Most people who buy a plug-in car say they are happy with their decision to go electric. But a recent plug-in car shopping study shows that many also say the process of purchasing a battery-electric car or plug-in hybrid vehicle could have been a lot easier.
Customers and dealers identified lots of issues for the study conducted by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis. It's worth noting that the study was conducted in California, a hotspot for electric and hybrid car sales and a place you'd expect to be a paradise for shoppers looking for plug-in electric vehicles. But we're not in electric Eden just yet.
Why It's Not Always Easy To Buy a Plug-In Car
In the study, California shoppers complained that they often found dealership salespeople poorly informed about plug-in vehicle features and technology. They also said they got little or no help in understanding before- and after-sales processes such as home charger selection and installation, accessing public chargers and applying for government rebates and special PEV-owner utility rates.
Dealers interviewed for the study have their own issues with electric-car selling. They complained that the plug-in car sales process is a lengthy one compared to selling conventionally powered cars and trucks, eating up too much time for too little return. Because vehicle volumes are so low and production costs so high, carmakers don't offer their dealers the same kinds of margins on plug-in vehicles as on conventional cars and trucks, they said.
Dealers also complained that they get blamed for things beyond their control. Information about incentives is complex, confusing and often hard to find, they said. Uncertain government support for alternative-fuel vehicles makes it hard to tell customers what to expect in the way of public charging infrastructure, continued access to carpool lanes and other after-sales benefits of owning a plug-in car.
Knowledge Is Power
Some of the issues will disappear over time if electric cars gain popularity. Others may be around for years to come. But whatever happens, shopping for a plug-in car doesn't have to be a painful experience, even if the dealership you choose isn't among the handful of top-selling electric car specialists.
It's fairly easy to prepare yourself in advance with information that you'll need, no matter how well or poorly informed the dealership may be. Although some topics may be different, shopping for a plug-in car has a lot in common with traditional car shopping. And you wouldn't do that without knowing the basics of the models that caught your eye.
Being ahead of the knowledge curve at the dealership makes the buying process easier for you and helps the dealership too. And you're helping the next customer have a better experience.
Be in the Know
To help plug-in car shoppers, we plumbed our own knowledge, talked to advocates for plug-in cars and spent some time with salespeople who are successful in selling them. We asked them what shoppers want to know and what the typical electric-car shopper could bring to the showroom to make the buying experience run smoothly, even at dealerships with little electric car experience.
Our chief advisors are:
Shaun Del Grande, whose family-owned Del Grande Dealership Group in California's Silicon Valley sells plug-in vehicles from seven manufacturers and ranks among the nation's top sellers of Chevrolet Volt, Nissan Leaf and Fiat 500e plug-in cars.
Ray Ishak, Internet and electric vehicle sales director at Seattle-area Magic Nissan of Everett and twice the world's top Nissan Leaf EV salesman.
Paul Scott, a longtime electric car booster who helped found the advocacy group Plug In America, spent several years selling EVs at two Los Angeles-area Nissan dealerships and now is a green energy consultant.
Once you've decided to go shopping, here are the nine best ways to select and purchase or lease a plug-in car:
1. Research the Cars
The first thing in shopping for a plug-in car, as in shopping for any car, is to know what you want, or to at least have a couple of candidates on your shopping list. If you haven't already decided whether a plug-in electric car will work for you, this Edmunds article on making the right plug-in vehicle choice is the place to start.
For a look at the electric and plug-in hybrid electric models currently in the market, you can visit manufacturer websites or check Edmunds electric and hybrid buying guide. Other good sources include the federal Energy Department's interactive Advanced Cars and Fuels tool, which lets you do side-by-side comparisons of the various plug-in electric cars. For a very deep dive into plug-in vehicles, including delivery vans, buses and motorcycles, there's Plug In America's Plug-in Car Tracker.
2. Understand That Electric Car Range Will Vary
The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates electric car range, and the all-electric range of plug-in hybrid and pure electric cars are widely used to help advertise the cars. But high-speed driving or extreme cold or heat can significantly reduce the claimed range. You need to know how and where you drive to know what range you can realistically expect. In describing the car to you, the salesperson may simply be relying on the federal estimates or manufacturer's claims and nothing more.
