The new champion cheap electric car is the Tata Nano. This car defines cheap. For a new car price comparison, check out Electric Car Prices. The Nano is not on sale yet, however.
There are two limiting factors for the cheap electric car: First is battery cost. Second is lack of mass market cost savings. Compared to gas cars, large numbers of electric cars are just not being made yet. This may be changing soon.
Battery manufacture is still an expensive operation since it costs about $500/kWh to make a modern lithium-ion battery pack. For comparison, 1 gallon (3.8L) of gasoline is about 36 kWh of energy. That means $18,000 US to make a battery pack that will store the same amount of energy as one gallon of gasoline!
As for mass manufacturing and marketing: Mitsubishi, for example, hopes to manufacture around 30,000 iMiev electric cars in the next few years. The Nissan Leaf just got around 50,000 orders in the USA. These numbers are better than ever in electric car history, but still only a fraction of total auto sales.
Government subsidies are working to help to lower the cost to within the range of as many consumers as possible. Still, the cost is not cheap.
All of this assumes that you do not wish to build an electric car. The absolute cheapest way to go with an EV is to build one from scrap parts. There are people doing that kind of thing. One guy bought a used forklift and scrapped out the electric motors, batteries and controllers. He claims the result was an NEV for around $1,000 US.
Assembling from scrap parts is great, but only about 1% of people can pull this off within a reasonable time frame. Besides the time, you need a shop and some experience. We cover this in other pages. Right now, we'll assume that you just want a cheap electric car you can drive and maintain.
Let’s look at the used electric cars first. To get a good cheap electric car, the best thing to do is to shop around. Our used electric vehicle section has suggestions. Older used electric cars generally use lead acid batteries which cost a fraction of a Li-Ion battery pack.
The big question then: How much is cheap? As with most things it depends on what you want. Personally, we would check the range and acceleration characteristics first. You want a 40-mile range minimum if you can get it, and
a car with some zip. This means a minimum 120V system, with 144V minimum preferable for realistic road driving.
Generally you can expect to pay from about $4,000-$15,000 US or so for a used electric conversion. These are probably not used factory EVs, but conversions.
Check to see who did the conversion. Most EV people at this point are pretty honest.
What you get: For the used EV dollar, you will most commonly get a car or pickup with lead-acid batteries with a range from say 20-50 miles. You will want a good battery charger - a smart charger - or you will be up at night to check on battery charge status. At the lower end of the price range you will probably need to replace the batteries. Depending on the setup this will set you back an additional $1,500-$3,000 US or more. As you can see, it varies a lot with the setup, but check it out at least.
Lithium-ion batteries are best, but they are still very expensive. For example, the Nissan Leaf battery pack alone goes for about $10,000 US. That is the price for an entire cheap electric car if you shop around.
The Reva electric car is cheap and well regarded in the EV world. The Reva comes with lead-acid batteries, with a choice to upgrade to Li-Ion.
Finally, don't forget Chinese cars. They are not exported much, but China is the home of the cheap electric car. It might be worth it to check Global Source or some of the other Chinese manufacturers/distributors.
One top new Chinese electric car is the super NEV Flybo electric car. The NEVs are of course limited to residential speed limits. The Flybo specs indicate 40+ mph speeds, and the car retails for $9,500 US. So, we call it a super NEV.
Cheap Neighborhood Electric Vehicles: Here it sort of depends on what you mean by cheap. For a new electric NEV, you are looking at least about $10,000…before tax credits. If you can live with a reduced speed and range vehicle, you might want to consider purchasing a new NEV and taking a tax credit.
Here are a few NEVs you can get for that kind of money:
For comparison, there is a machinist in China, who recently built the worlds cheapest electric car. The Car tops out at 30 km (19 mph) with a 50 km (31 mile) range. Total cost is estimated at $820 USD.