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Six burning questions about electric cars

Can EVs save on driving and maintenance costs?

Published: July 03, 2014 12:00 PM

There are several good reasons to consider buying an electric vehicle if you can live with the limited driving range. They include a dramatically lower cost per mile than a similar-sized gasoline car, quiet operation, fewer maintenance costs (EVs don't need oil changes), and the ability to drive gas free.  Before you buy, there are many questions that have to be answered.  Here are six questions about electric cars.

 

 

 

1. What are they?

There are two types of plug-in vehicles. Dedicated battery-­electric cars run only on electricity. A plug-in hybrid runs solely or mainly on electricity until the battery is depleted, then it’s powered by a conventional gas/electric hybrid system.

2. Where can I buy one?

Seventeen models are available from nine automakers. But so far EV sales are very regional; California and the Atlanta, New York City, and Portland, Ore., metropolitan regions are the largest markets.

3. How much will it cost?

EV prices vary widely. But for a good mainstream model, such as the Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus Electric, or Nissan Leaf, you can expect to pay about $35,000 to $44,000. For most, a federal tax incentive of $7,500 is available, although if you buy, you have to wait for your tax refund to get it.

Some states also kick in incentives. California and Georgia provide an immediate rebate of $2,500 to $5,000, which can make an EV less expensive than an equivalent gas vehicle.

Beyond the purchase price, an EV can be much less expensive to drive than a conventional car. Charging at the national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour equates to about 3 cents per mile. As the chart below shows, that’s much less than even a Toyota Prius hybrid. Because EVs don’t need oil changes, you can also save on maintenance costs.

4. How do I charge it?

Though all EVs can be charged from a household 120-volt outlet, it can take about 16 hours to fully charge a dedicated battery-­electric car. You’ll probably want to use a heavy-duty 240-volt charger, which slashes charging times to a more practical 4 to 6 hours. You can buy one at a large home center for about $500 to $1,200, plus installation. Be aware that you need 200-amp service to your house, and at least 15 amps—but preferably 30 to 40 amps—on a dedicated circuit near where you park. Depending on your current electrical system, installing that can cost hundreds of dollars more.

Public charging stations are appearing in more areas, but they still remain relatively few and far between in most regions.

5. How far can I drive?

We were able to drive the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric an average of 75 and 80 miles, respectively, on a full charge. But driving in wintry conditions with the heater and wipers on, for example, can easily cut 15 to 20 miles off of that range.

With the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, we averaged 35 miles on electric power before the gas engine kicked in. For many people, that’s enough to commute gas-free. In the Toyota Prius Plug-in, we averaged only 12 miles before it reverted to regular hybrid operation.

6. What's the environmental impact?

Electric vehicles don’t emit exhaust while running on electricity, but pollutants are generated by the power plants. Though there is a potential of increasing the local pollutant levels near some plants, the total amount of pollutants related to EVs is generally less than that created by an equivalent number of gasoline vehicles.

According to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute, if, by 2050, 20 percent of American cars were plug-ins with an electric range of 20 miles, carbon-dioxide emissions (associated with global warming) could be reduced by about 5 percent (although localized pollution near coal-powered plants would go up by a similar amount). Using 2008 figures from the Federal Highway Adminis­tration, that could result in a savings of 550 million gallons of gasoline per year.

Electric vs. gas: Costs per mile

This chart shows that the operating costs for the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S electric cars and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid, when running on electric power, are much less than for the Toyota Prius hybrid or a fuel-efficient conventional car such as the Toyota Corolla.

Vehicle Price as tested CR overall fuel economy
Costs per mile (cents)

Costs for trips

30 miles 50 miles
150 miles
Nissan Leaf $35,430 106 MPGe* 3.5 $1.04 1.74 --
Chevrolet Volt electric/gas $43,700 99 MPGe*/32 mpg
3.8/12.5 $1.13 $3.19 $15.69
Tesla Model S
$89,650 84 MPGe* 4.4 $1.33 $2.22 $6.65
Toyota Prius (hybrid) $26,750 44 mpg 8.6 $2.59 $4.32 $12.95
Toyota Corolla (gas) $18,404 32 mpg
11.9 $3.56 $5.94 $17.81

*Miles-per-gallon equivalent on electric power. Cost is based on 11 cents/kWh for electricity, $3.80 per gallon for regular gas, and $4 for premium gas.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the August 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
   

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