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Electric Cars 101: The Answers to All Your EV Questions

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 many consumers have limited exposure to electric vehicles (commonly known as EVs) and may have many questions about whether an electric car might fit into their lives.

This guide is a basic primer that can help you determine whether going electric is the right move. 

Download our electric vehicle checklist (pdf) to see if going electric is right for you.

What Models and Types Are Available?

A couple dozen plug-in vehicles are on the market with varying availability. Automakers have indicated that about 70 models will likely be available within five years.

There are two basic kinds of plug-ins: Battery electric vehicles that run exclusively on electricity and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles that can run on electricity for a limited distance before switching to gas/electric hybrid mode. 

Subcompact

Hatchback

Sedan

Luxury

SUV/minivan

Pure Electric vs. Plug-In Hybrid

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can operate on electric power for about 10-20 miles. On longer trips, plug-ins transition to gasoline/electric hybrid mode to extend their range, allowing them to drive as far as a regular hybrid, with the ability to quickly refuel at a gas station. Plug-in hybrids have unique appeal for drivers who travel mostly short distances and can therefore benefit from operating on electricity, while providing what amounts to the unlimited range potential of a gasoline engine.

For example, Chevrolet Volt drivers spend most of their time in electric mode thanks to its 50-mile electric range. Research from the Idaho National Laboratory has shown that Volt owners average three-quarters of their mileage powered by just electricity.  

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 have lower maintenance costs. Running on electricity in most parts of the country costs much less than using gasoline. (Compare how much you’d save in your state using the Deptartment of Energy’s eGallon tool.) Even more cost savings can be had if you can take advantage of lower off-peak charging rates. In Texas, some utilities even offer free electricity at night.

Key benefits:

  • EVs produce no tailpipe emissions and have lower lifecycle emissions than gasoline powered vehicles.
  • EVs are quiet due to lack of engine noise.
  • EVs generally have lower maintenance and fuel costs,reducing the total cost of ownership.
  • EVs don’t rely on petroleum, and electricity prices are more stable than gasoline prices.
  • Charging at home is convenient.
  • When combined with a home solar system, “fuel” costs can be completely eliminated.  

Why Shouldn’t I Buy an Electric Car?

Variety among electric vehicles is still limited, and EVs command a price premium. In addition, several pure electrics may not meet people’s needs 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 to take full advantage of how they operate.

Electric vehicle owners generally need to have ready access to an outlet (or 240-volt battery charger) and a parking spot for overnight charging, unless they are relying entirely on workplace charging. In most areas of the country, this means convenient charging is limited to single-family houses and townhomes rather than apartments or condos. Some initiatives have begun to foster charging and parking solutions for multi-family housing, but this will be a challenge for most situations.

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, people in single-vehicle households who need to make long trips even occasionally are probably not the best match for most current pure EV offerings. But if charging access is available, a plug-in hybrid can go the distance. Of course, nothing says an EV has to be somebody's only car. A conventional gas-powered car can fill in where an pure EV falls short—and vice versa—in a multi-car household.  

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 would the electricity costs be?
  • Do I need a faster charging option, or can I charge overnight with a regular outlet?
  • How often do I travel beyond the electric range?
  • Are there charging stations in my local area or travel corridors? (Check out PlugShare.com and the Energy Deptartment's Alternative Fuels Data Center and related apps.)

What's the Cost to Buy?

Base prices range from $21,750 for the Smart Electric Drive to more than $125,000 for a high-performance Tesla Model S. 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, rebates, or vouchers are available in California, Colorado, Texas, Maryland, and elsewhere that can make the costs of electric cars more compelling. Plus, consumers with a home solar system can really lower or even eliminate their “fuel” costs.

Some 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 $120 a month (after you sign the tax credit over to the leasing company).

The two most common plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are sticker priced between $30,000 and $40,000, but lease prices can make them very affordable.

Bottom line: It pays to do your homework and look beyond the sticker price to find out how much you’d actually be paying after state, federal, and local incentives, as well as local lease offers.  

How To Find the Cost to Drive Electric?

Electric cars 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.

You can compare how much you’d save in your state using the DOE’s eGallon tool. And be sure to check out your local utilities off-peak or EV charging rates—many utilities offer steep discounts for night-time charging, and programming a simple timer can help EV owners take advantage of these great rates. Check out the DOE’s cost calculator for comparisons.

What Are They Like to Drive?

We’ve found most electric cars deliver instant power from a stop, and they are both smooth and quiet when underway. The driving experience is quite different from a traditional gasoline-fueled car, as EVs feel like they glide effortlessly.

Most electric vehicles we’ve tested ride comfortably. Despite their heavy batteries, they typically handle well due to the low placement of the heavy battery and lack of a heavy engine above the front axle. These dynamic characteristics are among the reasons that the Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model S top Consumer Reports’ charts for owner satisfaction, based on our latest annual survey.

