By on May 6, 2012

As sales of EVs are tallied-up, keep one thing in mind: Many are not meant to be sold in earnest. “They’re only built to meet California regulations for zero-emission vehicles–which is why they’re called “compliance cars,” says Green Car Reports. The green blog separated the “real” EVs from the compliance chariots.

Green Car Reports found only four EVs which their manufacturers really want to sell in appreciable quantities:

  • 2012 Nissan Leaf
  • 2012 Mitsubishi ‘i’
  • 2012 Coda Sedan
  • 2012 Tesla Model S

Most other Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs)  announced for 2012 through 2014 are only “compliance cars,” says Green Car Reports. Here is a list of EVs which don’t have the hearts of the manufacturers behind them:

  • Chevrolet Spark EV
  • Fiat 500 Elettrica
  • Ford Focus Electric
  • Honda Fit EV
  • Toyota RAV4 EV

Why do carmakers make cars they don’t really want to sell? California requires that carmakers of a certain size show that at least a small portion of their volume comes from zero-emission vehicles–either battery electric cars or fuel-cell electric vehicles. Cars like the Chevrolet Volt , the Fisker Karma, or the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid  don’t count as pure ZEV in CA. They have gasoline engines as well as plugs. However, plug-in hybrids with partial electric range help off-set a lack of ZEVs.

In the first round, only carmakers with high California sales have to worry: Toyota, Honda, GM, Ford, Nissan, and Chrysler.


Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!


42 Comments on “Electric Window Dressing: Many EVs Don’t Really Mean It...”

  • avatar

    not ready for prime time

    • 0 avatar

      But EVs are ready for some people!

      EVs aren’t anywhere near ready to be a drop-in replacement for gas cars in every situation. But there are a number of situations where they’ll absolutely shine. In particular, the LEAF looks like a great second commuter car (with low operating costs) for multi-car families. A LEAF and a minivan would serve my household’s needs very nicely.

      An EV may not match your situation, and it probably won’t be all things to all people — but it doesn’t have to be in order to be a “win”. Every EV that replaces a gasoline car means lower fuel costs for the owner, less foreign oil, and less environmental/climate damage — and you’ll benefit from these things, even if you don’t drive an EV personally. If an EV isn’t a good match for your needs (and there’s a good chance that it isn’t), then don’t buy one. We have choices in this country, and I’m really looking forward to having electric cars as a possible choice for me!

      • 0 avatar
        healthy skeptic

        Luke42 +1

      • 0 avatar
        George B

        The problem with electric cars is utility vs. price. I’d be glad to commute to work in a Nissan Leaf, but it gives me all the utility and prestige of a worn out Sentra for the price of a nice near luxury sedan. The tax credit shifts the bargain, but you still end up with a crippled car with it’s own insurance, registration, and depreciation costs occupying limited garage space.

        The point of the article is that several manufacturers spent R&D money on electric cars only because of a law and not because of economics. Imagine if they had been allowed to spend that same money developing more efficient automatic transmissions or improving the aerodynamics of light trucks. The opportunity cost of Electric Window Dressing is lost efficiency improvements that really would make a difference on the vehicles consumers actually buy.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        EVs in this area run on coal, which kinda shoots your enviro/climate damage argument in the head. Not only is coal nasty stuff to burn, it’s even nastier to extract from the ground. Unless you live in the Pacific NW (where most power comes from hydro), the environmental benefits of EVS are dubious at best, since the fuel that generates the electricity driving them is either coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission.

        As for “foreign oil” most of it comes from Canada, and they seem like pretty nice folks every time I’ve visited their country.

        And if you really want to end dependency on foreign oil, why not open up the Atlantic and Pacific coast regions to domestic production and exploration?

      • 0 avatar

        @DC Bruce: “EVs in this area run on coal, which kinda shoots your enviro/climate damage argument in the head.”