All-electric range for plug-in hybrid cars varies by model. Presently it is from 10 miles to about 40 miles on a single charge before the internal combustion engine or generator takes over. All then revert to conventional hybrid mode, with the electric drive assisting the gasoline engine.
Pure electric cars in the market also have varying range, from around 60 miles per charge to more than 250 miles. Most, though, are in the 80-110-mile range category.
Commuters who spend most of their drive at highway speeds, however, typically will realize only 80-90 percent of the estimated range. It takes a lot of energy to move a car at high speeds as wind resistance increases.
If you routinely drive in extreme heat or cold, you'll also see an impact on range. The ambient temperature can affect the battery's ability to store and release energy. Testing by the AAA showed that a battery good for 105 miles of range at a steady 75 degrees Fahrenheit delivered only 43 miles at 20 degrees. At 95 degrees, range was 69 miles.
3. Find the Incentives for the Vehicles on Your List
It's possible that the salesperson you'll be dealing with won't know about all of the available incentives for a plug-in electric car. So you should. Check out our incentives research to save you from the possibility of getting no information or, worse, inaccurate information.
The federal incentive is fairly easy. It's an income tax credit based on battery size and vehicle range. The Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov site carries a fairly up-to-date list of which plug-in electric cars qualify for what.
The basic rule of thumb for EV federal tax credits is that all-electric vehicles have large enough batteries to qualify for the maximum benefit, which is a tax credit of up to $7,500. It is applicable only in the year in which you buy and can only be used to offset your federal income taxes. There's no cash refund if your tax bill is less than the incentive.
Federal plug-in vehicle credits range from as little as $3,667 to as much as $7,500. Again, these are maximums, dependent on the size of your federal tax bill.
State and local incentives include things like reduced electricity rates, free parking, carpool lane use, help buying home chargers, and cash rebates and tax credits for vehicles. But not all states and communities offer incentives. They also change frequently.
A good source is the list of state and local incentives maintained by the National Council of State Legislatures. Another good resource is Plug In America's easy-to-use interactive state and federal incentives map.
You should also call your city hall to see if you are eligible for local benefits that aren't on the National Council or Plug In America lists. Check with your local electric utility company to see what kinds of help it might be offering. Utility company Web sites often list special-rate programs for people who own a plug-in car.
Your car salesperson should be able to tell you about any applicable manufacturer incentives. But you also can find them for yourself by checking out Edmunds' incentives and rebates center or by visiting the manufacturer's website for the model you're considering.
4. Learn About the Kilowatt-Hour
You don't have to understand the mysteries of electricity to shop for a plug-in car, but at the very least you'll want to understand kilowatt-hours (abbreviated as kWh). This is the basic unit of measurement on your home electricity bill. Plug-in cars rely on batteries for some or all of their power, and battery capacity is measured in kilowatt-hours, not those familiar gallons that help us determine the fuel efficiency and range of conventional cars. Don't count on every car salesperson to be a kilowatt-hour expert.
When we're driving conventional cars, we measure fuel economy in miles per gallon. But for plug-in cars, it's miles per kWh. It takes 33.7 kWh of electricity to equal the energy contained in one gallon of gas. Once you understand that, you can figure out the efficiency of the cars you're considering.
A Nissan Leaf's 24 kWh battery, for instance, holds the energy equivalent of just under three-quarters of a gallon of gas. It provides 84 miles of travel. That's the equivalent of 115 miles per gallon in a gasoline-fueled car.
5. Get Familiar With the Basics of Plug-in Car Chargers
The plug-in car you buy should dictate the type of charging station you purchase, but there are variables to consider.
Plug-in hybrid cars with relatively small batteries and short all-electric range, such as Toyota's 2014 and 2015 Prius Plug-In models, can get by with overnight charging from a common 110-volt grounded wall socket. Those with extended electric range, like the Chevrolet Volt and Ford C-Max Energi and Ford Fusion Energi models, will be easier to live with if you can charge them on what's called a "Level 2" unit. It provides power at 240 volts. Level 2 charging enables most plug-in hybrid cars to be recharged in 4 hours or less.
Level 3 chargers are also known as DC chargers or quick chargers. These are high-powered devices usually installed in dealerships and at convenient retail and other locations along well-traveled highways. They can provide an 80-percent charge of a depleted electric car battery in about 30 minutes and typically are used by electric-car owners when they're traveling. Level 3 charging isn't an option for plug-in hybrid cars. Automakers say it costs too much to equip them for such charging and that their smaller batteries simply don't need it.
