Nine Early Electric Cars From The 1990s That We Forgot About
These are the EVs that started it all in the 1990sby Ciprian Florea, on LISTEN 11:31
As of 2020, there are around 50 different electric cars available on the market, with more than half of them built by mainstream automakers, including Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Tesla, and Volkswagen. And that’s a massive number compared to the early 2010s when only a handful of EVs were available. If we roll back to the 1990s, when only a handful of companies were working on EVs, we can see that the electric car market has evolved at an impressive rate in less than three decades. But who took the world’s request to create green cars seriously and built working battery-powered vehicles in the 1990s? Let’s find out in the list below.
Chrysler TEVan (1993-1995)
As shocking as it may sound, Chrysler was the first carmaker to introduce a mass-produced electric vehicle.
Built from 1993 to 1995, the TEVan was based on the second-generation Town & Country minivan and featured a nickel-cadmium battery pack. Lithium-ion batteries weren’t readily available at the time. The battery fed a 48-kW electric motor that generated 65 horsepower, while the transmission was a two-speed transaxle. Chrysler stated that the TEVan could run for 80 miles on a single charge, but real-world ratings were closer to 60 miles. Needless to say, the TEVan was rather primitive compared to modern EVs. Chrysler built 56 units and sold them for about $120,000 each to electric utilities. A second-gen model called the EPIC (Electric Powered Interurban Commuter Vehicle) was launched in 1997 with lead-acid batteries and upgraded to nickel-metal hydride batteries in 1998. The EPIC was offered for lease in New York and California.
Solectria Force (1995-1997)
Remember how Tesla created the first-generation Roadster by dropping electric motors and batteries in Lotus Elise bodies? Well, it wasn’t the first company to do this.
Solectria Corporation did something similar to what Tesla did with the first-gen Roadster back in the 1990s when it converted Geo Metro subcompact sedans to electric power.
Selected for its lightweight construction, the Metro was fitted with a lead-acid battery pack (some sources also claim lithium-polymer batteries), a three-phase AC motor, and a single-speed gearbox. The Force was capable of top speeds of almost 70 mph and needed around nine seconds to accelerate from 0 to 50 mph. The range was a high as 80 miles at a constant speed of around 45 mph. The Solectria Force also included a regenerative braking system. Around 400 cars were converted and offered as pilot program cars or sold to regular customers.
|Batteries:||lead-acid / lithium-polymer|
Solectria Sunrise (1996)
The Force wasn’t the only electric car built by Solectria. In 1996, the company began testing the Sunrise.
Unlike the Force, it was Solectria's own design, and it was developed to be as efficient as possible.
It was far more aerodynamic than the Geo Metro; it featured covered rear wheels and a two-door coupe design. Its body was made from lightweight composite material, and its drag coefficient was of only 0.17. It combined a 50-kW electric motor with a nickel-metal hydride battery. It wasn’t particularly quick from 0 to 60 mph, needing 17 seconds to hit the benchmark, while top speed didn’t exceed 65 mph, but it returned more than 200 miles per charge. The Sunrise was driven 217 miles from Boston to New York City without recharging, and Solectria was actually confident that the car could run for more than 300 miles on a single battery charge. Sadly, the Sunrise didn’t enter production, with only several prototypes built and tested. Solectria evolved into Azure Dynamics Corporation, the company that helped Ford built the Transit Connect Electric.
|Units produced:||several prototypes|
General Motors EV1 (1996-1999)
The GM EV1 is by far the most iconic electric car from the 1990s.
That’s mostly because it was the first mass-produced EV for public consumption from a major automaker, but also because it was the subject of a documentary film entitles "Who Killed the Electric Car?," which claimed that the EV1 program was discontinued because it threatened the oil industry. The EV1 was introduced in 1996, and just like the Solectria, it featured a two-door layout and a highly aerodynamic body. Power came from an electric motor good for 137 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque, fueled by a lead-acid battery at first. Gen I versions using this battery pack had a stated range of 70 to 100 miles. Following criticism about using dated battery technology, GM switched to a nickel-metal hydride battery in 1999. The Gen II version of the EV1 also featured weight reduction and quieter operation. The new battery increased the mileage rating to 100 to 140 miles.
GM built 1,117 EV1s through, and most of them were leased to customers. However, the company decided to cancel the program and remove the cars from the road due to low public interest and high maintenance costs. Most cars were destroyed by GM, but some were donated to universities and engineering schools with deactivated drivetrains. A few EV1s are still believed to be in private hands. Director Francis Ford Coppola is known to have one and showcased it on "Jay Leno’s Garage."
|Batteries:||lead-acid / nickel-metal hydride|
|Range:||up to 140 miles|
Ford Ranger EV (1997-2002)
Ford is in the process of rolling out electric trucks in 2020, but it actually produced such a hauler back in 1997.
