Four questions to consider

Last reviewed: October 2010

Your answers can help you determine whether an EV is right for you.

How far do you drive?

If you will be using the car only for running local errands or you have a relatively short commute, say 20 to 30 miles each way, a dedicated electric car with a 100-mile range, such as the Leaf, would probably fit your needs and provide enough buffer to allow you to make some side trips. With an extended-range EV, distance is not a factor if you don't mind using gasoline. Of course, if you can plug in while you're away from home, you'll extend your electric driving range. Longer trips with a dedicated EV would require careful planning on where you can recharge.

Keep in mind that a car's electric range can vary significantly, depending on how much load is put on the batteries. EV engineers say that without a gas engine to produce extra power, heating or cooling the cabin, running lights and wipers, and listening to the stereo can consume as much as half of the battery's power, which cuts well into your driving range.

Will an EV save you money?

Depending on your electricity rates, driving an EV can be less expensive than filling up at the pump. Electricity costs an average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. At about 3 miles per kWh (the rough efficiency engineers estimate for most of today's EVs), that's about 4 cents a mile. With gas costing about $2.80 a gallon, a car such as the Toyota Corolla, which gets very good fuel economy of 30 mpg, would cost about 9 cents a mile for fuel. But electrical rates vary widely, so check your local rates.

You'll pay extra to buy an electric car. The Leaf's starting price is $33,600, while the Volt will retail at $41,000. Both include destination charges. Prices for a Toyota Prius hybrid, the most fuel-efficient car in our Ratings, range from about $22,000 to $28,000. To attract early buyers, the federal government is making the first 200,000 EV buyers from each automaker eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Regional incentives will also be available. California will offer an additional $5,000 tax credit for zero-emission vehicles, including the Leaf.

Consumers will also be able to lease the Leaf or Volt for about $350 per month, which is similar to leases for many conventional cars.

An EV's high price reflects its expensive battery pack. "EVs can do a reasonable range, but they can't do it at a reasonable cost given today's batteries," says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the Green Car Journal. The Volt's batteries are estimated to cost $8,000 or more, and the Leaf's about $18,000.

No one knows how long those batteries will last before they'll need replacement. And because they use a new lithium-ion technology, there's no track record with which to gauge them, as there is with the nickel-metal-hydride batteries in today's hybrids. Still, according to our Annual Auto Reliability Survey, most hybrids have been very reliable.

The Leaf and Volt will carry 8-year/100,000-mile warranties on their battery packs and related hardware.

How will you charge your car?

You can charge an EV at any household outlet, but the type of circuit dramatically affects the charging time. A standard 110-volt outlet might work for charging the Volt, but you could be hard-pressed to charge a dedicated EV overnight. A heavy-duty 220-volt, 30- or 40-amp circuit, similar to an outlet for an electric clothes dryer, is much more practical. If one is needed, installation could cost $300 to $2,000, depending on the home's existing wiring and location of the outlet, according to Mark Duvall, director of the electric transportation program at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), an electric-utility industry organization.

You'll also need a charger. The Leaf and Volt have an onboard 110-volt, so-called Level I charger. A faster 220-volt Level II charger for the Leaf sells for about $700, but other Level II chargers are currently retailing for about $1,200. GM and Nissan are setting up special services to help EV buyers assess their charging and electrical needs. Before you buy a Leaf or Volt, a dealer will have an electrician inspect your home, give you an estimate, and ensure the work meets local building-code requirements.

To defray the expense, the federal government has earmarked $130 million to provide 15,000 free Level II chargers. Those will be targeted in the cities where automakers first plan to roll out EVs. Many of those chargers will be installed in the garages of apartment buildings, in malls, and in other public places to help EV drivers. One program, ChargePoint America, will also pay up to $1,200 in installation costs for selected residential customers.

What will you pay for charging?

Many utilities offer a wide variety of rate plans, so it's important to find out which is best for you. High electric rates can offset any savings at the pump. For example, at our Auto Test Center in Connecticut, where average utility rates are a high 19 cents per kWh, a vehicle such as the Volt may be no cheaper to run than a Toyota Prius.

Off-peak rates are usually lower because you're taking advantage of the excess capacity that power plants have at night. For Volt buyers in Detroit, for example, charging off-peak in the summer would cost 5.65 cents per kWh, or about 50 cents for a full charge. That's less than half of what it costs during summer peak hours.

Southern California Edison, which covers a region where most electric cars will initially be sold, plans to launch a website to help EV buyers analyze which of its rate plans will be cheapest for them, says Steve Powell, manager of plug-in electric vehicle readiness for the company. One plan is specially designed for EV drivers, with lower off-peak rates of 11 cents per kWh. But that plan requires the installation of a second electric meter, which may cost you more up front.

California buyers need to be especially careful when choosing a plan because the state's Public Utilities Commission has set caps on usage for the lowest rates in basic plans. So unless you choose an appropriate plan, charging an electric car can quickly boost you to a higher rate.

Virtually all electric utilities are developing special rates for electric cars and for off-peak usage, Duvall, from EPRI, says. But such rate plans require the installation of Smart meters, which can monitor the time of day when electricity is used.

Many areas also have several electricity providers, so it can help to shop around for the best rates.

Call your utility company before you buy an electric car, Powell says. That gives the company an opportunity to inspect power lines and transformers in your area and make any needed upgrades before you add such a large load to the system. Those upgrades are free to the consumer.

Automakers are working on ways to help you optimize charging performance. For example, Nissan says that Leaf buyers will be able to schedule charging or check on their car's charge status online, and that a similar mobile application is being developed. Chevrolet Volt buyers can download their electric utility's rates to the car using GM's OnStar system. Then the car can charge only when the rates are lowest. Drivers can also preset the interior temperature of either car remotely so that the cabin is heated or cooled initially while it's still plugged in, to optimize battery range. Ford, which plans to roll out two electric vehicles next year, has developed an add-on to its Sync system that will allow their customers to use Microsoft's Hohm application to set charge times, update charge status, and perform other functions over the Internet from their computers or phones.