2018 Honda FitPriced right.Honda

  • Electric vehicles are still relatively expensive compared with mass-market gas vehicles.
  • Government support would help make EVs more accessible, but many gas-powered cars still cost half as much.
  • New-car buyers are uniquely price-sensitive — they might look at EVs, but they won’t buy.

Electric cars have two major problems to overcome before they can go truly mainstream: price and charging.

The arrival of long-range electric vehicles hasn’t really changed anything — although the newly launched Tesla Model 3 is so compelling that many buyers are liable to give it a look.

Chevy’s Bolt EV has been around since late last year and is selling better than General Motors expected, but it still has to be charged either overnight or at a public charging location to provide its full 200 miles of range. It’s also priced north of $30,000, meaning it’s challenging to get the monthly financing or lease payment below $300 a month. (You can hunt for deals, especially on leases.)

As for Tesla’s Model 3, the company isn’t even manufacturing the less expensive $35,000 trim level yet. If you want the car and are on the reservation list, you can buy only the $44,000 version.

This is the case with EVs across the board. The expectation is that the consumer calculus will change in the next few decades, but the bottom line is that governments will need to encourage the shift by offering tax breaks and incentives to lower the effective prices of EVs not aimed at the luxury market.

In the meantime, anyone shopping for a new car learns quickly that gas-powered vehicles offer much better deals.

A perfect example

The Honda Fit is a perfect example. It’s a small five-door hatchback — really a mini-wagon — that has been in the US market since 2007. Always well reviewed, it has never enjoyed blockbuster sales, but it has at times exceeded 6,000 units a month, which is pretty impressive for a vehicle that isn’t an SUV.

Since a refreshed design landed this year, the Fit has enjoyed a modest sales surge — close to 15,000 have moved in the past three months, as the US market has entered a general sales slowdown.

The killer thing about the Fit is how good a car it is for the price. The base model with an automatic transmission (though a manual is available) tips the cost scales at about $17,000 — half of what you’d lay out for a bare-bones EV — while still delivering about 35 mpg. If you stretch the financing out to 72 months, past the traditional 60, you can own the car (eventually) for $275 a month. (A lot of finance people don’t recommend longer loan terms, but the Fit has a good reliability track record and should give you six years of service without breaking a sweat.)

Yes, the Fit runs on gas, but there’s no debating that gas is easier to deal with at the moment than electricity. Gas stations are everywhere, the price of petrol is relatively low, and in five minutes you can restore a fully depleted Fit to its full range and be on your way. A Bolt EV requires five hours of 220-volt charging to do the same.

A rational choice

tesla model 3The Tesla Model 3.Tesla

A rational consumer will buy the Fit and not look twice at an EV, though they certainly might look once. It will take electric cars a while to chew into this basic economic advantage, even with a boost from governments. Plus, for first-time car buyers — most of whom don’t own houses yet and consequently don’t have anywhere to put a 220-volt charger — small, reliable, inexpensive vehicles like the Fit are a better choice.

Electric cars have captured more mindshare over the past few years, driven by a steady cadence of concepts coming from traditional manufacturers and, of course, by Tesla and the Model 3. Capturing actual mass-market share will be a different matter, and a nifty vehicle like the Fit demonstrates why: As EVs have evolved, gas-powered vehicles have, too.

The Fit isn’t alone. There are numerous sub-$20,000 cars on sale that are miles superior to the “econoboxes” I was looking at when I was a first-time car buyer.

Electric cars are taking aim at the mainstream. But for now, the prices still aren’t right.

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