Car Buying Articles

Is a Plug-in Hybrid or Electric Car Right for You?

Driving Into the Future


  • Opportunity Charger

    Opportunity Charger

    Tomika Ciaccio charges her 2012 Nissan Leaf at work. The Ciaccios bought an EV even though they are apartment dwellers without access to home charging. | April 03, 2012

6 Photos

Giovanni Ciaccio fell in love with the idea of an electric-powered, emissions-free car the first time he heard about such a thing in the late 1980s. So when the all-electric Nissan Leaf came along, he was ready.

In 2012, Ciaccio and his wife Tomika bought a Leaf to replace their 14-year-old Audi A6.

There was just one problem. The Ciaccios were apartment dwellers and didn't have so much as a 110-volt household electrical outlet in their allotted parking spot. That's right. The couple bought an electric car but didn't have a place to plug it in.

Not by the Book
The Ciaccios didn't plot out their daily driving routines before they bought the Leaf. They also didn't compute the fuel and maintenance costs of the car they'd be replacing to see if an EV would be practical or economical. Because they didn't own their parking spot, they couldn't install a home charging station, considered must-have equipment by most EV buyers.

"We just knew that we didn't drive a lot in our daily commuting, and we wanted to have a clean car that freed us from the gas station," said Ciaccio, a product designer. The couple kept a 2001 BMW Z3 roadster as a backup vehicle for long-distance trips the Leaf couldn't make.

The Ciaccios expressed the adventurous spirit of the early adopters that EVs and hybrids first attracted. For example, they resolved the charging issue neatly. Tomika Ciaccio grabbed a partial charge from her employer's 110-volt outlet on the days she took the car to work. The Ciaccios also became expert opportunistic chargers, dropping by places where 240-volt chargers had been installed, like shopping malls or Nissan dealerships. At a Thanksgiving dinner more than 50 miles from home, the Ciaccios used an online group, PlugShare, to find a nearby EV driver who would let them plug in while they ate dinner with their friends.

Clearly, the Ciaccios' course is not one that most car buyers would follow. Most of us don't fall in love with a technology and entrust it with our daily travel lives. We're after vehicles that make sense for our needs and don't require us to make any sacrifices or compromises.

So maybe that's who you are. You're not a true electric car believer, but someone who is getting a little bit of religion. As gas prices climb, maybe you find yourself drawn to the idea of detaching yourself from the gas pump. You might wonder about the best way to approach a potential plug-in car purchase. How would you know if a vehicle that needs regular battery recharging would work for you?

Considerations for Average Buyers
The most common car-buying advice is still the best: Consider your wants, needs and expectations and compare them with what you'll get with an all-electric car (EV) or a plug-in hybrid (PHEV).

A number of considerations come into play when choosing an electric-drive car. For instance:

  • Is your commute more than 75 miles a day? Depending on charging opportunities, range could be a problem for an EV (although not for a plug-in hybrid electric car).
  • Do you have a parking spot where you can install a 110-volt electrical outlet or, better yet, a dedicated 240-volt EV charging station? Most owners (and carmakers) think this is a must.
  • Does your income allow for only one vehicle for the entire household? An EV's somewhat limited range might not work for all your travel needs.
  • Do you live in the mountains, or in a cold climate or hot desert? Climate and terrain are factors in EV performance.
  • Do you want a convertible? There aren't many EV convertibles yet.
  • Do you regularly tow a 20-foot travel trailer? EVs are not suited to this task.

You can prepare a more comprehensive checklist by consulting "Are You Ready To Buy an EV?" You might be surprised when you get it all down on paper just how well an EV or PHEV can fit into your household fleet, despite some of the disadvantages.

Enticing Early Adopters, Making Money With "Pragmatists"
As eccentric as the Ciaccios might seem, they remain models of today's electric-vehicle customers in many respects: urban professionals in their peak earning years who also are interested in new technologies and want to help improve the environment. They were classic early adopters, a group that makes up 6-8 percent of the potential customer base for the first commercial wave of a new technology. In this case, that means cars with plugs.

