Electric cars have been around since the dawn of the automobile. (And bar night trivia alert: At one point in the early 1900s, EVs were about a third of the cars on the road.) But it's taken more than 100 years for them to achieve their full promise. Now, quick charging networks and high-capacity batteries have opened up EVs to a wider audience, and particularly in suburban areas near denser urban cores, they're a perfect fit.
Not all EVs are created equal, and since charging still isn't as quick as filling up a tank with gasoline (not to mention the ever-present range issue) buying one still requires some thinking ahead. Here's what you need to know to choose, buy and maintain your EV.
And a note: This article only covers buying a pure EV. If you're interested in a hybrid or PHEV, take a look at this guide instead.
EV common terms
Before we start, a note on terminology. Battery electric vehicles, as pure EVs are often called, run solely on electricity, so we use the kilowatt-hour (kWh) to describe the amount of electric charge an EV battery can hold. For example, a 1,000-watt microwave running for an hour straight would use one kilowatt-hour of electricity. Kilowatts can also be used to describe charging capacity (which essentially correlates to charging speed). Tesla's Supercharger network runs at about 120kW per vehicle, which equates to about 75 minutes to fill a 90kWh battery to 100 percent.
Battery charging is also thought of in terms of voltage. The slowest is Level 1 charging, which uses a conventional 120-volt household plug. These low-voltage outlets provide a very low charging level, less than 2 kW, so they can take 10 hours or more to charge a typical EV. This can also be thought of as a few miles of range replenished per hour. Level 1 chargers often come with the EV — usually referred to as a mobile charger, because you can take it with you — and can simply be plugged into the wall, and then into the car, like a power adapter for a computer or the like.
Level 2 chargers are faster and use 240V power supplies. They can be installed at home by an electrician and are found at public charging stations. They can provide 6-19 kW, but may still take several hours to fill up a battery.
The next step up is DC fast charging, which is how you may describe Tesla's Supercharger network, for instance. These very fast systems are not supported by every EV and are still fairly uncommon. Some vehicles may not have the correct charging port to utilize fast charging, too.
There are several types of charging plugs you should know about. The most common type is the J1772. It does not support DC fast charging. The other types are CHAdeMO, available in some Asian EVs, and the SAE Combo plug which is a modified J1772 used for DC fast charging. The Tesla charging plug is proprietary, and only Teslas may use Superchargers (but Tesla sells an adaptor that allows Tesla owners to use J1772 plugs). See the chart below for more information about plugs.
EV driving range
As of the time of this writing (April 2019), the EV landscape is broad and getting broader. On the high end (of both price, range and profile) is Tesla, and on the low end are a number of EVs that are essentially conversions of gasoline-powered counterparts. The range of battery capacity (which translates to driving range) is also vast. Let's consult a handy chart of the current EVs on the market, comparing their range and base price.
Higher-range models tend to have much larger (rather than much more efficient) batteries. That has implications for charge times and, much further down the road, replacement cost ... but more on that later.
There's no other way to say it: Driving an EV means thinking about range almost every time you take a drive, because recharging the battery any significant amount takes much longer than filling up a gas tank, even utilizing a fast charging station. Figuring out whether you'll have enough range to accomplish your realistic travel needs means understanding how far you need to go and if you'll need to recharge along the way (or at your destination). For the few but growing number of EVs with a range exceeding 200 miles, there will be minimal lifestyle changes required. The average commute in the U.S. is about 30 miles round trip.
There are a few resources to consider when determining what your range needs are. Start with identifying the most common places you'd drive. Consult a EV charging station map, such as PlugShare's interactive resource. Do a little back-of-napkin math, and then factor in a slight reserve capacity — 25 percent of range is a nice safety margin. Make sure any on-the-road recharging is realistic.
Beyond range, there's not much to distinguish EVs other than form factor and price. Electric motors are simple and reliable, and so are the battery packs. Maintenance needs are extremely minimal: Mostly consumables like tires and coolant (the battery packs are generally liquid-cooled). Few EVs have a reputation for quality issues, although Teslas have a reputation for needing frequent trips to the shop.
The rest of your purchase decision will be a lot like buying any other car, with a few exceptions.
Federal and state tax credits
At the moment, all pure electric vehicles qualify for some incentives from federal and state governments — but they probably won't last forever. Here's the good news first: The tax credits can be substantial. The typical federal tax credit for buying an EV is $7,500. State tax credits vary. Some are credits for purchasing a vehicle, but other states offer rebates for wall chargers, reduced rates for EV charging or lower vehicle taxes, though some states impose EV fees to make up for lost gas tax revenue.
Then there's the issue of phase-out. The tax credits were intended to spur EV sales, but with the way these are currently implemented, once manufacturers hit a certain sales threshold (200,000) per manufacturer, the tax credits will be reduced the next calendar year by 50 percent. After that, it's reduced 50 percent every six months until it's at zero.
