Car Buying Articles

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

Driving Into the Future


  • Nissan Leaf EV Owner Picture

    Nissan Leaf EV Owner Picture

    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

4 Photos

Giovanni Ciaccio has loved cars since he was a child in Italy. He's been in love with the idea of an electric-powered, emissions-free car since the late 1980s. So when such a car came along in the form of the all-electric 2012 Nissan Leaf, he was ready.

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

There's just one problem. The apartment where Ciaccio and his wife live doesn't have so much as a 110-volt household electrical outlet in the couple's allotted parking spot. That's right. The Ciaccios own an electric car but don'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. They aren't even planning to install a 240-volt battery charger, which is 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," says Ciaccio, a 42-year-old product designer. The couple has a 2001 BMW Z3 roadster as a backup vehicle for long-distance trips the Leaf can't make. "We trusted that everything would work out, and so far it has," Ciaccio adds.

The Ciaccios express the adventurous spirit of the early adopters that EVs and hybrids attract. For example, they resolved the charging issue neatly. Tomika Ciaccio grabs a partial charge from her employer's 110-volt outlet on the days she takes the car to work. The Ciaccios also are expert opportunistic chargers, dropping by places where 240-volt chargers have 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 fellow EV driver near the home of their friends who would let them plug in while they ate dinner.

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.

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 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 PHEV).
  • 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 well 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 are models of today's electric vehicle customer in many respects. First, they're urban professionals coming into their peak earning years. They're also interested in new technologies and want to help improve the environment.

The Ciaccios are 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, it means cars with plugs. Early adopters still are the primary target for carmakers that have 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.

Carmakers are not in the niche business with their EVs and PHEVs. They need to sell hundreds of thousands of electric-drive cars each year to help them meet new goals for Corporate Average Fuel Economy 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'll 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 poorhouse with costs for fuel and maintenance and repair.

At present, EVs and PHEVs are not high on the shopping list for pragmatists, especially as there aren't many models to choose from. But gasoline prices are climbing once again and the federal government is proposing 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.

New to the EV market is the 2012 Mitsubishi i city car. Upcoming models include the 2013 Fiat 500 EV, 2012 Ford Focus EV, 2013 Honda Fit EV, 2012 Smart ED, 2013 Tesla Model S, 2013 Toyota RAV4 EV and the California-only Coda electric sedan.

The PHEVs that will follow the Chevrolet Volt and the just-released 2012 Fisker Karma over the next two years include the 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In, Mitsubishi's PX-iMiEV and a pair of vehicles from Ford: the 2013 Ford C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi.

Nissan, GM and other carmakers are counting on "peer reviews" — stories told by the more than 20,000 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?
There are only two types of electric-drive vehicles in the market today, and both depend on rechargeable batteries. Fuel-cell electric vehicles, which use an onboard generator powered by hydrogen, are expected to start appearing by 2015. 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.

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 proposed new 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 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 an EV fits you like a glove.

Under a voluntary program, Nissan has been electronically tracking daily use patterns for most of the 10,000-plus Leafs that have been sold in the U.S. so far and has found that the average driver of its EV puts on only about 30 miles a day. Ninety-nine percent never use the car for more than 60 miles a day. That's well below the car's EPA-rated range of 73 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. That doesn't happen often, he says. The average single trip in a Leaf, from ignition on to ignition off, is about seven 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 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 30 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 they're 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 like the Ciaccios, 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. Installation can be part of the car purchase, typically for an additional cost of around $2,000, which varies by location, automaker and individual installation circumstances. 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 ranges.

With access to only one charger at the beginning of a trip, a Leaf can go only 37 miles from home before the driver needs to head back in order to keep from exceeding the car's total range of 75 miles. A Mitsubishi i has a useful one-way range of just 31 miles. Even the top trim level of the Tesla Model S, which is due out later this summer and has an extra-large battery with 200 miles of range, is effectively limited to a one-way trip of 100 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 for 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 20,000 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).

Only a few dozen quick chargers have been installed to date, 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 a 2012 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.

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 pricey 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 are thousands of dollars more costly than the closest gasoline-powered models in the manufacturer's lineup.

The five-seat Leaf hatchback, for instance, starts at $35,200. That's a whole lot more than the gasoline-powered, five-seat Nissan Versa 1.8 SL hatchback's starting price of $18,490. Yet the Leaf is only slightly larger overall and just 0.3 cubic inch bigger in interior volume than the top-of-the-line Versa.

The base Chevy Volt's $39,145 MSRP doesn't fare well when compared to its closest competitors in Chevrolet's gasoline lineup. These are the $19,326 Cruze Eco and the $25,235 Malibu Eco. A fully loaded Cruze model at $25,545 is considerably cheaper. So is the top-of-the-line, optioned-out Malibu LTZ, at $30,175. Further, the Volt seats just four. The Cruze and Malibu are five-seaters.

To help even things out and promote sales in the early days of these 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 a Leaf or a $29,125 Mitsubishi i EV can knock down the ultimate purchase cost by $10,000 with state and federal incentives. 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 prices with fuel savings.

Frankly, it is hard to make up a big price differential on fuel savings alone unless gasoline prices really soar. With the national average prices for gasoline at more than $3.75 a gallon and electricity at 11 cents a kilowatt-hour, the fuel cost for driving 15,000 miles in a Leaf is 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 2013 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 $7,600 this year.

A Cold-Weather Workhorse
There are as many EV and PHEV stories as there are drivers. Most are positive because most of the buyers are early adopters with a predisposition to favor the cars and put up with their idiosyncrasies.

There aren't many like the Ciaccios, who have simply trusted in good fortune and so far have not been disappointed or stranded on the side of a road. More are like John Hipchen, an Illinois marketing consultant who got so fed up with rising gasoline prices that he ditched his 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee last summer and began the process of buying a Nissan Leaf. They weren't on sale in Illinois at the time, and he finally took delivery of the car at the end of January.

Hipchen works with the Copper Development Association and has been blogging 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.

So far, there have been no problems, he says. Although winter has been warmer than usual in his area, temperatures dropped well below freezing in February. Hipchen says he noticed "about a 10 percent drop" in the car's range on really cold days but has had no other weather-related issues.

His biggest shock was when he first started driving and enjoying the oomph that an electric motor provides. He found that he was averaging just 2.7 miles per kilowatt-hour of power consumed. 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 I've moderated my driving style — no more jack-rabbit starts — and now I'm getting that 3.5 miles per kilowatt-hour," Hipchen says.

He and his wife kept a 2007 Ford Taurus as their backup car, but so far haven't had to call on it much. "We've run the range in the Leaf down to under 20 miles, but our average trip is about 40 miles," he says. "Eighty miles has been the longest; we've not had to worry about finding a charger away from home. We use the Leaf for pretty much all of our driving."

And that's why he bought it. "I analyzed the type of driving we did and knew it would work for us," he says. "It pretty much takes care of our daily driving needs and it frees us from gasoline."

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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