. As far as we can tell, Lucas gets a bad rap because British Leyland used them. And a more lethal kiss of death is impossible to pucker.
But, before we start making equally tired BL jokes, let’s get to the taxi. It had a range of 100 miles in the city and a top speed of 60mph. Which it never would have reached, because... y’know, London. Once spent, the batteries could be swapped at a garage, depot or even taxi rank in the time it’d take to burn a Chesterfield and ogle a page three girl, and another 100 miles would be ready and waiting to take passengers anywhere. Apart from south of the river, of course. And that’s the tired-joke triumvirate.
It didn’t take off for the retrospectively obvious reason – no one who could put money where their mouth was thought there was any economic sense in an electric taxi, so Lucas binned the project. How times change, no?
Renault Fluence ZE
One hundred miles of range... swappable battery... all-electric. Did Renault nick off with Lucas’ notes or something?
Maybe so, but at least Renault got it to market. Was it particularly appealing? No. Was it a French four-door, a fairly hard sell at the best of times? Er, quite. Did its name sound an awful lot like effluent? Absolutely.
But none of these dealt the coup de grace to the dumpy (sorry) Fluence. It was Renault’s idea of battery leasing, a novel way to defray the upfront cost of electric cars – which is still a huge deal today – but one that rather suffers when the battery-leasing company goes bust.Advertisement - Page continues below
We’re willing to bet a solid 100 internet points that you’ve never heard of the Altra. And yet it was the first production electric car to use lithium ion batteries, and Nissan used the lessons learned in its development and years of service to give us the... well, Leaf.
OK, fine. The Nissan Leaf is no one’s idea of an exciting automobile. And the Altra is basically an Ambien with headlights. But neither are the reason you’ve likely never heard of it.
It’s because Nissan never intended the Altra to be marketed to the public. The exceptional cost of lithium-ion batteries back then made it more of an engineering project, just a project that made it into limited production (think a few hundred) that were then handed to Nissan employees (as well as a few local utility companies and councils) for evaluation.
None of this screams failure, though, does it? Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten. One of the many lessons Nissan learned with the Altra is that any future EV would have to be striking to look at and recognisable as an electric car. And so we get the styling of the first-gen Nissan Leaf. Yeesh.
The concept is tremendous: a grand touring sports car in the vein of Aston and Jag, just one that won’t clog the air with fumes... or wake your wife when you sneak home from a bit of extramarital rumpusing at your pied a terre. Yeah, we know our market.
Anywho, the GT wowed London crowds in 2008 and more in Geneva in 2009. Prototyping followed in 2010, testing and reliability trials from 2011 to 2013, lots of wonderful press from the car mags and Wired and so on, then... Hm.
The British Motor Museum claims to have ‘one of two Lightning GTs ever made’ and proceeds to discuss Lightning very much in the past tense. But someone still maintains the Lightning website, where they talk about the GT and Lightning as going concerns. Although if we had anything invested, we’d be concerned how things are going.Advertisement - Page continues below