Early adopters still are the primary target for carmakers with electric vehicles to sell. But they are a limited group.

"We don't want to rely on the early adopters any more than we have to," says Brian Maragno, head of Leaf marketing for Nissan North America. The Leaf was the first mainstream EV to be sold nationally in the U.S. Many automakers still sell their battery-electric cars only in a handful of EV-friendly states, such as California.

Still, carmakers need to sell hundreds of thousands of electric-drive cars each year to help them meet goals for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas emissions, satisfy growing consumer demand for fuel efficiency and achieve the economies of scale necessary to make the electric-drive segment profitable. To do that, they have to start attracting what Maragno calls the "pragmatists."

The pragmatists are car buyers who want vehicles that excite them, fulfill their personal transportation needs and won't drive them to the poor house with costs for fuel and maintenance and repair.

At present, EVs and PHEVs are not high on the shopping list for pragmatists. But gasoline prices are always in flux and the federal government wants to double new-car fuel efficiency requirements by 2025. That means a number of new all-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are slated to hit dealer showrooms in the next few years, including electric-drive vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells that generate electricity onboard. So far, there are 11 all-electric vehicles and eight plug-in hybrids in the market. Most of them still are sold only in California, which has aggressive programs requiring automakers to make EVs and plug-in hybrids available in the state.

Nissan, GM and other carmakers are counting on "peer reviews" (stories told by the more than 100,000 Americans already regularly driving EVs and PHEVs) to persuade thousands more to consider plugging in. The use of those stories in mainstream advertising and social media is expected to increase exponentially in the next few years.

EV or PHEV?
While plug-less fuel-cell cars are coming, initially they will be leased or sold in tiny numbers in just a few spots in California where hydrogen fuel stations exist. So for all practical purposes there are only two types of electric-drive vehicles in the market today, and both depend on rechargeable batteries. Experts say that clean biofuels, which can replace gasoline or diesel and still be used with internal combustion engines, are a decade or more away from commercialization.

For many consumers, the price, limited range and charging requirements of all-electric cars remove them from shopping lists. Barring breakthroughs in battery and charging technology that make EVs as easy to use as gasoline vehicles, they may never be mainstream cars for most Americans.

Automakers such as Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are hoping their hydrogen cars and SUVs will appeal to people who'd like an EV but can't put up with the plug-in battery system's limitations.

Fuel cell cars use the electrons in hydrogen to produce power to run their electric motors, and their hydrogen tanks can be refilled in less than 5 minutes and are good for about 300 miles of range. Hyundai's limited-production Tucson fuel cell crossover is the first hydrogen vehicle to hit the market, and Toyota and Honda have models coming in 2015.

Plug-in hybrids use both rechargeable batteries and onboard gas or diesel engine-generators. While they don't offer complete freedom from the gas station and don't deliver the fuel economy of an EV, they offer freedom from range anxiety. A plug-in hybrid's fuel efficiency also is still much better than that of most conventional hybrids and (so far) all gasoline-burning cars and trucks.

No one has announced a plug-in hybrid pickup yet. But special credits for hybrid trucks in the CAFE rules could hasten development. Increased demand from truck fans for greater fuel efficiency could help, too.

What Are Your Real Driving Habits?
There are many consumers for whom an EV or PHEV simply won't work. They drive too far each day. They live in mountainous terrain or in extreme climate conditions that drain batteries and devour range. They need more utility on a daily basis than today's crop of EVs and PHEVs can provide.

But there also are many consumers who merely perceive that electric-drive alternatives aren't for them. A clear-eyed look at regular driving patterns and transportation-related costs might reveal a different story.

Most people have a greatly inflated sense of just how much they drive each day. That's caused in part by the increasing amount of time it takes to get anywhere as congestion and road conditions throughout the country worsen. We spend more time on the road, so we think we're driving more miles.