        That’s a rather violent way to describe a toss-up. I wouldn’t call having the emissions of an EV being roughly equivalent to the emissions of a Prius in coal-heavy regions “shooting the argument in the head.” It does make the EV a toss-up in Houston (mostly coal), and a big win in Seattle (mostly hydro).

        Again, EVs aren’t a one size fits all solution — and they don’t have to be. They’re a niche car at this point, and I think that’s just fine. As a green car geek, I expect that the niche will grow as the technology matures, but only time will tell.

        I’ll be happy to argue about whether we could possibly drill our way out of oil problems. I don’t think we can in the long run, but the sorting through the details are of this question complex enough to warrant an entire blog, such as The Oil Drum. Also, as a parent, my planning horizon includes both my lifetime and my son’s lifetime which, if my son continues to be healthy and lucky, probably extends to around the year 2100.

      • 0 avatar

        To reduce emissions, what’s the best bang for the buck? What if the resources spent developing and subsidizing compliance cars were applied to cut the price of hybrids?

  • avatar

    Where’s the Commerce Clause when you need it?

    • 0 avatar

      CARB standards were, of course, grandfathered in because they predate EPA standards. Which just goes to show that states rights nonsense hurts in the modern economy… Not only should there be no state-by-state differences in Motor vehicle standards, we should be signed on to ECE standards so that consumers could easily, legally import whatever they want, rather than creating artificial barriers to prop up Detroit.

      Just imagine of you could legally import any car you like from Opel, Citröen, Seat, etc… Or any world market motorcycle.

      • 0 avatar

        Man, I’d start a Cherry/Tata Nano dealership as quick as I could!

      • 0 avatar

        Afflo, you are confused. The reason you can’t just arbitrarily import car X manufactured in foreign country Y is due to FEDERAL standards – the states have no say in it. Except for emissions standards in California, the federal government sets all the standards that motor vehicle manufacturers have to follow if they want to sell cars in the United States.

        And why should the U.S. be forced to follow European standards? How about the U.S. will follow the ECE standards as soon as the EU makes all the European manufacturers follow U.S. standards? Why are you shafting all the Asian manufacturers? Shouldn’t you also be advocating that the U.S. should be forced to follow the Asian countries’ many standards as well?

      • 0 avatar

        A unified global standard would be nice. However I don’t quite see the case for importing opels to the US. It seems like the cars gets more respect in the US than it deserves, they are basically – but not literally – VW with far worse interiors, lackluster engines and not exactly stellar handling. Seat? Literally VW (or an old A4 with ugly side mirrors) but with styling that get’s old in a week and no other discernible advantages, it’s a Skoda without utility and a higher price. When I’m rambling I might just ad what car that would make sense – albeit not financially – to import and sell in the US, the Skoda superb would be a nice alternative to the Honda/Toyota appliance sedans, the Skoda superb. Large interior, conservative styling – well sort of – cheap, feature rich and spare parts available in the US courtesy of the VAG parts bin. Fitted with slightly mushier suspension it could sell like a cheap comfortable alternative to sporty AUDIs and VW.

        Well back to the actual point of my post. Opels, Citroëns, Seats and other cheap cars won’t make much sense to import to the US without a actual importer sanctioned by the manufacturer. First of, cars are generally more expensive in the EU with the options that seems popular in the US, without OEM support it would be hard to make a deal that doesn’t make the cars prohibitively expensive. Secondly, importing cars in low volume makes the cost of importing the car high. The cars would end up expensive and thereby a highly unattractive value proposition. The mentioned skoda would probably end up costing as much as an A6 but lacking OEM backup and warranties and with a questionable second hand market/price. In the EU you can import a car without crash test and what not, but even thou the process i quite straightforward and that the purchase price is lower in the US than the EU the only cars that gets imported are relatively expensive and, most of the time, cars that are not available in the EU and mostly appealing to enthusiasts. So you end up seeing Cadillac EXT’s, Mustangs and Corvettes (GM in Europe seems hell bent on not selling them in the EU, pricing it at 911 levels. A Chevrolet Corvette 6,2 V8 Grand Sport Coupe@ 95,000 dollars excluding VAT/sales tax anybody?) but not exactly a lot of base model family sedans from the US.

