Hybrid/EV Buying Guide

Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles (EVs) provide energy-efficient transportation while lowering emissions, diminishing noise, and reducing operating costs. According to a recent Consumer Reports study, EVs—which cost less to fuel and are cheaper to repair and maintain—cost less to own than comparable gasoline-powered models. But hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and EVs are very different from gasoline models, so it’s important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each before choosing your next vehicle.

In this buying guide, we’ll explain how these technologies work and provide the insights necessary to choose the model that will meet your needs and goals.

Why Buy a Hybrid?

Hybrids can provide the best of both worlds, teaming an electric motor with a gasoline engine. Electric motors are up to three times as efficient as gasoline engines, meaning they use one-third of the energy to do the same work. On the other hand, gasoline contains much more energy in a given volume, and it does so much more cheaply (for now) than batteries or other electric storage solutions do. By combining a gasoline engine, an electric motor, and a battery pack, hybrids can use electricity when it’s most efficient without giving up the practicality of a gas engine—fueling up is quick, and gas stations are plentiful.

Mild Hybrids vs. Full Hybrids

The most basic hybrid technology is a mild hybrid with a high-voltage battery that allows minimal low-speed mobility and smooths out the stop-start system. Full battery-electric hybrids are also traditional, gas-powered vehicles that get an extra boost from a rechargeable battery and an electric motor.

Hybrid technology comes at a price: These cars typically cost $2,000 to $3,000 more than comparable conventional cars, although the difference in purchase price is often readily offset by fuel savings. (The Toyota RAV4 LE, for example, starts at $26,050. The hybrid version starts at $28,500 in LE trim.)

There are many hybrid choices in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range, from the efficient Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and Hyundai Ioniq to the Kia Niro, as well as hybrid versions of popular SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V Hybrid, Ford Escape Hybrid, and RAV4 Hybrid. There are also hybrid versions of mainstream family sedans like the Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry and Corolla.

Why Buy Electric?

All-electric cars can dramatically reduce running costs through lower maintenance and fueling costs. Lower carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution, and reduced dependence on fossil fuels, are icing on the cake. The typical total ownership savings over the life of most EVs ranges from $6,000 to $10,000, CR found in its recent detailed study. The exact margin of savings depends on the price difference between the gas-powered and EV models that are being compared, as well as electric service costs, state subsidies, and other local factors. Electric cars today are most popular in California, which provides consumers with generous incentives, produces much of its energy from renewable resources, and has built a reliable public-charging infrastructure. California has served as a model for other states across the country; many states now offer buyers incentives to switch to electric vehicles, such as direct rebates, tax credits, and discounted registration fees that can save buyers thousands of dollars off the sticker price. These savings can also be combined with a federal incentive of up to $7,500. (Learn more about available incentives from the Department of Energy.) 

Types

Plug-in hybrids use both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, along with a battery pack that can be plugged in for recharging. They can (and should) be charged from a wall charger to work as pure electric cars some of the time. Most models can travel between 10 and 50 miles on the battery and electric propulsion system before the gasoline engine kicks in. The BMW i3, which can go 126 battery-only miles, has a tiny gasoline engine called a range extender—which functions like a generator—to power the vehicle’s electric drivetrain the remaining 74 miles of its 200-mile total range.

Other models are more like a truer hybrid of a gas-powered vehicle and an electric vehicle, with limited electric-only range. Examples include the Subaru Crosstrek Plug-In Hybrid, which will go 17 miles in electric-only mode before switching to its gasoline powertrain, and the Toyota Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid that will travel 25 electric-only miles.

Plug-in hybrids allow you to recharge the battery and maximize electricity use, running solely on electricity until the battery charge runs down. Should your trips, or commute, be within the electric-only range, plug-ins can provide the benefits of a pure electric car while still having a gas engine available for longer trips without worries about charging station availability and range limitations. Real-world fuel efficiency benefits from short trips and frequent charging. Plug-ins tend to be less efficient on long trips, where the vast majority of miles are fueled by gasoline.

Many hybrids come with some sort of continuously variable transmission (CVT)—either a conventional belt-type CVT or a planetary gearset with infinitely variable ratios in a practically wear-free design. Other hybrids use a conventional automatic transmission with the electric motor sandwiched between the engine and the transmission. Range extenders don’t have a transmission because the engine serves as a generator for the electric motor that drives the wheels directly.

All-Electric Cars
Electric cars are very efficient, and most new models have enough range to satisfy the needs of a typical driver for multiple days without charging. For most drivers, this means daily energy usage can be replenished from a simple 110-volt outlet, without the need to purchase and install a 240-volt Level 2 charger. Learn more about home chargers.