Here's a test that can help you gauge your actual driving habits. Put a notebook in your car or truck and write down the mileage on the odometer each time you start a trip, no matter how short or long. Then write down the mileage at the trip's end. You might find that an EV fits you like a glove.

Nissan has found that the average driver in the U.S. drives about 30 miles a day. That's well below the Leaf's EPA-rated range of up to 84 miles for combined city and highway driving.

Most Leaf owners use the car as their primary vehicle, Maragno says, noting that most also have a second, gasoline-burning vehicle that's available for the longer trips that would exhaust the Leaf's battery. The average single trip in a Leaf, from ignition on to ignition off, is about 7 miles. A typical day's driving usually consists of several such trips.

It can take seven hours to recharge a fully depleted Leaf battery, but the typical Leaf driver never completely drains the battery during daily driving. The average charging time is just under three hours on a 240-volt Level 2 charger, which is the kind that most EV buyers install in their garages.

The Nissan data, collected by electronically monitoring daily use patterns for most Leafs sold in the U.S., confirms other car-use studies that show most Americans drive less than 60 miles a day, which is well within the range limitations of most EVs and all PHEVs. Of course, those are averages. A driver who travels only 15 miles on a weekday might regularly pile on 100 miles or more on the weekend.

Then there are people whose regular commutes exceed what an EV can handle, unless the driver has access to a network of conveniently located charging stations that use new "quick chargers." These can top up a battery in 30 minutes or less, but except for Tesla Motors' proprietary network of fast chargers for its popular Model S, they are few and far between at the moment.

Still, you might be surprised to find that you could easily use an EV for a daily commute, putting aside your gas-hungry SUV or truck for weekends and vacation drives. You also might find that you could easily rent a pickup or SUV for the few occasions each year when you really need towing capacity or increased cargo and passenger room.

The Charging Issue
Battery charging remains a key concern of consumers who are contemplating an electric-drive car, particularly if it's a pure EV. If you're an apartment dweller, it can be a problem. People who have single-family homes with garages have an easier time with this step.

Automakers that sell EVs also offer home charging stations, which can run from as little as $300 to more than $1,500. Installation can be part of the car purchase, typically for an additional cost of around $1,000-$1,500. The cost varies by location, automaker and individual installation circumstances. Amazon, Best Buy, Lowe's and Home Depot also sell a variety of Level 2 chargers for homeowners who prefer to do the installations themselves or who want to hire their own installer.

Although a federal tax credit for home EV chargers expired at the end of 2011, there are various regional and local incentives that can help offset the cost. One good place to check for them is the Energy Department's Web site listing state incentives and laws. Also check with local electric power utilities and air quality agencies.

Home chargers aren't enough to free EV owners from range anxiety, however. What's needed and is being developed, albeit slowly, is a network of publicly available chargers. Without public charging, EVs are tethered to their home bases by their relatively limited range.

With access to only one charger at the beginning of a trip, a Leaf can go only about 40 miles from home before the driver needs to head back in order to keep from exceeding the car's total range of 75 miles. Mitsubishi's i MiEV and the Smart EV have useful one-way range of just over 30 miles. Even the top trim level of the Tesla Model S, with its extra-large battery that delivers up to 265 miles of range, is effectively limited to a one-way trip of 130 miles, unless the driver has access to public chargers.

So it's a good idea to see where public chargers are available before you make a purchase decision, particularly when it involves an EV. The federal government's alternative fuel station locator shows what's available in the areas in which you are most likely to be driving the vehicle. There also are a number of computer programs and mobile phone applications, like PlugShare, for locating chargers.

Automakers as well as advocates of plug-in vehicles are working in conjunction with private businesses and government agencies to deploy a network of chargers for public access. So far, efforts have centered on placing Level 2 chargers in such public places as government facilities and retail centers. More than 30,000 have been installed nationally.