      • 0 avatar

        I realize that CARB vs EPA has nothing to do with this particular scenario. It does show that in the modern world, regulating things at the state level is counter-intuitive: either the most rstrictive state will effectively call the shots, or business will hide in the least restrictive states to avoid being forced to behave ethically (what is it, Connecticut from which all the credit cards were issued?)

        As far as ECE standards vs proprietary US standards, ECE standards are the world standard, as agreed in the World Forum for Harmonizatioon of Vehicle Regulation. Japan and Korea are both signed on. There is no reason to continue to have our own standards, except that the corrupt business lobby has ensured it – wouldn’t want those furriners competing without a sufficient handicap in the us. Note that we STILL have the chicken tax in place.

      • 0 avatar
        schmitt trigger

        “(what is it, Connecticut from which all the credit cards were issued?)”

        South Dakota.
        The story on how this came to be is actually facinating.

        But back to the electric vehicle discussion….ZEV are still niche products, but certainly do have some value. Anyone who has ever been to a major city in India, choking in automotive fumes in a crazy stop-and-go traffic for hours, realizes that a ZEV there would alleviate a lot of problems.
        If any automotive manufacturer should be developing an EV, it is Tata.

  • avatar

    What, no Volt? Is there a sudden boycott of anti-Volt news at TTAC? Or has GM not decided whether the Volt is a real attempt at an electric car or not?

    • 0 avatar

      If you would finish reading before spouting nonsense, you would know. Helps avoid carpal tunnel syndrome and tunnel vision.

    • 0 avatar

      “Is there a sudden boycott of anti-Volt news at TTAC?”

      Why would TTAC bother to cover the subject when FOX news has pretty much got the anti-Volt news market cornered? If that’s what you’re looking for, you may as well go right to the “experts”.

      • 0 avatar

        Is there really much to report on the Anti-Volt front?

        It’s a $40k niche-car that has some really interesting technology under the hood.

        But, if you’re not in the market for a $40k car, you probably can’t afford it. And it’s from GM which, after being nationalized by the both GWB and Obama for very practical reasons, has become a political lightning rod. No surprises here.

        What else is there to say about it? If you have $40k and like the car, GM will be happy to sell you one. If you don’t like the car, don’t buy it. Just like every other car on the market.

        (I personally like the car, but I don’t have $40k to spend on a car just because I like it — so I won’t be buying one any time soon.)

    • 0 avatar


      From the Green Car Reports article:
      “(By the way, we also consider the Chevrolet Volt , the Fisker Karma, and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid to be real–but they have gasoline engines as well as plugs, so they don’t qualify as pure ZEVs in California–so this article doesn’t apply to them.)”

      See the following URL for the complete article:–we-name-names

      They limited the scope of the article pure electric cars, presumably for the sake of simplicity and brevity. But they felt the need to mention the Volt, specifically because of concerns like yours.

  • avatar

    be carefull there Bertel, you’re playing with fire and we would hate to lose you

  • avatar

    you just said that carbiz was spouting nonsense and lacked vision

    weren’t you the one who also said “If you can’t say it without attacking the other person, don’t say it at all”

    a little flaming maybe?

  • avatar

    I would take issue with the term “zero emission” vehicle. The power still need to come from somewhere and, depending on the state in which you live, having a hybrid vehicle which gets greater than 47 MPG is actually better for your carbon footprint than an electric car.

