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Electric cars 101

Plugging in to the reality of EVs

Published: October 2013

As EVs become more familiar, consumers have a better understanding of these gasoline-free automobiles, but questions remain. Many consumers are still wondering whether an electric car might fit into their lives, whether electrics are here to stay, and even whether electrics really count as cars, when they can’t fulfill the dream of driving anywhere, any time you want, no matter how far.

Since there are so many questions concerning electric cars, we’ve set up this quick-and-easy guide to provide key answers and help you to determine whether an electric car could (eventually) fit into your life.

What models and types are available?

There are currently less than a dozen fully-functional, 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

An alternative to traditional, gasoline-fueled cars, EVs run purely on electricity. Other battery-enhanced models, known as plug-in hybrids, are marketed as semi-electric cars. Some plug-ins can run solely on electricity, but they all have a gasoline engine too, giving them a backup power source. The main difference is that pure electrics are limited by their range and have to be plugged in for hours to replenish their juice. (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 and cost about a quarter as much as a gas car to run. Electricity costs the equivalent of about $1-a-gallon gas.

  • A typical EV costs about 3 cents per mile to run compared with 8 cents a mile for a Toyota Prius Hybrid based on the 11 cents/kWh national average.
  • EVs produce no tail pipe emissions.
  • EVs are quiet.
  • EVs don’t rely on imported petroleum.  

Why shouldn’t I?

With their high purchase price, limited range, and long recharge times, electric cars won’t work for everybody. Their primary target is urban and suburban commuters who have a relatively short commute.

Statistics show that 78 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day, and 90 percent drive fewer than 50 miles a day. Simply put: If you’re not one of those people, an electric car isn’t for you. Everyone else who is considering going electric, spend a week tracking your mileage and see how far you really drive before deciding whether an electric car would fit your lifestyle. When tracking the mileage, you might find occasional (and essential) side trips or errands may put you outside the reasonable range for an electric car.

People who live in inner cities or apartments are also usually not good candidates at this point, because many don’t have dependable access to electrical outlets outdoors or in a garage, nor a place to install an electric-car charger.

And in some urban locations—especially in Connecticut, New York, and parts of California—electric utility rates are so high that it can be cheaper overall to drive an efficient hybrid such as the Toyota Prius.

Also, if you live between the heart of the Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic region, your electricity probably comes from coal, so driving an electric car there may not generate much environmental benefit, should that be a primary motivator. (Although it also won’t do any particular harm, according to the latest studies.)

Cost to buy

Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to almost $90,000 for our luxurious Tesla Model S test car. In some cases, that’s thousands more than similarly-sized gas-powered cars. But all full-speed electric cars (excluding so-called neighborhood cars) are eligible for a federal $7,500 tax credit to offset the extra cost. Additional city and state tax credits are available in California, Colorado, Georgia, 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 $32,000 to $43,000 before the tax credit, and leases are available for between $200 and $350 a month.

Plug-in hybrids are sticker priced between $37,500 and $71,000 Cadillac ELR), and they have been advertised with lease deals as low as $260 a month.

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 (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?

EV range varies from about 60 to 100 miles, although some versions of the expensive Tesla Model S can go a lot further, to about 240 miles. Count on experiencing about 25-percent less than manufacturer claims in the real world. Range can be heavily influenced by cold weather, with the heater noticeably reducing range. Headlights, wipers, and defroster likewise exact a toll.

Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take 5 minutes to fill. EVs require a little more planning.

How long does it take to charge one?

Charge times also vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery and the speed of the car’s on-board charger.

On a dedicated, 240-volt charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge a pure-electric vehicle, depending on the car. (Those figures are based on our test data on Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf, respectively.) But most pure-EV drivers will seldom--if ever--completely deplete their batteries.

Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to replenish their energy, ranging from a 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).

How much do they cost to charge?

A full charge at the national average rate of 11-cents per kilowatt hour costs about $3. As a rule, in a typical 2,000 square-foot air-conditioned home (without its own solar electricity generation), you can expect to about double your electric bill. That’s still probably far less than you’re spending on gas for a typical car. If you drive the national average mileage, you could expect to pay about $40 a month for electricity for an electric car—that’s less than a single gas fill-up these days.

What about home chargers?

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 household outlet. Fully depleted, pure electric-car batteries can take almost a full day to charge on such low power. Practically speaking, EV ownership means installing a 240-volt, Level 2 home charger. The chargers sell for between $700 and $1,200, and installation can run an additional $300 to $500. 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, and few locations have enough chargers available to depend on them for all your charging. Even if there are chargers in your city, it doesn’t make them convenient and some may only charge at 120 volts.

The good news is that the nation has the foundational infrastructure to distribute electricity, but it is often described as a problem with the last 50-feet—getting power to the car for recharging.

Couldn’t electric cars cause a power blackout?

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. The risk is further 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 powerplant.

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, along with a few other states that follow California emissions mandates. Most automakers have plans to eventually market EVs nationwide.

Why electric cars?

A big motivator driving the production of electric cars has to do with ending dependence on imported petroleum and reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

Nationally and politically, it is largely agreed that the United States needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and specifically upon petroleum. Electricity is not a fuel; it is a form of energy produced from diverse domestic sources. And the grid in this country, which was built for the hottest day of the year, is underutilized. Transportation can take up that surplus.

Doesn’t the power just come from dirtier coal instead of gasoline?

Mostly not. About 45 percent of America’s electricity today comes from coal, primarily in the Midwest and around Washington, D.C. But America’s population centers are on the coasts, where electricity production comes from much cleaner sources, such as nuclear and natural gas. Most electric cars are sold in California, which uses no coal and has the cleanest electric grid in the country.

What does the future look like for electric cars?

Stringent new fuel-economy standards will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars by the end of this decade. Most will probably be plug-in hybrids. While batteries will remain larger and more expensive than a tank of gas, and will carry less energy, larger-scale adoption will bring down costs below those of today. Breakthroughs in battery technology will drive 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) might make EVs appeal to more lifestyles.

   

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