Check the federal tax credit status here, and check with your local state vehicle licensing agency for credits or other incentives available to you.
The dealership experience
The dealership experience is a sore spot for many car shoppers, and things aren't any better if you're buying an EV at a traditional car dealership (say, going to a Nissan dealer to buy a Leaf). Tesla is the bright spot, but its nontraditional company-owned salesroom model is not as widespread and is, in fact, not allowed in some states. In fact, at the time of this writing Tesla is even phasing out many of its showrooms in favor of online purchasing.
It's widely understood that some car dealers are reluctant to sell EVs to buyers. In some sense, it's the dealers being protective of people who might have needs that an EV can't deliver on, like range or cargo capacity. But it's more likely that EVs are less profitable to the dealers, both to sell and maintain. As mentioned above, EVs need far less traditional maintenance than a gas-powered car, and so the dealers' very profitable service department won't be able to make as much money for the dealer on EVs.
For you, the EV shopper, this means being aware that a dealer may or may not try to steer you into a gas-powered car. Be polite but firm. You've done your research, and an EV meets your needs.
Also, be aware that some manufacturers have relationships with companies that either sell or install fast charging stations for your home. We recommend that you do your homework about what your home charging options are (and what they cost to install) before heading to the dealer. The dealer-recommended charger may be a good deal, or it may not be. Also check for state or energy provider incentives for installing a home charger. ChargePoint has a list of home charger incentives by state, although some of the deals are specific to ChargePoint. It's at least a good starting point.
Charging on the road
We mentioned EV charging maps above, but if you purchase an EV with a navigation system, it's likely that it can direct you to a nearby charging station. The main charging networks, like ChargePoint, also have in-app maps that can direct you to a charger on the road. The Chevy Bolt doesn't have onboard navigation, so if you're not carrying a smartphone around already, you might want to consider getting one.
Most public chargers are easily accessible, and often will indicate (through the app or the car's charging station locator) whether it's occupied. ChargePoint is the largest, and like most is pay-as-you-go. Swipe an RFID card at the machine or enter a credit card, and follow the instructions.
For Tesla, there's the well-known Supercharger network, which historically was free to use for all Tesla models. Just plug in and wait. Now, things are a little more complicated. The credit-based system gives Model S and Model X drivers a certain amount of yearly credits worth 400 kWh for free. Beyond that there's a charge per kWh.
Anecdotally, many EV owners in areas where the vehicles are popular, like Southern California, report long waits for open chargers in certain areas. That said, many charge network apps will indicate if a particular charger is occupied or not. Likewise, station reliability can be an issue — inoperable chargers or bad wifi connections at the charger can hamper real-world usability. Don't rely solely on any particular charging station, and leave a bit of a buffer in your battery capacity to make it to another station if your first choice is occupied or not working.
A quick aside about electricity prices
Residential electricity prices vary both seasonally and throughout the day. You'll want to check with your electricity provider about how the rates fluctuate to take advantage of most EV's ability to set a charge timer, letting you fill up during non-peak hours for the best possible rate. Many utilities offer so-called "smart meters," and there are also energy monitors that can be installed in your home. The detailed energy usage reporting provided by these devices can help determine when the best time to charge is.
But, in general, EVs are inexpensive to fill up. The average national cost per kilowatt-hour is $0.12 cents. Let's say you have a 2018 Nissan Leaf with 0 percent charge on its 40 kWh battery. It'd cost just $4.80 cents to fill up, or just about $0.03 cents per mile of range.
Those concerned about the source of the electricity they use should contact their local utility. Renewable energy may or may not be available in your area.
Charging at home
Charging your EV at home is going to be, by far, the most convenient. However, if you aren't eligible for any home charger subsidies or don't live in a dwelling in which a charger can be installed, the calculus changes. For one, the basic Level 1 charger that came with your car, which plugs into a conventional 120V outlet, may not provide enough power in a reasonable amount of time if you drive significant distances every day. This is especially true when topping off EVs with very large battery packs, like any of the Tesla models or a Chevy Bolt. While plug-in hybrids aren't covered in this guide, Level 1 charging may be better suited for daily life with those vehicles.
Let's say you do own a garage or other space in which you can install your own Level 2 charger. Unless you're a licensed electrician, you'll probably want to call one and have that person examine your breaker box and wiring. If there's a 240V outlet already in your garage, you're a step ahead. If not, the electrician will need to inspect your breaker box and ensure that a 240V circuit can be added, and a properly-sized breaker can be installed.