EVs usually cost thousands more than conventional cars, although much of that difference can be offset by automaker incentives, federal and state subsidies, and lower maintenance and fueling costs.

Depending on where you live, selection at dealerships may be limited. Some automakers sell their EVs in only a handful of states. Certain regions of the country are also better suited to using electric cars. Some have more services available within electric cars’ short range, more favorable electric rates, and milder weather. And some areas have cleaner electric power generation than others.

Studies show that most drivers travel fewer than 40 miles a day, making even a short-range electric car suitable for most urban dwellers or families in need of a second car. Finite battery storage and long recharge times, however, limit their appeal for some long-distance drivers. Most new electric cars have a real-world range of 200 miles or more, though the range depends heavily on driving style, speed, and ambient temperature.

Fuel-Cell Cars
A fuel-cell car is an electric car that produces its electricity onboard. Fuel cells generate electricity from hydrogen (the most abundant chemical element on Earth) through an electrochemical reaction whose only major byproduct is water. But the cars require pure hydrogen, which does not occur naturally. Hydrogen is almost always bound up in minerals, hydrocarbons, or water, and has to be extracted. One option is taking electricity from a nonpolluting source, such as solar, wind, or hydropower, and using it to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components.

Hydrogen gas carries very little energy per cubic foot, so it has to be stored in a car at very high pressures—more than 10,000 pounds per square inch.

Several automakers, including Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota, have rolled out fuel-cell cars to the public. These are essentially electric cars with a range of 200 to 300 miles per refill and relatively short refill times of 5 to 10 minutes. We have driven these cars and found them to be seamless and pleasant to drive, typically with punchy, silent acceleration off the line. But as nice as the cars are, widespread use of fuel cells remains a long way off. Challenges to producing and distributing hydrogen in large quantities are enormous, and there is no nationwide infrastructure to support it. Currently, almost all of the hydrogen filling stations in the U.S. are in California, most of them clustered around Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Features

Electric-Car Chargers
Car charging systems consist of an onboard charger that is part of the car and an external wall unit, officially known as an EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment). EVs come with a charging cord that’s compatible with Level 1 charging, which is a standard 120-volt outlet. For a quicker 240-volt Level 2 charge at home, an EVSE has to be purchased. The expense varies because it usually includes some type of installation. The cost is typically $500 to $700 for a wall-mounted connector. Parts and labor can add $1,200 to $2,000, according to HomeAdvisor, a digital marketplace for home services. EVSEs have become common enough that you can order one from Amazon and even arrange for installation in some areas.

Two factors govern the speed of charging: The capacity of each EV’s onboard charger and the level of electrical current from the wall, defined by amperage. In other words, if a car is charged on a 240-volt connection at 40 amps instead of 120 volts at 16 amps, it will charge significantly faster.

The first wave of modern electric cars used a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger (aka inverter) that could fully charge an electric car with a 24-kilowatt-hour battery in about 8 hours with a 240-volt EVSE. Newer models come with a 7.2-kW inverter that can cut that time in half, and others, such as Teslas, can charge at an even higher rate. This is among the considerations when shopping for a used electric car.

Public Charging Networks
Electric-car owners may need to use a public charging station on occasion or when taking a long trip. Research shows that most owners (more than 80 percent) charge at home. To do that, EV owners may need to join one of the many charging networks available across the U.S., such as ChargePoint, Electrify America, or EVgo. Some public chargers begin working as soon as the user plugs the charging cord into the vehicle, but many newer public chargers require the user to swipe the charging network card.

Subscribers sign up with a network online and link a credit card to their account. They receive a small key tag with a barcode on it, or they can use a smartphone app. The tag is waved in front of the charger when needed, and the subscriber’s account is billed. Some EV charging networks offer a roaming option, which allows subscribers from a different network to charge for an additional fee.

Not all Level 2 or DC fast chargers will replenish the car at the same rate or even for the same cost. Charge rates may vary, depending on the speed at which the electricity is delivered.

Multiple types of charge connectors are used. The standard plug is the J1772. For DC fast charging, there are CHAdeMO, SAE Combo (CCS), and Tesla connector types. Teslas come with an adapter for use with the J1772 plug. If you anticipate using public charging regularly, you will want to research public charger availability in your area.