If you decide that for daily use a Level 2 station is for you and you own or rent a residence or business in which you can install one, check with your city or county to find out what permits are needed and what they'll cost.
Talk to an electrician about the capacity of the electrical service that's located where you'll be installing the station. In most modern buildings, the service should be sufficient. In older buildings, you might have to upgrade the electrical service, which can cost from several hundred to several thousand dollars.
While some dealerships may have connections with local electricians and charging system suppliers, others won't. Checking all this out in advance will help you decide which plug-in car is right for you.
6. Know Your Charger Choices
Most dealerships that sell plug-in cars will be able to recommend a charging station, which is more formally known as "electric vehicle service equipment." Carmakers often have deals with electric vehicle service equipment suppliers for sales, financing and installation of a particular brand or brands. These often are good deals that can save you time and money by packaging the charging station and its installation into a single bundle.
But you aren't tied to the station that the dealership might want to sell you, and if you shop around in advance, you'll be able to compare prices for a station that the dealership offers.
These days, there are a large number of service equipment suppliers, offering everything from bare-bones charging stations to ones that are elaborately networked. These more sophisticated stations can communicate with your utility to provide power at the lowest possible cost and let you know when your vehicle is charged and how much juice it took.
Electric vehicle service units also come in varying capacities. They should be matched with the capacity of the vehicle's onboard charger to send juice to the battery.
Edmunds has a home charging primer that can help you understand the fine points and make the right choice. Another good source for home charger information is GoElectricDrive.org, a site maintained by the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
7. Get Up to Speed on On-the-Go Charging
The UC Davis study found that most dealerships are not well versed in the availability of on-the-road charging. An exception may be Tesla, which is building out a national network of free supercharger stations and publicizes it as a selling point for its cars.
For public and commercial charging station information, one of the best sources we've found is PlugInCars.com. The site offers a charging network guide that lists all the major national and regional networks and the fees and rules of use. You'll also find contact information to help you locate specific charging station locations for each network.
Additionally, charging-station providers and independent plug-in car support groups provide a number of smartphone applications that not only locate and direct you to chargers but in some cases enable you to reserve a time to use one.
The PlugShare app even lists the home stations of the cooperative's members who are willing to share their Level 1 and Level 2 plugs with fellow electric-car drivers who need an emergency charge while on the road. These apps and in-car charger locator systems are especially valuable when traveling. They can mean the difference between finding a charger and waiting hours on the roadside for a tow.
8. Pay Close Attention to the "Info" Part of the Infotainment System
Insist on getting a thorough training session on the in-vehicle and smartphone features of the cars you are considering. In plug-in electric cars, these systems all have features that enable you to monitor the battery, charging and energy systems. Being able to use these features proficiently can help improve vehicle range and fuel efficiency. Also, most plug-in vehicles now have navigation systems that show the location of charging stations, distance to them and driving directions. Some will even tell you if a station is in use.
9. Use These Electric Test-Drive Tricks
Keep the windows up and radio and fans off during your test-drive. Cars running in all-electric mode don't have engine noises to muffle other sounds, so the in-cabin noises you hear during the test-drive will let you know just how quiet the car will be if you decide to take it home.
If you're testing plug-in hybrid cars, remember that they shuttle between all-electric and gas-only operation. Check the smoothness of the transition during your test-drive to make sure it is acceptable to you. Some are smoother than others.
Be especially attentive to how the brakes feel. Use them often and try both soft and hard braking during the test-drive. Some drivers have trouble adjusting to the feel of regenerative braking.
When doing your walk-around of the car, check out the location of the charging plug port. Make sure you'll be able to locate your home charging station so the cord will reach the port on the vehicle you'll lease or buy.
Now Negotiate Your Deal
Following our tips before you go shopping means you'll be secure in knowing the key information you'll need, no matter how prepared the dealership is. Then all that's left is for you to do the deal itself. You can make the whole process as easy as possible if you go to your dealership prepared with information from this article and from Edmunds' reviews of EVs and PHEVs, our hybrid and electric buying guide and our car buying tips and car leasing tips. Our story, Eight Steps to Buying a New Car, quickly summarizes the best, most stress-free, cost-conscious way to buy any car. Including one with a plug.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.