    • 0 avatar

      Well there is a problem with MPG equivalent figures for EV’s. The tailpipe emissions of an ICE car represent maybe a third of the actual CO2 emissions, producing, transporting and refining oil isn’t exactly a green business. What the total CO2 emissions is for the electricity produced to charge the EV will vary quite a lot depending on what you’re burning to produce the energy. But calling any car a “Zero emission vehicle” is bunk, at least for the majority of the US and Europe.

      • 0 avatar

        “But calling any car a ‘Zero emission vehicle’ is bunk, at least for the majority of the US and Europe.”

        Philosophically, you are correct.

        However, as someone who has run a car in a closed up garage (it was winter and I only needed to test it for a few seconds), and who has spent many hours running electric motors in the same garage, I can assure you that there is a very real and very practical difference.

        While the energy generation mix varies (there are some states where driving a Prius does generate roughly the same emissions as an EV), it doesn’t have to be that way. EVs are agnostic about where the electricity comes from, so in a place with a lot of hydro in the local electrical generation mix, they will have very low emissions. Also, this energy-agnosticism allows you to trade two hard problems (oil dependency and clean electric generation) for one hard problem (clean electric generation). If we’re talking philosophy, this sounds like a big win to me.

      • 0 avatar

        Sure there are certainly practical differences between ICE cars an EV’s. The point of my post was that if we calculate emissions for the EV in a way that includes more then tailpipe emissions, the we ought to calculate emissions the same way for ICE cars too.

      • 0 avatar


        Many studies do calculate emissions this way. Search for “wheel to wells” emissions calculations.

        They don’t make it in to the popular dialog, though — presumably because a lot of people (on all sides of the issue) like simple answers more than they like accurate answers.

  • avatar

    Manufacturers are going to keep their hand in the game. Once range is in 150-175+ mile range and battery replacement cost drops (say as soon as 5, maybe 10 long years) people like me will buy them and charge at home (I’m less worried about in travel charging if range is extended). I live in the rural US. Our regular short trips are in the 80 mile range. I’m weary of day traders messing with oil prices due to some whim of a storm, dictator, missile, revolution, assassination and etc. The multifuel potential (hydro, coal, natural gas, nukes, and oil) offers a better competitive energy market. Yes, the grid needs tweaking as do off peak charging issues but ultimately, I’m willing to park the V-8 GT for more energy efficient travel that may results a more dependable with less operating cost vehicle. And sticking it to oil producing nations in the process. My buddies are mentally already there, they are just waiting for the right vehicle. The two who purchased them (Leafs) have 40 mile RT commutes and they charge at home.

    • 0 avatar


      But I’d like to point out that refurbished batteries for my Prius run around $1300 — but I haven’t needed one. That’s cheaper than a transmission, and they last about as long, too — around 250k-ish miles.

      The battery technology that we’ve been using for hybrids over the last decade is a lot better than most people think it is.

      I sure hope that BEV lithium-ion batteries similarly exceed expectations. The 8-year-old Prius in my driveway with 140k miles on the clock gives me hope.

  • avatar

    This Green Car Reports article is a great example of why I hate dealing with extremists of all kinds. Nothing is ever good enough.

    I don’t dislike Green Car Reports for being “liberals”, I dislike them for being jerks. The moronic “anti-Volt” FOX News types are on the opposite extreme but are just as idiotic.

    YOU HEAR THAT, EXTREMISTS DOPES? YOU CAN KISS MY (comment edited by moderator)!

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t see what’s so extremist in reporting the truth. Many of these cars are meant as window dressing, rather than actual “zero-emission” gasoline-free transportation.

      What I would take issue with is that the author states that Honda and Toyota see electricity as a mere compliance thing but are betting on fuel cells.

      That’s laughable. Honda’s fuel cell program is something I’ve seen for a long time as mere window dressing at worst, and at best, a multi-million dollar tinkertoy project, with a mere handful of cars produced over the past two decades. If there’s a whole technology program that screams “compliance car!”, it’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      “I don’t dislike Green Car Reports for being “liberals”, I dislike them for being jerks.”

