Hybrid/EV Buying Guide

Hybrids and electric cars provide energy-efficient transportation, while lowering emissions, cutting noise, and reducing the national dependence on petroleum. Plus, operating costs with electrified cars are lower than gasoline counterparts.

Not all hybrid and electric cars are created equal. There are distinct benefits to some, such as range and driving enjoyment. In this buying guide, we'll explain how these technologies work and provide the insights necessary to choose the most efficient model that will meet your needs and environmental goals.

Why Buy a Hybrid or Electric Car?

Electric motors are up to three times as efficient as gasoline engines, meaning they use a third as much energy to do the same work. But gasoline contains much more energy in a given volume, and much more cheaply than batteries or other electric storage solutions. So by combining a gasoline engine, electric motor, and battery pack, hybrids can use electricity when it's most efficient without giving up the practicality of gas engines. Most full hybrids cost a little more than their gasoline-fueled counterparts, but many can make up the difference in significant fuel savings in just a few years, depending on gasoline prices. Mild hybrids (including 48-volt systems) are becoming standard equipment on more cars, providing a limited electric assist to bolster fuel economy.

If you want to avoid using gasoline at all, electric cars can dramatically reduce running costs. We've found that most EVs cost about four cents a mile to run at national average electric rates. And that electricity is produced from domestic sources, reducing our national dependence on foreign oil. Electric cars today are most popular in California, a state that gives automakers incentives to sell them and consumers to buy them, and whose fair weather is particularly friendly to EV operation. There, most electricity comes from relatively clean natural gas. The federal government, California, and more than half the states also offer additional incentives to electric car buyers, such as direct rebates, tax credits, or discounted registration fees.


Hybrid technology comes in a few levels: mild hybrids, full hybrids, and plug-in hybrids.

Hybrid technology comes at a price, typically costing more than comparable conventional cars, although the difference in purchase price is often readily offset by energy savings. The Toyota Prius, for example, starts at about $25,000. For the space and features it offers, it costs about $3,000 more than an average compact sedan. With a very efficient car like the Prius, and one in high demand on the resale market, you can come out ahead financially over a short ownership period.

If you pay more than about $5,000 above the cost of an equivalent conventional vehicle, it will be hard to save enough fuel to recoup the extra costs, even at high gas prices. Of course, there are some plug-in hybrids and EVs that carry significant incentives that can make them more affordable than a conventional hybrid when all purchase factors are considered.

Hybrids' main competition comes from diesel, which gets similar mileage improvements at a similar cost, albeit often with more expensive fuel. The most basic hybrid technology is a mild hybrid with a high-voltage battery that allows some initial rolling capability, smoothes out the stop-start system, and ensures no compromise in cabin air conditioning.

The cheapest full hybrid today is the Toyota Prius C. Starting at near $22,000, the Prius C has several notable compromises, including an uncomfortable ride, slow acceleration, loud engine noise, and a very basic interior. Other choices exist in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, from the ultra-efficient Prius and Hyundai Ioniq to the Kia Niro and hybrid versions of popular family sedans, such as the Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry, plus the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid.

The most expensive hybrid SUVs run from $50,000 to $65,000 and include abundant luxuries along with powerful hybrid powertrains. Ultra-luxury cars, such as the BMW 7 Series ActiveHybrid and Lexus LC Hybrid, start in the $90s. There are hybrids and electric cars available across the price spectrum, and many automakers commiting to dramatically increasing the number of electrified vehicles in their showrooms soon. 

Plug-In Hybrids
Plug-in hybrids can (and should) be charged from the wall to work as electric cars some of the time. They normally use their electric range of 10 or 50 miles up front and then switch to normal hybrid operation, using gasoline to fuel longer trips. Some models are known as range extenders, such as the BMW i3 and Chevrolet Volt, that are essentially electric cars with an onboard generator in the form of an engine. Once the battery is depleted, the engine turns on to generate electricity.

Plug-in hybrids allow you to recharge the batteries 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 having the engine available for longer trips without worries about range limitations.

Many hybrids come with some sort of continuously variable transmission (CVT), either a conventional belt-type CVT or a planetary gear set with infinitely variable ratios in a virtually wear-free design. Other hybrids use a conventional automatic transmissions with the electric motor mounted in the transmission itself. Range-extenders don't have a transmission. Instead, the electric motor drives the wheels.

Electric Cars
Electric cars are very efficient, but they can travel only modest distances before their battery has to be recharged, a process that takes several hours. Electric vehicles (EVs) today cost thousands more than conventional cars, although some of that expense is offset by federal and state tax rebates, and automaker incentives.

The selection is limited; where you live may well determine what type of electric car you can easily buy. Different 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. (If environmental factors are a motivator, consider that trading a gasoline-hybrid for an electric car may negate some green benefits if your local electricity is generated by coal.)

Studies show that most drivers travel less than 40 miles a day, making even a short-range electric car capable enough for most urban dwellers or families in need of a second car. Finite battery storage and long recharge times, however, limit their appeal for many. Most EVs have a real-world range of 60 to 100 miles, though the range depends heavily on driving style, speed, and temperature. On the high end of the range, we have measured more than 200 miles in our testing with the Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla models.

Even long battery charge times are starting to come down, though the quickest-to-charge full electrics still need six hours to recharge fully using a 240V charger. Some EVs have quick-charging capability that allows a battery to add 50 percent of charge in 30 minutes or less using a special high-voltage (Level 3) charger. However, this sort of charging is rough on the battery and most EV manufacturers only recommend quick charging in a pinch.

Fuel-Cell Cars
A fuel-cell car is an electric car that produces its electricity on board. 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—over 10,000 psi.

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 five to 10 minutes. We have driven many of these cars and found them 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.


