Is an all-electric car a bad investment?

Visitors look at the Opel Ampera gasoline and electric car in Leipzig, Germany. In the USA the car is sold under the brand Chevy Volt. Want to learn more? Check out these electric car pictures!
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Are electrics lemons, as some news outlets and media pundits seem to suggest?

After all, electric cars and their manufacturers have had lots of bad press to contend with lately. Rosy sales predictions haven't come to pass, despite chronically high gasoline prices. Some darlings of the electric vehicle industry, like automaker Fisker and battery maker A123, have slammed into the wall of major financial problems. A few high-profile fires involving electric vehicles have called their safety into question.

Gasoline-electric hybrids, by contrast, seem to be doing fairly well, with 2012 sales of more than 355,000 through October (compared to 266,000 for all of 2011) [source: Electric Drive Transportation Association]. The Toyota Prius, which practically invented the hybrid category in 1997, had risen to the spot of the world's third best-selling car by early 2011 (this included all four variants in the Prius "family") [source: Ohnsman and Hagiwara].

So a reasonable person looking at all this glum news about "pure" battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) might ask, is an all-electric car a bad investment?

If you plunked down the extra money for one, would you regret it? Are automakers pursuing a boondoggle technology? Or are BEVs still too new to the market for anyone to make an accurate pronouncement?

To answer these questions properly, first we need to define what we mean by "investment." With very few exceptions, no single car meets the strict financial definition of an investment -- a purchase that provides the owner with income and appreciates in value over time. Most cars burn money (fuel, maintenance and insurance) and plummet in value as soon as they're driven off the dealer lot.

So we need some more precise criteria. For instance, does the car meet your requirements for performance, reliability, affordability, aesthetics and safety? Can it do so for a long enough period that you feel you got your money's worth by the time you get rid of it? Will your fuel cost savings equal or exceed the premium purchase price of an electric within a reasonable time frame? Are there important emotional reasons you're buying the car, such as proclaiming your financial success or displaying your concern for the environment? How much is that worth to you?

With parameters like those, it will be easier to figure out if an electric car, such as a plug-in model powered solely by batteries, makes sense for you. Then what about the bigger picture? Are all-electric cars a smart investment of resources for automakers ... and the governments that sometimes subsidize them?

The responses you can expect to these questions depend in large part on whom you consult. The conservative-leaning Detroit News carried the headline "Electric car market is badly in need of a charge" and dourly proclaimed, "the electric vehicle industry is in serious trouble," in an October article. Yet other sources reported that 2012 has been the best year to date for sales of all electrified car types, including hybrids and BEVs. By late 2012, cars with any electric propulsion (including hybrids and BEVs) made up 394,000, or 3.3 percent of all new U.S. auto sales. That might not sound like much until you consider that in the previous year, they were only 2.2 percent of all car sales. Furthermore, the level of BEV sales appears to be growing, if slowly: Through October in 2011, 8,075 BEVs had been sold. For the same 10-month period in 2012, 9,336 had been sold [sources: Shepardson, Voelcker and EDTA].

General Motors' Chevy Volt "extended range" electric in 2011 earned the highest customer satisfaction rating of any vehicle and sales surged in late 2012 due in part to attractive lease deals from GM [source: Ohnsman]. Tesla's Model S electric sedan ran away with 2013 vehicle of the year honors from both Motor Trend and Automobile magazines.

Meanwhile, there have been isolated but highly publicized reports of customer complaints with other electrics on the market. Nissan Leaf owners in Arizona accepted refunds after they said their cars' batteries lost their charge too quickly. (Nissan said the customers exceeded the recommended limits for driving the cars in hot climates.) If anything, this points out what electric vehicle advocates have said all along -- electric cars aren't for everybody.

All-electric vehicles have hit other bumps in the road, too, as they attempt to gain wider acceptance in the car marketplace.