It was based on the compact Ranger truck from the era and featured an electric motor rated at 90 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque.
While early models featured a lead-acid battery, the truck upgraded to a nickel-metal hydride pack in 1999. The Ranger EV needed 10.3 seconds to hit 50 mph and reached a top speed of 74 mph. Its highest range rating was 115 miles at a constant speed of 45 mph. The majority of these trucks were leased to fleets before being retired in 2002.
|Batteries:||lead-acid / nickel-metal hydride|
|Range:||up to 115 miles|
Chevrolet S-10 Electric (1997-1998)
Just as Ford launched the Range EV, Chevrolet also introduced an electric variant of its compact truck, the S-10.
It featured a 114-horsepower electric motor, and just like the Ranger EV, it debuted with lead-acid batteries, and it was then updated to nickel-metal hydride. Early models returned up to 60 miles per charge, while the upgraded versions came close to 100 miles. Chevrolet produced 492 electric trucks, most of which were leased to fleet customers. Although production stopped in 1998, fleet trucks remained in operation until 2008, when they were scrapped. Around 60 trucks were sold to fleet customers, so a few S-10 EVs can still be found in use today.
|Batteries:||lead-acid / nickel-metal hydride|
|Range:||up to 100 miles|
Honda EV Plus (1997-1999)
Honda also joined the EV market in 1997, but with a subcompact car called the EV Plus.
Produced only until 1999 in just 340 units, the EV Plus was the first electric car from a major automaker that did not use lead-acid batteries.
Instead, Honda went with nickel-metal hydride batteries a full year before other companies considered them for production models. Powered by a brushless DC motor rated at 66 horsepower and a whopping 203 pound-feet of torque, the EV Plus hit a top speed of more than 80 horsepower and ran for up to 105 miles on a single charge. Honda used the EV Plus to test advanced battery chemistry as well as various motor configurations. It helped the company develop nickel-metal hydride batteries for hybrid cars, as well as develop the FCX hydrogen car.
|Range:||up to 105 miles|
Toyota RAV4 EV (1997-2003)
Granted, the RAV4 EV is far from anonymous, but this crossover became known when Toyota produced the second generation from 2012 to 2014.
But not so many people know that the RAV4 was also offered with an electric drivetrain from 1997 to 2003.
Like many EVs from the era, the first-gen RAV4 EV was a limited fleet model with only 328 units sold to the general public before it was discontinued in 2003. Powered by an electric motor rated at 67 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque and a nickel-metal hydride battery, the RAV4 EV was capable of 95 miles on a single charge. Its top speed was limited to 85 mph, which was higher than most EVs from the era. Almost 1,500 units were leased in California, and only a few delivered in other states.
|Range:||up to 95 miles|
|Units produced:||around 1,500|
Nissan Altra (1998-2002)
Introduced in 1998, the Nissan Altra was based on the R’nessa, a station wagon that Nissan sold mostly in Asia.
The Altra, on the other hand, was launched at the Los Angeles Auto Show and was mostly leased to fleet companies in California.
The Altra is a very significant early EV, as it was the first electric vehicle to use a lithium-ion battery, now a common feature in mass-produced EVs. Nissan chose lithium-ion batteries for its superior power density in an era when most carmakers were barely adopting nickel-metal hydride as a new technology. The Altra was powered by an 84-horsepower and ran for up 120 miles per single charge. Nissan produced only 200 cars from 1998 to 2002. The Altra most likely led to the development of the Nissan Leaf, launched eight years later.
|Range:||up to 120 miles|
|Units produced:||around 200|
What was the first mass-produced electric car?
The Chrysler TEVan is considered the first mass-produced electric from the US The TEVan was sold to fleet companies and was notably more expensive than regular cars.
What batteries were used in early electric cars?
Most early EVs featured lead-acid batteries, but automakers began to adopt nickel-metal hydride technology toward the end of the 1990s.
When was the General Motors EV1 produced?
The first mass-produced electric car from a major automaker, the EV1 was produced from 1996 to 1999. General Motors built and leased more than 1,000 cars.
What happened to the General Motors EV1?
The EV1 was discontinued due to low public interest in electric cars, high production costs, and high costs of maintaining a parts supply and service infrastructure. Most models were recalled and scrapped, but a few examples are said to remain in private ownership
Which company first used lithium-ion batteries?
Nissan was the first automaker to use lithium-ion batteries. The technology debuted in the Altra station wagon in 1998.