The idea’s been bouncing around in the back of your mind for a while now: Maybe an electric car would be a good idea. Now you’ve decided that it is time to get a new ride. A decision’s got to be made. Is an electric car the right choice?
Sure, it will fit in your garage. But will a car that needs to have its batteries regularly recharged — a plug-in electric vehicle, or PEV — fit your lifestyle, your transportation needs and, especially, your budget?
If you are considering either a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) that runs on electricity only, or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) that has a shorter all-electric range and then switches to using a mix of electric and gasoline powertrains, here’s a short checklist you can use to help in the decision-making process:
What’s driving green worth to you? With gasoline selling for less than $3 a gallon in most of the U.S., there’s little pure economic benefit to buying a PEV. Leasing, however, is a different story. Many lease payments are subsidized by the manufacturer, which can take advantage of federal tax credits. Furthermore, even if you lease, you can qualify for some state rebates, which will further reduce your ownership costs. In California, for example, anyone leasing an all-electric vehicle can get a $2,500 rebate.
Another reason to lease is that electric vehicle technology is moving quickly, and at the end of a three-year lease contract, an updated model with longer range may be available. Furthermore, some consumers have concerns about how long the batteries will last and how much a replacement could cost (even though battery warranties are for at least 10 years). And finally, the resale value of electric cars is usually very low.
One untold story about electric cars is that you will save money on fuel, maintenance and repairs. You could even get a break on your insurance and benefit from other state and local incentives.
There are, of course, noneconomic reasons for driving electric cars. They help improve air quality, reduce national dependence on oil and typically showcase cutting-edge technology. Finally, most electric cars are fun to drive because they have great acceleration, instant response and sharp handling thanks to low-slung battery packs that give them low centers of gravity.
How far can you go? With the exception of Tesla’s Model S sedan and Model X crossover, none of today’s battery-electric cars is rated at more than 110 miles of travel per charge. Unless you have access to charging stations on your route, that essentially limits you to a 50-mile (or less) one-way commute. The Teslas’ ranges start at 210 miles, and with the largest batteries — and six-figure price tags — can deliver up to 294 miles, according to present EPA fuel efficiency ratings.
A system of quick chargers is slowly expanding, but except for Tesla’s proprietary Supercharger network, none yet makes road trips easy or permits cross-country travel. Even with 30-minute recharge times at quick charging stations (that’s recharging to 80% of capacity, the industry standard — charging speed slows down significantly after that to preserve battery life), an EV with 110 miles of range would have to stop for 30 minutes every 90 minutes or so.
And remember, high-speed highway driving cuts an electric car’s range. Speed, hill climbing, the number of passengers and amount of cargo you carry — even temperature extremes — all affect the range of electric cars.
However, plug-in hybrids are much more forgiving if you need to travel long distances. Once the initial all-electric range is depleted, they simply revert to standard gas-electric hybrid mode and can travel as far as you need to go — as long as you keep refilling the gas tank.
Of course, having to drive long distances is the exception for most drivers. AAA in 2015 found that the average motorist drives 29.2 miles per day. Consider your own daily driving habits when considering the range of plug-in cars.
In the market for a pickup or a rugged, off-road-capable SUV? Those aren’t available today as plug-in vehicles.
Need to tow a boat or trailer? Electric cars aren’t recommended or rated for towing. Pulling the extra weight really eats into their range and can damage their batteries. Some PHEVs can tow very light loads — and the Volvo XC90 T8 PHEV is rated at 5,000 pounds towing capacity — but none is rated for heavy-duty towing chores.
Got a big family? Most electric cars seat four or five passengers, but they are usually considered compact cars. Tesla offers seven-seat versions of its Model S sedan and Model X crossover, but Teslas are definitely pricey, ranging from $66,000 to $115,500 before incentives.
A plug-in hybrid might be a better choice as a family car. The Volvo XC90, the Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid and the more-affordable Ford C-Max Energi offer more cargo room and more passenger capacity than the smaller BEVs. Chrysler is launching the first PHEV minivan with the 2017 Pacifica.
Will this be your only car? An all-electric car can fit into a one-car lifestyle if you use it primarily as a commuter car. If you want to go on a road trip, you can always rent a car.
If you regularly drive long distances, though, you might be better off with a PHEV than a purely electric car, unless you can afford a Tesla. Otherwise, a few BEVs with a 200-mile range are coming soon, most notably the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, debuting at the end of 2016, and a downsized, lower-priced Tesla Model 3, due late in 2017 or early in 2018. Nissan also is promising a 200-mile Leaf BEV, although the release date is up in the air.
Where to plug in? Electric cars can be charged by plugging into a normal 120-volt household outlet. This is slow going, but if you charge overnight, you can easily get enough juice for tomorrow’s commute. Many EV owners install a 240-volt charging station to speed up the process.
A typical electric car takes about four hours to charge at 240 volts if it has a 24 kWh battery pack. That same battery could take up to 17 hours to charge on a standard 120-volt household circuit.
Plug-in electric hybrids, with their much-smaller battery packs and 3.3 kW charging capacity, can be charged in eight to 10 hours on 120-volt lines or in as little as 1.5 to two hours with 240 volts. Also remember that you probably won’t fully deplete your battery in your daily commute.
Before buying an electric car, think about where you would park it so it could be plugged into a 120-volt electrical outlet. Or, better yet, where would you install a dedicated 240-volt EV charging station?
If you can’t find the right spot to charge, you might find a public or commercial charging station nearby. Or maybe your employer offers workplace charging.
Make a list, check it twice
The top piece of basic car-buying advice holds true for plug-in vehicles as well as for standard gasoline burners: Draw up a list of your wants and needs, decide what you expect from your next new car, and contrast all that with what you’ll be getting from the car you’re considering.
John O’Dell is a longtime automotive writer who has covered alternative-fuel cars for the Los Angeles Times and Edmunds.com. He now runs the website The Green Car Guy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.