NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When investing in the car business, it is important to understand not just what the competitive landscape looks like today, but also what it will look like more than two years from today.
This goes especially for the electric car market because it is still in its early stages, with lots of non-linear leapfrogging likely over the next few years.
I'm using "electric car" in this definition: Any car that has a plug. This means all-electric cars, obviously, but also plug-in hybrids. These hybrids combine a battery for the ability to drive anywhere between six and 80 miles on electricity, with a gasoline engine for longer distances.
The other definitional focus of this article is in terms of price and volume. I am not interested in very expensive or too exotic cars. For example, Audi has said that it is working on an electric version of its mid-engine two-seat R class. However, the price is expected to be somewhere above $130,000.
What's a relevant price for the broader market? Some would say $30,000. I think a first step is up to $45,000 and a second step is up to $70,000 -- before any tax adjustments. Therefore, the focus of this article is to identify models that may be in production by the end of 2016 at prices below $70,000.
With those caveats in mind, let's go down the list and engage in some educated speculation:
General Motors (GM): A Chevrolet Volt 2.0 is expected to be announced in less than a year from now, probably only a few short months before going into production. It will retain the performance formula of the current 1.0, but cost a lot less to manufacture. It will obviously have a more refined interior and perhaps be offered in multiple (mini-minivan) body styles.
On the pure electric side, a longer-range electric car from GM would likely have to be introduced together with a major charging infrastructure initiative. One could envision a 200-mile EV as well as a longer-range, 300-mile EV flagship launched under this kind of major EV initiative near the end of 2016. This would be naturally done under the Buick and Cadillac brands. One might surmise these cars would be priced near $50,000 and $70,000, respectively.
Ford (F): There is no hint about Ford's future electrification plans. By extrapolating from today's offerings, one can assume more plug-in hybrids to be offered. As far as an all-EV with 200-, let alone 300-mile range, there is no indication anything is forthcoming until late 2016 at the very earliest.
FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles): Recent comments from CEO Sergio Marchionne suggest that FCA will be more engaged in automobile electrification. There is no hint of when or how. The current Fiat 500e is a good sign of outstanding Italian design, and could hopefully be translated to larger cars and Jeeps.
Volkswagen: We should expect numerous models from Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche before 2017. In terms of pure electrics, the Golf will be on U.S. roads by early 2015, but all of these brands alike are being challenged to put longer-range electrics into the market before 2017. I think it is a safe bet that we will see at least one such additional model by 2016.
In terms of plug-in hybrids, the VW Group brands are making such a version available out of almost every nameplate going forward. Pick a VW Group car and chances are that it will have a plug-in hybrid variant available by 2016.
BMW: It has basically admitted that additional "i" models will be arriving at various points in the future. While the i3 models is just hitting U.S. shores imminently, we could see at least one of these other "i" models launched by the end of 2016. Aside from hybrid models, BMW is likely going to focus future pure electrics on those with a lot more range than the current i3.
As for the "regular" BMWs, the strategy will be similar to the VW Group: Make a plug-in hybrid variant of almost every single nameplate. Prototypes of some vehicles have already been seen or shown; obviously the remaining nameplates will follow soon.
Mercedes: Aside from the soon-to-arrive B-Class pure electric and a couple of other two-seat exotics, Mercedes has shown little interest in delivering full-size or long-range pure EVs. Mercedes is more focused on hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
That said, when it comes to plug-in hybrids, Mercedes will follow the pattern from its VW and BMW German brothers: Deliver them in almost all nameplates. Mercedes has already announced the plug-in hybrid C class. Others, such as the E class and the various SUVs, will likely follow by 2016.
Volvo: The all-new XC90 SUV replacement enters production in January 2015 and should be on US roads by March 2015. It will be a plug-in hybrid SUV. No word yet on a broadly available pure EV.
Jaguar-Land Rover: Prototypes of plug-in hybrids have been shown and will most likely be launched by the end of 2016. As with Volvo, no word on any pure EV.
Toyota (TM): On the one hand, Toyota is making the most noise about a huge bet on hydrogen fuel cell cars. On the other hand, Toyota must realize that the prospects for any material sales of these cars before 2017 is slim at best.
Toyota will obviously have a much-improved Prius plug-in hybrid on the road by 2015 at the very latest. It would be natural to extend this drivetrain architecture to almost all other Toyota vehicles as well, easily by 2016.
In terms of pure EVs, Toyota doesn't hint that it is very interested. On the other hand, Toyota is large enough to need to have a finger is something where Nissan (NSANY), BMW, VW and GM are making such large bets. There is a good chance Toyota could be able to introduce a major, new, all-EV product by the end of 2016.
Nissan: Without a doubt, Nissan is the leader in EVs today with over 100,000 sold, and seems to have every intention to remain the leader, even though BMW is most vocal about challenging it. A longer-range LEAF is due perhaps already within months from now.
By the end of 2016, Nissan should have a larger pure EV that could fit a larger battery capable of 200 miles of range, perhaps more. Nissan may also be ready to make a major ($100 million or more) infrastructure initiative for electric car charging.
Almost unique in the industry, Nissan seems to have no interest in plug-in hybrids.
Honda (HMC): Very similar to Toyota, Honda is making noise about is hydrogen fuel cell car. The problem is similar: No realistic prospect for any material sales by 2016. As a result, Honda is likely going to have to make more plug-in hybrids and pure electrics by 2016 in order to be competitive.
Hyundai and Kia: Hyundai is launching a hydrogen fuel cell car this quarter, in Los Angeles only, and Kia will have its first pure EV in October. Both companies have stated ambitions to be in the plug-in market to a greater degree, and we can expect more models by 2016.
What's the moral of this story? There will be a very long list of pure EVs as well as plug-in hybrids priced below $70,000 in volume production by the end of 2016. Some of these cars will have at least in the neighborhood of 200 miles of EV range, and the plug-in hybrids will provide peace of mind for those not wanting to rely on public infrastructure.
The bigger swing factor is which of these companies will build out a charging network. In my estimation, Nissan is the most likely company, followed by GM. The other companies seem less convinced of the necessity to do this.
The electrified car market will be very competitive, and it will be so before the end of 2016.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.