Apps
Most manufacturers of electric and plug-in cars have developed smart-phone applications that allow you to do everything from locating your car and unlocking the doors to programming charge times and monitoring the battery’s state of charge. Some apps show location and availability at a public charging venue. Preprogramming charge times is helpful in areas where utilities offer discounted electric rates during off-peak times, such as late at night. Most EV apps will also allow you to set a time for the car to begin heating or cooling the cabin and battery for comfort and performance before you set off to drive. That way, the car can run the climate-control system off an external electricity source, so you will use less energy from the battery for getting the cabin comfortable, which our tests show can severely reduce range.

Cargo Space
Hybrid batteries and their built-in cooling systems often compromise cargo space in smaller hybrids. Some hybrid trunks sacrifice space in the back or cargo area. Some hybrid sedans don’t have folding rear seats or a pass-through for longer items, even if the conventional sedans they’re based on do. Hatchbacks and SUVs can have higher cargo floors than other nonhybrids, and many have no spare tire, depending instead on run-flat tires or tire inflation kits to make space for the battery pack. On the other hand, purpose-built electric cars tend to have their battery packs stored neatly beneath the floor, often leaving abundant space for storage. Some electric cars have extra cargo room under the hood, in an area often referred to as the “frunk.”

Towing
EVs still have a ways to go where towing is concerned. The Tesla Model X SUV can tow close to 5,000 pounds, but as with most EVs, towing cuts into the vehicle’s range. The long and short of it is that today’s EV batteries, as far as they’ve come over the past few years, just don’t have the energy density of a gallon of gasoline or diesel. There’s no denying that an electric motor can crank out gobs of torque—a real asset in the tow rig torque wars of the past few years. But a 25-gallon fuel tank in a pickup truck will tow a lot farther than an equivalent model’s battery pack. That said, there are a number of new electric pickup trucks scheduled to debut soon. 

New vs. Used

If you’re considering whether to buy a new or used hybrid or electric car, there are several factors to consider. The most important may be obsolescence. Electrified powertrain technology is moving at almost personal-electronics speed. New hybrids have more advanced battery chemistry and software and provide bigger fuel-economy benefits than older models. Likewise, there are significant gains in electric-car range with each generation. New electrified cars typically have the latest cutting-edge active safety and infotainment systems because hybrid and electric-car buyers tend to be early adopters who want the latest, greatest tech. That may make older hybrids a harder sell, especially when gas prices are low. Of course, this varies with supply and demand, and is influenced by fuel prices, regional preferences, and incentives.

With a new car, you know what you’re getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don’t have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. You can also have your choice of color, trim line, and option level, and financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback to buying any new vehicle is rapid depreciation. Even when hybrids have lower average depreciation rates than those of most conventional cars (as they historically have when gas prices have been high), depreciation can account for almost half the car’s value in five years. In the case of plug-in hybrids and EVs, the depreciation effectively starts at the post-incentive price. If you’ve only made a low down payment, you can easily find yourself upside down on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Generally, plug-in hybrids and EVs make much more sense to lease as a new car, thereby protecting the consumer from depreciation and obsolescence. Likewise, if such a green car is to be a second, or even third, car in your household, there are great deals to be had on off-lease models.

The key to selecting a good used electrified car is to focus on reliability, even when the car is still covered by its original factory warranty. Simply look for a car that has done well in our reliability ratings.

Many consumers considering a used hybrid or EV may be concerned about the durability of the car’s expensive battery pack. However, our Annual Auto Surveys routinely show that batteries have had very good reliability, so this fear shouldn’t deter you from buying a used hybrid or EV. That said, some models, such as the Toyota Prius, have been more reliable than others.

Automakers are required to warranty the batteries as an emissions control part in most states for eight years or 80,000 miles. In 15 states, they’re required to warranty them for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Outside the warranty period, new battery replacements for hybrids can cost about $3,000, although used battery packs are readily available for a few hundred dollars.

When it comes to pure electric cars, the benefits of buying new are similar to those of hybrids, particularly with regards to getting the latest battery and charger technology. Buying a new EV entitles you to significant tax benefits, including a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, that are not available to buyers of used EVs. And unlike hybrids, EVs are relatively simple from a mechanical perspective. Of course, like with any other car, tires, wipers, and brakes need to be replaced when worn out. As with hybrid batteries, EV batteries lose charge capacity over time. CR’s in-depth EV study (PDF) assumed that EV batteries would lose 10 percent of their capacity over the first five years, and 20 percent over the first 10 years. Because the battery is the sole source of propulsion power, this is a more significant concern with EVs than with hybrids. However, if this occurs, it typically takes many years. According to RepairPal, the average cost to replace an EV battery pack is $5,500, although failures are rare.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do your research to choose a good model, and follow that up with effective negotiation.

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