Electric-Car Chargers
Car charging consists of an onboard charger that is part of the car and an external wall charger, officially known as an EVSE (for electric vehicle supply equipment). Cars come with a Level 1 EVSE that can charge cars via 120-volt outlet. For a quicker Level 2 charge, an upgraded EVSE can be purchased. The expense varies as it usually includes some type of installation. The onboard inverter and EVSE can make a big difference in how long it takes to charge an electric car or plug-in hybrid. In our tests, we refer to EVSEs as "chargers" or "wall chargers," using familiar terminology, because that's what consumers generally call them and because the operation of the onboard inverter is hidden in the car.

The first wave of modern electric cars used a 3.3-kW inverter that could fully charge an electric car in about eight hours with a 240-volt EVSE. Newer models come with a 7.2-kW inverter that can cut that time in half. Be sure to check the specs, especially if buying used: The entry-level, first-generation Nissan Leaf, for example, came with a 3.3-kW inverter, while higher-spec models get a 6.6-kW inverter. 

Plugged Into Ownership
Buyers of an electric car will definitely want to purchase an higher-power EVSE (also known as a Level 2 charging station) that can supply 240 volts of power to the car for faster charging. The EVSE ensures power is cut off to the plug when it's not connected and will prevent the in-car charger from overheating, and it will shut off once the batteries are full. More advanced models can connect to the internet, allowing owners to monitor how much electricity has flowed into the car and receive notice when the battery is full or the car has stopped charging. EVSEs cost between $500 and $2,000, depending on their amperage, extra features, and whether or not they have their own wall plug.

We recommend a Level 2 charger for electric vehicles, as these will be able to provide quick, efficient charge times. To ensure the charger is safely installed, have the work performed by a licensed electrician. Installation costs can run up to $2,000, depending on whether your house has enough power and how far the unit needs to be from your electrical panel. Some states, municipalities, and power companies have incentive programs to offset the cost of buying and installing an EVSE.

Plug-in hybrid owners may be able to fully charge their cars in a little over eight hours even on a standard household outlet. But installing a 240-volt EVSE can cut their charge times significantly.

Many EVs offer quick charging using Level 3 charging stations, which can add about 50 percent of capacity in around half an hour. Most Asian EVs use the CHAdeMO connector while German and American EVs use the SAE Combo plug, and Tesla has its own proprietary connector. Level 3 charging stations are most commonly found at dealerships and public parking lots, and they are generally available on a pay-per-use basis.

Public Charging Networks
Drivers of electric cars need to be able to find a public charging location when the need arises, even though research shows that most owners charge at home. In order to do that, EV owners may need to join one of the many charging networks available across the United States.

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. This allows them to connect to activate the charger and have their electricity usage account billed to their account.

Thankfully, some EV charging networks offer a roaming option, which lets subscribers from a different network use a charger for an additional fee.

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 preprogramming charge times and monitoring the batteries' state of charge. 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 turn set a time for the car to begin heating or cooling the cabin and battery for comfort and performance, before you arrive to drive. That way, the car can run the climate control system off external electricity source, so you won't waste battery power getting the cabin comfortable, which our tests show can severely reduce range.

Cargo Space
Hybrid batteries and their attendant cooling systems often compromise cargo space in smaller hybrids and electrics. Some hybrid trunks sacrifice space to the back, cargo floor, and even around the sides. Many 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 non-hybrids, and many have no spare tire, depending instead on run-flats or tire inflation kits to make space for the batteries.

Towing is not hybrids' forte. Towing capacities are usually less than equivalent conventional models. Car-based hybrid SUVs can generally tow up to 3,500 pounds, plenty for a small boat or a very small camper. Some used large hybrid SUVs and pickups can tow 5,000 pounds, or enough for a medium-sized boat, travel camper, or large utility trailer.

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 better batteries that offer a bigger fuel economy benefit, and there are significant gains in electric-car range with each generation. New 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 plummet. Of course, this varies with supply and demand, influenced by fuel prices, regional preferences, and incentives.

With a new hybrid or electric 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. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option level. And financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

The key drawback with buying any new vehicle is rapid depreciation. Even when hybrids have lower average depreciation rates than most conventional cars (as they historically have, when gas prices are 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 have 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, there are great deals to be had on off-lease models. 

Reliable Used Hybrid and EVs Can Be a Welcome Alternative
The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a hybrid or EV you like that's only a couple of years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Hybrids and EVs, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer.

The key to selecting a good used electrified car is to focus on reliability, even when a prospect is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that's done well in our reliability ratings. 

Many consumers considering a used hybrid or EV may be concerned about the durability of the cars' expensive battery packs, especially in used models. In our Annual Auto Survey, readers told us that batteries have had very good reliability. So that shouldn't necessarily put you off of buying a used hybrid or EV. But some have been more reliable than others.

Automakers are required to warranty the batteries as an emissions control part in most states for eight years and 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 run 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 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 extraordinarily simple from a mechanical perspective, which means there's little to go wrong. The primary area of concern is the battery.

As with hybrid batteries, EV batteries do lose charge capacity over time, and since the battery is the sole source of propulsion power, this is a more significant concern with EVs than with hybrids. How much battery degradation can you expect? Nissan's warranty dictates replacement of the Leaf's battery if it loses more than 25 percent of its charge capacity before 5 years or 60,000 miles, which means that its range would be allowed to drop as low as 55 miles. Mitsubishi guarantees the i-MiEV's battery to retain 70 percent of its capacity for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Replacing the battery on a Nissan Leaf costs approximately $6,000 to $6,500 including parts and labor (significantly lower than other EVs, where the battery alone can cost over $10,000), and upgrades the car to the latest battery technology. That said, we have not seen significant battery problems in our survey.

Learn more in our new and used car buying guides.

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