      Is there anything liberal or jerk-like in the article?

      Does being interested in green cars necessarily say anything about your political orientation?

      I didn’t see any political slant on the article (unless green == liberal in your book), and they were polite and businesslike in their presentation and conclusion.

      I will agree that a few of the people who comment on green car blogs ARE jerks. Those jerks annoy everyone. But that’s hardly unique to green car blogs. For instance, there was just a big kerfuffle about something like that here on TTAC.

  • avatar

    This isn’t any different from corn subsidies. A system of incentives is in place that people use to game the system. There is nothing wrong with a well thought out plan to use EV’s, but the way that the system works now doesn’t serve anyone. The regulatory people mandate EV’s because they are sexy, nevermind that the you get much greater efficiencies by changing the mix of vehicles that people drive. The manufacturers don’t want to do that, since moving folks off of larger vehicles cuts into their revenues. So yes, they’re quite happy to come up with the automotive equivalent of a shell company to maintain their existing stock of regular cars. It’s like how McDonald’s offers salads and wraps to keep healthy with the times, but everybody who goes there only orders burgers and fries.

    Follow up – No surprise that the EV Fit is a ‘compliance car’… Honda always said that the FCX was their version of the future, an the foot dragging on EV’s is nothing if not consistent.

  • avatar

    I’m not too surprised here. I wonder how BMW and Audi are going to deal with this.

    Doesn’t VW count as a large volume dealer in CA? If they don’t why not? I’ve not seen sales numbers per state so I can’t judge this one. But I would think VW would also be on this list.

    Polo EV?

    As for cars made just for compliance reasons, /shrug. Yeah I understand it, usually ends up hurting the manufacturers but makes the politicians happy and gives them something they can point to and say they did that.

    As for GM/Honda/Fiat/Ford keeping their hand in the market. The amount of research they are doing without producing vehicles is keeping their hand in. They definitely don’t need vehicles like this to keep up with the technology and the market.

  • avatar

    Manufacturers don’t really have to spend all that much. Subcontract production out to one of the conversion start-ups. Charge premium. done.

    In that sense, the RAV4 EV is the ultimate compliance car. Made By Somebody Else.

    Not quite sure about the Focus EV or Fit EV. The Focus at least sounds like a semi-serious project. The Fit… don’t know. I’m wondering why Honda hasn’t brought out the Fit Hybrid yet, actually.

  • avatar

    If there is blame to be assigned, I’d put it on the government(s) – both state and local – who can’t agree on the need for EVs. I’m not a greenie, but it is disingenuous of the US government to tout the virtues of EVs without trying to manipulate the market as California has. But it would be wrong for them to do so.

    In defense of the manufacturers, they’re not really interested in losing money on EVs, so I don’t blame them for half-hearted EV development efforts.

    As for Mitsubishi, their i-MiEV doesn’t seem like a serious attempt.

    • 0 avatar

      You’ve skipped over the way economies of scale work. With high volume consumer products, you have to build a lot of them (and flesh out a supply chain) before they become price-competitive with more-established technologies.

      Just look at how many start-up vehicle manufacturers there have been in the last 50 years. And not many of them have survived. That’s because volume and keeping the assembly machine running continuously saves you a LOT on unit costs.

      So, supposing that gasoline vehicles and EVs have the potential to cost about the same but that EVs have a lot of advantages in the situations where they’re usable, how would you recommend bootstrapping an industry like that?

      (I agree that shoving car companies around with California’s market regulations is a sloppy way to do it. But I’m also having trouble coming up with a better idea. But, with oil being a limited commodity, we’re going to have to replace gasoline cars sooner or later, and being reactive about it is risky.)

  • avatar

    EV’s suffer from the liberal mindset anti-car ideology that mass transit, rapid rail, zipcar, etc. suffer from. Most people who are in favor of such technology live in some urban area where the car is probably the WORST means of getting around. Just about everyone takes the train, taxi, barter for ride rickshaw, or just walks to the ACORN campaign office which is located within a block of their studio apartment and favorite internet cafe/freestyle poetry club/organic coffee shop and can’t imagine why anyone would drive to work.

