Gallery: 6 Electric cars that broke new ground and paved the way for electrification

The ones that planted the flag
by Paul Horrell | May 22, 2021
PHOTO: TopGear.com
CAR MODELS IN THIS ARTICLE

1) Nissan Leaf (2010)

It looked like a Martian amphibian, but really, the Leaf was always just an ordinary Japanese hatch. Easy to drive and easy to own. And of course, despite the complex, pioneering drive system, utterly reliable. Sold around the world—and built in Japan, the US, and the UK—it really was a big deal.

These days, we might sneer at the sub-160km range, but it can go further than that at city speeds. And you try driving 160km a day in London or Tokyo.

It was given a new body in 2017, and the big-battery one will now go about three times as far. Even so, Nissan didn’t really take advantage of its early EV lead.

2) Tesla Model S (2012)

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It might be worn like a badge by green-leaning, tech-savvy millionaires, but the Model S is much more than hype. It has always been the longest-range and fastest-accelerating EV, and sometimes the quickest car of all to 100. But it wasn’t just about the battery: It brought the world ultra-fast charging, dual-motor 4WD, inclusive electricity, the glass cockpit, highly assisted driving, and over-the-air upgrades.

A steady stream of improvements in batteries, electronics, motors, and software kept it ahead of the game. When, in 2022, Mercedes-Benz introduces the EQE and Audi the A6 e-tron, their sedans will still have to beat the Model S in its 10th year.

3) Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive (2013)

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Okay, it looks like an ordinary SLS (if a gullwinged supercar with manhood-issues proportions could ever be ‘ordinary’). But that hides revolutionary electric tech. Each wheel had its own electric motor, giving perfect torque vectoring thanks to bewilderingly quick-witted software. Different driving modes could call up on-rails grip or smoking oversteer. Or, presumably, the ability to spin in its own length like a skid-steer loader.

The motors totaled 750hp, making it Merc’s most powerful car ever. The battery came from the Formula 1 racing team. The guys that have their dabs all over the new AMG One.

They sold only nine, but it predated the multi-motor antics of Rimac and Lotus hypercars.

4) BMW i3 (2013)

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The i3 remains the most fascinatingly boffiny affordable EV. Its design makes no attempt to disguise the proportions: tall because the battery is underneath, and narrow to cut frontal area. Its carbon-fiber bodyshell and aluminum chassis frame keep it light, so it can (just) get away with a smallish battery. It’s wonderfully maneuverable and glassy in traffic, and the interior has an original and universal appeal.

We’d love to see a longer-wheelbase version with less polarizing looks, and space for a bigger battery and cargo area. Sadly, that exotic structure costs too much. So, as a car, it’s a cul-de-sac. But it has taught BMW loads about EV drive, and that’ll be seen in many new cars.

5) Hyundai Kona Electric (2018)

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Basically, the anti-i3. The Kona has the body of an ordinary little crossover. Which, of course, is just the thing hordes of people want. And even though it’s small and wasn’t engineered at the outset to be EV-only, Hyundai still managed to stuff a socking great 64kWh (net) battery in there.

The Koreans are superb at managing motors and electronics to get loads of range. It doesn’t have magically finessed driving dynamics nor a stupefyingly gorgeous interior, but it was a pathfinder nonetheless—and a reasonably priced one at that.

6) Porsche Taycan (2019)

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It steers and rides better than any other sports sedan. It accelerates so hard, it hurts. And it’s drop-dead gorgeous. Whatever your views on electric cars, here’s a machine that’s all but impossible to dislike. The Porsche of EVs.

If you do like EVs—or are open-minded enough to be converted—well, this is a stunner. I recently drove a new BMW M3 and thought, “Why is the throttle response so inconsistent? Why do I have to wait for boost? Why is it always in the wrong gear?” That’s what happens after you’ve driven a Taycan.

Next, Porsche will do an electric Macan. And after, an electric sports car. Because of the Taycan, we’re okay with that.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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