Full charging at these stations can still take several hours, however. Several companies also have developed quick charge stations that can refill a fully depleted EV battery to 80 percent of capacity in less than 30 minutes. (The charging rate slows down considerably and heat levels build after the 80 percent level is reached, so most EV makers don't recommend quick charging beyond that point.)

Except for the Tesla system (which so far can only be used by drivers of the Model S), only a few hundred quick chargers have been installed to date, mostly on the two coasts. But plans are under way in several regions to provide commercial quick chargers, which are the electric car world's equivalent of gasoline filling stations, at regular intervals along major highways. That would make it easier for EV owners to make longer trips in their cars.

The Case for Plug-in Hybrids
If an EV presents too many limitations, a PHEV might be a choice for many consumers. With its ability to keep going even after the initial battery charge has been depleted, a PHEV could provide fuel-efficient transportation for those who want to move into the electrified world but can't make an EV pencil out.

Still, even PHEVs need chargers. They can run on gasoline, making them good candidates for consumers who regularly commute long distances. But they only deliver their stellar fuel economy with maximum use of their electric motors running on power delivered from the grid.

The EPA rates the Chevrolet Volt at 94 miles per gallon-equivalent in all-electric mode and 60 mpg in combined gas-electric driving. But it drops to an EPA rating of just 37 mpg when the battery charge is depleted and the gasoline-powered motor-generator is doing all the work.

The Volt gets up to 38 miles in all-electric range before its engine-generator kicks in, Cadillac's ELR, which uses the same powertrain, is rated at up to 37 miles of all-electric range and other PHEVs in the market are rated at anywhere from 11-20 miles of all-electric range before reverting to their standard gas-electric hybrid operating modes.

Price Barriers
Even if range isn't an issue, price often can be. EVs and PHEVs carry a lot of new technology, and that doesn't come cheap. And it isn't just their costly batteries and associated electronic controls that drive up the price. It's also the propensity of carmakers to pile on infotainment features and deluxe trim treatments to help make them more attractive. As a result, most electric-drive vehicles cost thousands of dollars more than the closest gasoline-powered models in the manufacturer's lineup.

The five-seat Leaf hatchback, for instance, starts at $30,200. That's a whole lot more than the gasoline-powered, five-seat Nissan Versa Note SV hatchback's starting price of $18,500. Yet the Leaf is only slightly larger overall and just 3 cubic feet bigger in interior volume than the top-of-the-line Versa hatchback.

The base Chevy Volt's $36,965 MSRP doesn't fare well when compared to its closest competitors in Chevrolet's gasoline lineup. These are the $19,935 Cruze Eco and the $25,845 Malibu Hybrid. Further, the Volt seats just four. The Cruze and Malibu are five-seaters.

To help even things out and promote sales in these early days of new technology vehicles, the federal government is offering car tax credits of up to $7,500. There also are a number of state incentive programs and regional incentives offered by air quality regulators, public utilities and other organizations.

California buyers of an EV can knock down the ultimate purchase cost by $10,000 with state and federal incentives, for example. But to finance a purchase, the buyer still would have to qualify for a loan based on the original purchase price. Lenders don't take future tax credits and state rebates into account.

The federal government maintains a fairly up-to-date listing of credits on the Energy Department's federal fuel economy tax center site and its separate state incentives and laws site.

Price vs. Cost
A lot of the discussion of EV and PHEV practicality centers on whether buyers can justify the higher purchase price with fuel savings.

Frankly, it is hard to make up a big price differential on fuel savings alone unless gasoline prices really soar. If the average price for gasoline was $3.75 a gallon and electricity cost 12 cents a kilowatt-hour, the fuel cost for driving 15,000 miles in a Leaf would be roughly 30 percent of what fuel would cost for a 30-mpg car or truck. It would take six years at these prices to erase an $8,000 price difference between the Leaf and an internal-combustion equivalent. But if you raise the cost of fuel to $5 a gallon for gasoline and 14.7 cents per kilowatt for electricity (an increase of about 33 percent for each), the EV earns back that $8,000 from fuel savings alone in just over 4.5 years.