    Most Americans don’t live in the big city. Those who do live in the big city, DRIVE to the big city because they can’t afford to live down the hall from a liberal pollster’s 500k 1000 sq foot condo. Most don’t have their own personal parking space where the free government subsidized electricity is provided along with a free government subsidized charger to recharge their car while they plot the next OWS protest.

    Most Americans don’t have 30-40k of disposable income to spend on a new toy electric car because they’re driving some 15 year old heap because that’s all they can afford, and to them 25 grand for a ICE car that gets 35-40mpg and doesn’t rely on infrastructure that doesn’t exist in the real world is a LOT more appealing.

    But EV’s will still get shoved down our throats, despite the vast majority of Americans living outside the target range of these “let me show everyone how much I love the environment/party ideology” toys.

    • 0 avatar

      @FJ60LandCruiser: “EV’s suffer from the liberal mindset anti-car ideology that mass transit, rapid rail, zipcar, etc. suffer from”

      Sorry to point it out, but this says a lot more about you than about the car…

      I think it’s likely that we disagree on the following point:
      That all cars must be all things to all people. This is incorrect, but gasoline cars are versatile enough that most folks have never had to make tradeoffs.

      If you think we have to have just once kind of car that everyone drives, and if you’re happy with your gasoline car, then you’d probably hate the idea of “replacing” gasoline cars with EVs that may or may not match your personal requirements.

      But what we’re talking about here is putting an additional kind of car on the market that you can choose (or not choose) as you see fit.

      It’s hard to see how someone who believes in people making free choices would have a problem with this.

      • 0 avatar

        People are free to buy electric cars with their own money.

        I don’t want taxpayer money wasted on companies like Fisker, giving tax credits for these overpriced toys, wasted on subsidies for EV charging stations in trendy downtown areas, and politicians using these things as campaign platforms.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    FJ60LandCruiser; my first vehicle that I owned was a 1962 Land Cruiser, so we do share something…..

    I’m an electronics engineer. As such, I have traveled widely to the Pacific Rim Asia in the last couple of decades. One of the things one tends to see over there, is the amount of innovation and new engineering projects in all fields, not only electronics. This trend has accelerated in the last five years.

    The important thing of all this innovation and science is that a most of it is happening over there, and not over here. Many of those projects fall in the “toy” or “showcase” category, like ultra-high speed trains, CO2 sequestration or solar farms. But the dividends from all that research, the technical infrastructure and the high-level of education of its population, will be certainly collected by these nations in the future.

    Unfortunately, right now, the reverse is happening to the USA.

    The greatest science and infrastructure program of the 20th century was the space program, even greater than the Manhattan Project. Longer in duration, wider objectives, and many more people working on it. True, the immediate reason was to show a big middle finger to the Russians. But all the wealth of research and development have allowed the USA to reap rewards for over three decades.

    And all of it was government funded.

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • STS_Endeavour: Definitely that song.
  • cRacK hEaD aLLeY: A cheer for VW for only cheating on emissions. It could have been worse: assembly via child or...
  • DenverMike: An honest 1,000 watt system, electronic X-over, 3 amps, 3 sets of speakers. Nothing crazy or spendy, but...
  • APaGttH: Why are there midrange and tweeter speakers in the trunk lid? You’d never hear them in the cabin of...
  • SCE to AUX: “…our members’ reasonable demand to designate the CAMI plant as General Motors lead producer...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote


  • Contributors

  • Matthew Guy, Canada
  • Ronnie Schreiber, United States
  • Bozi Tatarevic, United States
  • Chris Tonn, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States
  • Mark Baruth, United States
  • Moderators

  • Adam Tonge, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States