Level 2 chargers come in three types: wall-mounted permanent, semi-permanent, and portable. A semi-permanent unit will have a 240V plug. It mounts on the wall, but the wiring isn't permanent. The permanently-mounted units are hardwired into your breaker box. There shouldn't be a serious cost difference, and there's no real downside to a semi-permanent installation. You can move it later, or even take it with you if you'll be away from home for a long period of time (for example, at a vacation home with a 240V outlet). Portable Level 2 chargers resemble Level 1 chargers, and may be stored in a bag in the EV or mounted to the wall with a bracket. There are many Level 2 charger options out there; helping you decide is too big a task for this general EV buyer's overview. However, if you purchased your EV new, the dealer may recommend particular units and even have preferred installers.
No provision for 240V, or the cost is too great? There's another solution, albeit imperfect: a voltage converter. These units plug into two 120V outlets to provide 220V output. The two 120V outlets must be out of phase, and they can't be GFCI-protected. If none of that made any sense, you'll want to consult an electrician to determine if you can use a system like that to charge your EV effectively and safely. That being said, these units are much cheaper to install provided the 120V outlets in the space you intend to use it meet the criteria. However, we do recommend, wherever possible, properly installing a Level 2 charger via a 240V circuit.
Depreciation and battery life
There's a dark side to EVs that might, depending on your situation and needs, overshadow some of the benefits of EVs. And since we want to provide unfiltered advice for potential EV buyers, you need to read this section — and pay attention — before you can make an informed decision about buying an EV.
The first consideration is depreciation. EVs have, generally, the worst depreciation among new cars. Last year, the AAA reported that new EVs lose (on average) more than $5,700 per year in value. This is considerably worse than most other new vehicles. The corollary is much lower-than-average resale values. This makes financing an EV potentially problematic; lenders might be reluctant to loan money on an asset they might have to repossess that's "underwater," or worth less than the amount remaining on the loan. It also means it will be difficult to recoup a significant amount of the costs associated with buying a new EV by selling it or trading it in a few years later. One way to mitigate the financial pitfalls is to finance the vehicle for a shorter amount of time, or put a larger down payment on it. A lease, while not as cost effective, also protects you from some risks associated with high-depreciation vehicles.
The upside to this is that lightly used EVs may represent a perfect compromise. Consider a low-mileage off-lease EV. Much of the depreciation has already occurred in the three years since the vehicle was leased, and yet there's likely a considerable amount of useful battery life left. The ownership cost calculations may change drastically if off-lease EVs are considered. Moreover, with far fewer mechanical parts to worry about, maintenance costs on used EVs are generally not as high as a similar gas-powered car.
Next is battery life, alluded to above. The bottom line is that batteries, over time, wear out — just like any other rechargeable device. That means range is reduced, permanently. Replacing an EV's battery can be prohibitively expensive if it's paid out of pocket on an older EV. The good news is that useful battery life is generally longer than most people own a car. Most manufacturers offer battery warranties for 8 years and up to 100,000 miles. Furthermore, as more EVs enter the marketplace with longer driving ranges, battery degradation is becoming less of a practical concern when browsing the used lot.
This is important: These warranties generally only cover unusual battery capacity loss; the slight capacity loss over time, which all batteries experience, isn't covered. How each warranty applies depends on the manufacturer; as an example, one Nissan Leaf warranty covered "capacity loss below nine bars of capacity as shown on the vehicle's battery capacity level gauge for a period of 60 months or 60,000 miles." Of course, the terms of your individual vehicle's warranty will differ. Make sure to read and understand what is covered before buying a new EV.
While the electric motor and battery don't generally need regular maintenance, EVs are NOT maintenance-free. Like a conventional car, there are still tires and suspension components that can wear out, and brake components that need occasional replacement. Each of these items are essential to safe operation of your EV. While the eco-friendly, low-rolling-resistance tires that most EVs use do last a long time, they need to be examined regularly and filled up with air when low.
On the other hand, there are no "major services" for a typical EV. This means that maintenance is more a matter of monitoring "consumables" — brake pads, brake fluid, tires, and so forth — and replacing when needed. This differs from many gas- and diesel-powered cars, which can need an expensive major service at a certain mileage or age interval — a timing belt service on cars so equipped is a good example. An EV's maintenance items will generally wear at a predictable rate and should not represent a significant yearly cost, nor will there be an expensive service looming at some point in the future.
If you've read this far, you're a serious potential EV purchaser who's now weighed the advantages against the fair number of other considerations, and is itching to get out and test-drive an EV. Here's some good news: You will almost certainly enjoy the experience. EVs, with their instant torque provided by their electric motors, are perky and fun to drive despite their green image. But don't forget it's still a car — make sure you're comfortable, there's enough room to cart around what you generally carry, that sightlines are good, and so forth.
Also, take a moment to consider how your lifestyle might change down the road. Since EVs depreciate significantly, if the size of your family or the commute to your workplace might change, you'll want to make sure an EV will still make sense in that possible future.
Don't forget to have fun, too. Buying a new car is exciting, and today's EVs are the cutting edge of our electrified future. You're a pioneer of sorts. And we'd love to hear more about what you end up purchasing. Feel free to share your stories in the comments below.
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