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The Guide to All Your Electric Car Questions

Plugging in to the reality of EVs

Last updated: January 2016

Tesla Model S P85D

Once a high-tech novelty, electric cars are becoming increasingly common. In fact, several models from mainstream brands have now been sold for years. But most consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly referred to as "EVs") and may have many questions regarding whether an electric car might fit into their lives.  

With so many questions, we’ve set up this quick-and-easy guide to provide key answers and help you to determine whether an electric car could fit into your life.

Planning to Go Electric?

Let us know which car you're looking at and why by adding a comment below.

What Models and Types Are Available?

BMW i3

There are currently about a dozen all-electric cars on the market. They include tiny two-seaters, an SUV, and even a high-end luxury car. But most are traditional small five-passenger hatchbacks:

Pure Electric vs. Plug-In Hybrid?

Cadillac ELR

In addition to pure EVs, other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, can use both electricity and gasoline. Equipped with a backup gasoline engine, most plug-in hybrids  can run solely on electricity, but on longer trips can rely on gasoline to extend their range indefinitely. With a 35 mile electric range, Chevy Volt drivers spend most of their time in electric mode, averaging 75 percent of their mileage in all-electric mode. (Learn more in “Hybrids 101.”)

Several plug-in hybrids are also now on the market or coming soon, including:

Why Should I Buy an Electric Car?

Electric cars use far less energy than gasoline-powered cars, generally cost about a third as much as a gas-powered car to run, and often have lower maintenance costs. Electricity in most parts of the country costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas. You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool. And you could save even more if you take advantage of lower off-peak charging rates—in Texas, some utilities even offer free electricity at night.

In addition:

  • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions and have lower lifecycle emissions than efficient gasoline powered vehicles.
  • EVs are quiet and many models are fun to drive.
  • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum, and electricity prices are more stable than gasoline prices.
  • Charging at home is convenient and takes less time than going to the gas station.
  • When combined with rooftop solar, “fuel” costs can be completely eliminated.  

Why Shouldn’t I?

Electric vehicle selection is still limited and electric models often command a price premium. In addition, several pure electrics may not meet people’s driving needs between charges if they drive more than 70 miles per day and do not have access to workplace or public charging. Plug-in hybrids solve the range problem, but they still need a place to plug in. Unless they are relying entirely on workplace charging, electric vehicle owners generally need to have ready access to an outlet (or 240-volt battery charger) and parking spot for overnight charging. In most areas of the country, this means access is limited to single family or townhomes rather than apartments or condos, although many state initiatives have begun to foster charging and parking solutions for multi-family housing.    

While statistics show that 78 percent of American drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive less than 50 miles a day, single-vehicle households who need to make long  trips even occasionally are probably not the best match for most current EV offerings. Of course, nothing says an EV has to be somebody's only car. A conventional gas-powered car can fill in where an EV falls short—and vice versa. Likewise, a rented minivan could be an alternative for the annual long-distance road trip.

The main questions to ask yourself:

  • How many miles do I drive each day?
  • Do I have regular access to charging at home or at work?
  • How much would I pay for electricity?
  • Do I need a faster charging option, or can I charge overnight with a regular outlet?

What's the Cost to Buy?

BMW i8
Photo: Courtesy BMW

Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to more than $125,000 for our high-performance Tesla Model S test car. In some cases, that’s thousands more than similarly-sized gas-powered cars. But electric cars (excluding low-speed neighborhood vehicles) are eligible for up to a $7,500 federal tax credit to offset the extra cost. Additional city and state tax credits are available in California, Colorado, Texas, and elsewhere that can make the costs of electric cars very compelling, especially for consumers with a home solar system.

The most popular electric and plug-in cars are sticker priced at $26,000 to $32,000 before the tax credit. Leases are available for as little as $170 a month (after you sign the tax credit over to the leasing company).

Plug-in hybrids are sticker priced between $30,000 and $75,000, but they have been advertised with lease deals as low as $170 a month.

What's the Cost to Drive?

We’ve seen pure-electric cars return a little over 3 miles per kilowatt-hour, which gives them a cost to drive of about 3.5 cents per mile (for the Nissan Leaf). For comparison, the 32-mpg Toyota Corolla costs about 12 cents per mile.

Electric cars also require no oil changes and minimal maintenance. Our Annual Auto Survey shows that the low operating costs should offset the cost of buying in just the first year for a Nissan Leaf, for example.

What Are They Like to Drive?

We’ve found most electric cars are smooth and quiet, with instant power from a stop. Most ride well, and despite their heavy batteries, most (though not all) handle respectably. Acceleration at speed tends to be leisurely (with the notable exception of the Tesla Model S); driving enthusiastically just depletes the batteries that much faster, anyway. 

In addition, some EVs have complicated, fussy controls and compromised space inside. Others are simple and straightforward.

How Far Can They Go?

Pure EV range varies from about 60 to 100 miles, although some versions of the expensive Tesla Model S can go a lot farther by about 240 miles. Count on range being about 25-percent less than manufacturer claims in the real world. In particular, driving in cold weather will shorten the range noticeably, especially when the heater is used. The headlights, wipers, and defroster can likewise exact a toll.

Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. Driving an EV requires more planning. But, plug-in hybrids have a combined gasoline and electric range of 400 to 550 miles, and if you plan it right, you may never have to go to a gas station except for long trips.

How Long Does It Take to Charge One?

Charge times vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery and the speed of the charger.

On a typical 240-volt charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge a pure-electric vehicle, depending on the car, battery size, and the speed of the charger. (Those figures are based on our test data on Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively.) But no EV driver wants to experience a completely depleted battery. Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to recharge, ranging from an hour and a half charge for the Toyota Prius Plug-in to about 4.5 hours for the Chevrolet Volt.

Expect a little more than double those times when charging from a standard 110-volt household outlet. Put another way, on a standard household outlet, expect to get about four miles of driving for every hour of charging (and twice that on a dedicated 240-volt charger).

A wider variety of 240-volt chargers are coming on the market that charge at different speeds, so some aren’t as fast. Others, such as Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector home charger, ramp-up much faster.

And DC fast chargers, which can power 50 to 70 miles of range in about 20 minutes, are expanding around the country, with a current tally of over 1,300 nationwide. In addition, Tesla’s supercharger network boasts over 500 stations around the country and 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes for the Tesla Model S.

How Much Do They Cost to Charge?

BMW X5 plug-in
Photo: BMW

A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt-hour costs about $3 for a typical, limited-range electric car. Due to their massive battery packs, charging a Tesla can cost as much as four times that. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—less than a single fill-up of gasoline for many cars. And many utilities offer further discounts for nighttime charging. In Texas, at least one utility is even offering free electricity at night in exchange for a slightly higher rate during daytime hours.  You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool.

What About Home Chargers?

Photo: Mercedes-Benz USA

Electric cars achieve the biggest benefits when they’re charged overnight at home when electric rates may decrease. As another benefit, most electric-car drivers say they find it much more convenient to just plug in at home than to have to stop at gas stations.

It’s easy to charge a plug-in hybrid overnight, even on a standard 110-volt household outlet. Fully depleted, pure electric-car batteries can take almost a full day to charge on such low power. Practically speaking, owning a pure EV means installing a 240-volt, Level 2 home charger. These chargers sell for $400 to  $700, depending mainly on amperage and the length of the cable. Installation can run an additional $300 to $500, or more. These units will allow you to charge in less than half the time of a standard wall outlet, or as little as four hours for some electrics. The latest models will charge four times as fast as a home outlet.

Public chargers are being installed in some cities throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Convenience and pricing vary, and some may only charge at 1,500 watts, a slow trickle for a full electric car.

The good news is that the nation has the foundational infrastructure for electric distribution. The problem is just covering the last 50 ft. from the nearest high-powered cable to the car.

Couldn't Electric Cars Cause a Power Blackout?

Theoretically, yes, if enough of them were charged during peak times in a local area. But we’re a long way from that in terms of electric-car penetration and smart grid technology is improving management of the grid. And the risk is mitigated by the fact that most people will prefer to do most of their charging at night, when demand on the power grid is much lower.

According to studies by Idaho and Pacific Northwest National Labs, the United States has enough power to charge at least 1 million electric cars at off-peak times, without building a single additional power plant.

Utilities are committed to building more infrastructure to meet the demand from electric cars, which they see as expanding their market and possibly providing grid storage through the electric vehicle batteries.

Can I Buy an Electric Car Near Me?

Yes, depending on which model you’re interested in. Some electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, are available in all 50 states. Others are rolling out primarily in California and Oregon, along with several other states in the North East that follow California emissions mandates. Most automakers have plans to eventually market EVs nationwide.

Why Electric Cars?

The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are cutting petroleum consumption and dependence  and reducing pollution, including carbon-dioxide emissions. 

Electricity is not a fuel; it is energy produced from a wide array of domestic sources. An increasing percentage of those sources are cleaner than coal or oil, ranging from new natural-gas power plants to increasing wind and solar generation. The power grid in the United States is currently underutilized, having been built for the hottest day of the year. Transportation, particularly charging at night, can utilize that surplus.

Doesn't the Power Just Come From Dirtier Coal Instead of Gasoline?

Some does, but mostly not. About 39 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, and even in regions with the dirtiest electricity, EV emissions are equivalent to a 35 mpg gasoline vehicle. America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, and electric vehicle emissions are equivalent to 51-97 mpg gasoline vehicles. California accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s electric vehicle sales, and California uses no coal and has one of the cleanest electric grids in the country.

What Does the Future Look Like for Electric Cars?

Volvo XC90 plug-in

New fuel-economy standards, along with zero emission vehicle targets in California and other states, will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While battery costs still command a price premium for plug-ins, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

EVs will eventually transition from being novel second cars in a household to being more primary-use cars, and a wider variety of types of EVs (including SUVs and sports cars) are certain to expand EVs’ appeal.



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