Gas vehicles also need oil changes and periodic tune-ups. EVs don't need either. Routine maintenance for most electric cars is periodic tire rotation and windshield wiper blade replacement. EVs also do away with expensive-to-repair transmissions, since they have single-speed gearboxes and sealed motors with only a few moving parts.

PHEVs aren't quite so parsimonious. Their internal combustion engines still need maintenance. Both EVs and PHEVs use regenerative braking systems that can slow the cars to almost a complete stop before the mechanical brake comes into play. That tends to greatly extend the life of the mechanical brakes, reducing the frequency of expensive brake jobs.

Ford ran some figures in 2010 using a prototype version of its Focus EV and found that the typical Focus EV owner would save $1,200 in routine maintenance costs over the life of the car. Researchers at UC Berkeley estimated in a 2008 study of EV ownership costs that EV drivers in California would, on average, save $7,200 in maintenance, insurance, fuel and other routine costs over 100,000 miles of use. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $7,950 this year.

A Cold-Weather Workhorse
There are as many EV and PHEV stories as there are drivers. Most of the stories are positive because most of the first buyers are early adopters with a predisposition to favor the cars and put up with their idiosyncrasies. But there aren't many who have simply trusted in good fortune and lucky charging and have been able to avoid disappointment or a stranding on the side of a road.

More buyers are like John Hipchen, an Illinois marketing consultant. Something prompts their curiosity about EVs, and they do some homework before buying. The trigger for Hipchen was rising gasoline prices. He got so fed up with them that he ditched his 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee in early 2012 and bought a Nissan Leaf.

Hipchen works with the Copper Development Association and has blogged about his Leaf experiences. He knew that electric motors, which use a lot of copper, are pretty efficient. What he didn't know was how a Leaf would do in Chicago-area winters and how it would mesh with his need for a vehicle that he could use for two jobs, both traveling to the offices of his clients and ferrying supplies to his wife's coffee shop.

He said he analyzed his driving needs before making the purchase and knew that for him and his wife the Leaf would provide enough range for almost all their daily driving needs. The Hipchens have a 2007 Ford Taurus they use for a backup vehicle and for the rare trips the Leaf can't handle.

He says he's had no problems, even when winter temperatures dropped well below freezing for weeks on end. Hipchen says the car's range dropped about 40 percent on really cold days, to around 50 miles from its summer norm of 85 miles, but says he's experienced no other weather-related issues.

"I've found that workplace charging is the key to surviving a cold winter with a battery EV," says Hipchen. Batteries can't take on or release as much energy in extreme cold as in "normal" temperatures, so range is reduced. Having a charger at work ensures that he gets home at the end of the day, Hipchen says.

His biggest shock was when he first started driving and began enjoying the oomph that an electric motor provides. He found that he was averaging just 2.7 miles per kilowatt-hour of power. This compares pretty badly with the national average of 3.5 miles per kWh. He was getting just 65 miles of range from the Leaf's 24-kwh battery pack. But he moderated his driving style, cutting out the jackrabbit starts. He says he now averages about 85 miles per charge and even at steady highway speeds, seldom drops below 75 miles of range on a full battery. Hipchen says he's put more than 43,000 miles on his Leaf.

"I'm as happy now as on the day I took delivery," he says.

Penciling It Out
So there it is: The numbers will be different for everyone, but if you can satisfy the bulk of your driving needs with an EV or PHEV and can either keep a gasoline vehicle for backup or can afford to rent one when needed, then the electric-drive vehicle's cost becomes the main issue.

If you keep a PHEV or EV for more than a few years, the combined savings in fuel, routine maintenance and repairs, coupled with any tax credits and other incentives at purchase time, could mean that an initially pricey EV or PHEV might actually cost no more to buy and operate than a gasoline vehicle that has a much cheaper MSRP.

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