Some EVs have complicated, fussy controls and compromised space inside. Others are simple and straightforward. Like all cars, EV driving experience varies, making it important to look beyond merely the appeal of running on electric power to read our full road tests and conduct your own test drive before buying.

Check out our full EV ratings.

How Far Can They Go?

Most pure EVs have a 75- to 100-mile range, but the next-generation EVs emerging now and luxury models can go a lot farther—more than 200 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, due to cabin heat. Hilly terrain can also exact a toll.

Gasoline-fueled cars will typically go 350 to 400 miles between fill-ups and take just five minutes to fill up. Driving an EV requires 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.

Below are a few examples with the EPA-rated range. For plug-in hybrids, a total range combining electric and gasoline power are shown in parentheses:  

Vehicle Make/Model

EPA-Rated Driving Range on Single Charge (Miles)

2017 BMW i3 BEV (94 Amp-hour battery) 114
2017 Chevrolet Bolt 238
2017 Chevy Volt 53 miles electric (420 total)
2017 Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in 33 miles electric (570 total)
2017 Ford C-Max Energi 20 miles electric (570 total)
2017 Ford Focus Electric 115
2017 Ford Fusion Energi 22 miles electric (610 total)
2017 Hyundai Ioniq Electric 124
2017 Nissan Leaf 107
2017 Tesla Model S 90D 294
2017 Toyota Prius Prime 25 miles electric (640 total)
2017 VW E-Golf 125

How Long Does It Take to Charge One?

Charge times vary greatly, depending on the size of the battery, how fast the car is able to take the charge, and the amperage of the circuit. For most EV owners, charging overnight is the cheapest and most convenient option (much like charging a smartphone), so comparing hours when shopping isn’t necessary for most applications. Unless you are pushing the range limit on a daily basis, you won’t have to fill it up from empty to full very often.

On a typical 240-volt (Level 2) charger, it can take between 4.5 and 6 hours to fully charge an EV. Plug-in hybrids can take significantly less time to recharge, ranging from two hours for the Toyota Prius Prime to about 4.5 hours for the Chevrolet Volt.

Expect a little more than double those times when charging from a standard 110-volt (Level 1) household outlet. Put another way, on a standard household outlet, expect to get about four miles of driving for every hour of charging.

A wider variety of 240-volt chargers are coming on the market that charge at different speeds, with charge times that vary depending on the car and charger. Some systems, such as Tesla’s High Power Wall Connector home charger, replenish the battery much quicker.

DC fast chargers, which can power up to 80 percent of the battery’s range range in about 20 to 30 minutes, are expanding around the country, but they’re still few and far between. There are only about 300 DC fast chargers publically available. In addition, Tesla’s supercharger network boasts over 500 stations around the country, and those powerful chargers can restore 100 miles of range in as little as 20 minutes for the Tesla Model S. 

Where Do I Recharge?

Electric cars achieve the biggest benefits and cost savings when they’re charged overnight at home when electric rates may be lowest. 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 possible to charge a plug-in hybrid overnight, even on a standard 110-volt household outlet. Practically speaking, owning a pure EV probably 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, depending the distance to the fuse box. These Level 2 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. Again, check your utility and state incentives for discounts and tax rebates on charging equipment, some of which can cut the total cost in half.

Public chargers are being installed in many cities and highway corridors throughout the United States, but their distribution varies widely. Convenience and pricing also vary. Check out PlugShare.com and DOE’s Alternative Fuels Data Center and related apps to locate public charging in your local area or even to plan a road trip.

Couldn't Electric Cars Cause a Power Blackout?

Theoretically, yes, if enough of them were charged during peak times in one local area. We’re a long way from that in terms of electric-car penetration, and smart grid technology is improving management of the grid. Plus, 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.

Many utilities are committed to building more charging 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. 

Why Electric Cars?

The biggest motivators driving the production of electric cars are reduction of greenhouse emissions and cutting dependence on foreign oil.

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 natural-gas power plants and increasingly augmented by renewable sources such as 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?

About 30 percent of America’s electricity still comes from coal, and even in regions with the dirtiest electricity, EV emissions are equivalent to a 35 mpg gasoline vehicle. On a lifecycle basis, electric vehicles still produce much less pollution than vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine. As the electric grid continues to become cleaner, electric vehicle emissions will decrease over time.

What Does the Future Look Like for Electric Cars?

Growing consumer demand, and zero-emission vehicle targets in California and other states (as well as global targets), will push automakers to produce increasing numbers of electric cars during the next decade. While battery costs still command a price premium for plug-ins, larger-scale adoption is bringing down costs. Breakthroughs in battery technology could drive even lower prices and wider adoption. Also, more public charging options are planned to make charging more accessible.

EVs will slowly expand from being novel second cars in a household to serving as primary-use cars, and a wider variety of types of EVs (including SUVs and sports cars) are likely to broaden their appeal. 



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