EV Bang for Buck (Or Why We Should Stop Chasing Specs)

Darren Hau
Catalyst
Published in
6 min readAug 10, 2023

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Image courtesy of GM-Trucks.com

It seems like automakers keep chasing superlatives for their EVs. Like the Lucid Air Sapphire’s 1,234 peak horsepower (someone definitely decided to be cheeky there) and 1.89 second 0–60 mph time. Or the less flattering (but true to the brand’s excessiveness) fact that the Hummer EV’s battery pack weighs more than an entire Toyota Camry, clocking in at 2,923 lbs out of a total 9,063 curb weight.

That being said, these vehicles are not exactly cheap. The Hummer EV starts at $85,300 and the Sapphire will chomp $249,000 out of your wallet. And the fact that EV battery sizes are steadily growing larger means we’ll consume more battery minerals than we really need while making it harder for the everyday American to afford one. (Although credit to Lucid for creating perhaps the most efficient EV powertrain in production — we need more of this.)

It got me thinking — it’s worthy to see how far we can push performance, but isn’t it more impressive when an EV manufacturer can offer good value? After all, there’s a reason why we like Trader Joe’s, and why Tesla’s Model 3/Y and the Chevy Bolt have been selling like hotcakes. Which EVs actually provide the highest performance-to-cost ratio?

This question is a bit tongue-in-cheek, because for a good number of people, choosing their car is emotional — it’s more a statement about your identity and values than a rational financial decision. But I reckon there are also a bunch of you who do see cars as just a means to an end, so let’s take this for a spin!

First of all, some brief disclaimers:

  1. I don’t promise 100% accuracy in the figures presented here, since I spent maybe two hours on Google retrieving vehicle prices and specs. But they should be pretty close.
  2. These metrics aren’t necessarily what people care about. But it’s a simple/fun framework.
  3. If I missed an EV that you’re really passionate about for some reason — whoops, sorry, and feel free to let me know where that one falls on the spectrum.

EVs only

Looking at most of the EVs on the market today, let’s see how far your dollar stretches when it comes to horsepower, range, and passenger seating:

Interestingly, it looks like those massive EV trucks are actually pretty good on a $/hp metric! However, keep in mind that these trucks are also a lot heavier than sedans and crossovers, so just because they have more horsepower on paper doesn’t mean they perform better on the road.

The picture reverses when we look at $/mi of range. Here, the Chevy Bolt is the clear winner, followed by VW’s ID.4 and Tesla’s Model 3. Unsurprisingly, sedans and small crossovers don’t require such large battery packs, which comprise a significant cost, to travel a given distance. On the extreme luxury and performance end, prices go up for other reasons, so you also see the Porsche Taycan sitting pretty at >$430/mi of range.

It’s a similar picture for $/seat.

EV vs. ICE vs. hybrid

But how do EVs compare with hybrid and ICE vehicles? Picking the Toyota Camry, Toyota Prius, Ford F-150, and Mazda MX-5 Miata as comparisons should give us decent coverage of popular models. Interestingly, EVs demonstrate that they can win the horsepower race even though they are generally more expensive — this just goes to show the superiority of the electric drivetrain in delivering raw power quickly.

The problem comes, unsurprisingly, when we get to range. Each of the ICE/hybrid vehicles beat all of the EVs, reflecting the fact that gasoline is extremely energy dense (although inefficient) compared to batteries as well as the higher cost of EVs.

However, note that the average US driver travels less than 40 miles per day, so a 250-mi EV should be more than enough. It might actually be more fun to drive a Chevy Bolt 350 days out of the year and then splurge on a Porsche 911 or Mercedes G-Class on Turo during your vacation (and you’d still come out financially ahead)!

From a passenger practicality standpoint, you also can’t argue with the Toyota Camry and Prius. Folks buying an F-150 or a Miata are really optimizing for things other than passengers, so those do pretty poorly on this metric.

e-bikes are EVs?

But wait! An electric vehicle doesn’t necessarily need to be a car. And anyone who has ridden an electric bike will tell you it’s a really good gateway drug for spending less time in a car and more time in the open air. Just for fun, here’s how e-bikes stack up against the autos:

We’ll put the bad news upfront. If you’re looking for pure power, e-bikes suck. They have weak motors (the most powerful one here barely hits 1 hp), and (gasp!) you’ve got to pedal those without a throttle.

But when it comes to driving/riding range, e-bikes do splendidly. Most of them will get between 30–40 mi per charge, and at a price point of $800–2300 that means they’re comparable to or better than Toyota’s econoboxes.

And while you can’t carry passengers on the e-bikes we selected, on a $/seat basis, they make you a financial genius!

Getting back to a point I made earlier — people rarely make vehicle choices purely based on rational financial considerations. That’s boring. So is there some way to quantitatively assess the joy you get, like “smiles per mile”? We’ll take a stab with a smiles/$ metric (we’re trying to maximize this time) based on the very rigorous measurement of “I drove/rode these vehicles and here’s what I thought.”

A few things to call out:

  • The Model X was definitely more cool than the Camry, but it’s 4x as expensive.
  • The Lucid Air was insanely fun, and I think it offers better value than a comparable Tesla.
  • The Bolt was less exciting, but really easy to get along with and super inexpensive, so that gets high marks.
  • The Model 3 definitely provides the best value among EVs.
  • The Miata is renowned for its handling and dynamics, and it’s always the answer if you’re looking for a fun drive.

You probably noticed that the e-bike is off the charts. Actually, I literally had to cap the value at 1 so we could even visually compare the other bars.

So what?

As we said before, this post is just whimsical fun (we didn’t even talk about carbon emissions!), but we can still take away some interesting learnings from these charts:

  1. There’s no need to chase performance specs unless you just want bragging rights. And that’s not particularly cool.
  2. Can we please get more affordable EV sedans rather than more announcements of giant SUVs and trucks?
  3. For anyone who hasn’t tried an e-bike, I’d highly encourage taking one out for a spin. Personally, I spend 2–3x more days riding my bike than driving my car. It’s one of the most fun and affordable ways to get into (onto?) an EV.

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