Are You Ready to Buy an EV?

9 steps to electric car shopping


Shopping for an electric car (EV) or a plug-in hybrid car is a little different from the search for a traditional gas-powered vehicle. If you haven't done research into EVs, the terminology can be mystifying. There's kilowatt-hours, charging and range. And what's up with the tax credits?

To help you make shopping easier, we plumbed our own knowledge, talked to EV advocates for plug-in cars, and spent some time with car salespeople who successfully sell 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.

Here are nine things to consider before bringing home an EV or plug-in car.

1. Research the cars
2. Understand that electric car range will vary
3. Find the incentives for the vehicles on your list
4. Learn about the kilowatt-hour
5. Get familiar with the basics of plug-in car chargers
6. Know your charger choices
7. Get up to speed on on-the-go charging
8. Pay close attention to the 'info' part of the infotainment system
9. Use these electric test-drive tips

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.

Take a look at our vehicle rankings pages to find a list of the best electric cars and plug-in hybrids chosen by the Edmunds editors. 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. And the PlugStar Shopping Assistant allows you to do a very deep dive into plug-in vehicles.

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 is widely used to help advertise the cars. But high-speed driving or extreme cold or heat can significantly reduce the touted 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 might simply rely on the federal estimates or manufacturer's claims and nothing more.

All-electric range for plug-in hybrid cars varies by model. In general, expect to go somewhere between 15 to 30 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, which has improved in the last couple years. Most EVs are in the 150- to 250-mile range category. The latest Teslas, such as the Tesla Model 3 Long Range, can easily surpass 300 miles depending on the trim level.

Commuters who spend most of their drive at highway speeds, however, typically will realize only 80%-90% of the estimated range. It takes a lot of energy to move a car at high speeds as wind resistance increases. And unless you have a charger at your destination, you have to figure that your effective range is roughly half the total miles that the vehicle is estimated to have.

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

There are three types of incentives that can apply to your plug-in vehicle: federal, state and manufacturer. 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.

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. Plug-in hybrids have a tax credit that varies based on the size of the battery. It is applicable only in the year in which you buy and can only be used to offset your federal income taxes. The Department of Energy's fueleconomy.gov site carries a fairly up-to-date list of which plug-in electric cars qualify for what. It is important to note that these federal funds are tax credits, not discounts or rebates. This means you will have to qualify for a car loan and make payments on the full price of the vehicle. You won't see the $7,500 credit until the end of the tax year following the purchase, when you file your taxes. Even then, the actual amount might be smaller than $7,500 since whatever taxes you owe that year will be deducted from the credit. If you choose to lease, the automaker gets the credit and may choose to factor it into the monthly payment.

State and local incentives include 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 Plug In America's easy-to-use interactive state and federal incentives map.

If the EV model has been out for a while, there may be manufacturer incentives that can bring the price down. 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. Note that Tesla does not offer incentives or discounts on any of its vehicles.

As a bonus, you should check with your local electric company to see what kinds of help it might be offering. Utility company websites often list special-rate programs for people who own an EV.



4. Learn about the kilowatt-hour

You don't have to understand the mysteries of electricity to shop for an EV, but at the very least you'll want to understand kilowatt-hours (abbreviated as kWh). Electric cars rely on batteries for some or all of their power, and battery capacity is measured in kilowatt-hours. The larger the number, the greater battery capacity the vehicle has. 

When we're driving conventional cars, we measure fuel economy in miles per gallon, but for plug-in cars, the energy consumption is measured in kilowatt-hours per 100 miles (kWh/100 miles). That rating is on the car's EPA fuel economy sticker and in the owner's manual. In this case, the lower kWh is better, as opposed to a gasoline car, where a low mpg rating is bad.

A kWh is also the basic unit of measurement on your home electricity bill. You can use it to determine the cost of a full charge at home.  If an EV requires 60 kWh to recharge a fully depleted battery and the rate is 20 cents per kWh, that's $12 for a fill-up.

5. Get familiar with the basics of plug-in car chargers

The electric 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, such as Toyota's Prius Prime models, can get by with overnight charging from a common 110-volt grounded wall socket. Those with extended all-electric range 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 four 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% 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.

Some dealerships might have connections with local electricians and charging system suppliers, but 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, a large number of service equipment suppliers offer 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.

A 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

Dealerships are in the business of selling cars, and most are not well versed in the availability of on-the-road charging. An exception may be Tesla, which has built a national network of 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. There's also contact information to help you find specific charging station locations for each network.

Additionally, charging station providers and independent plug-in car support groups offer 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 tips

  • 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 you do a 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 have 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 plug-in hybrids. If you shop on Edmunds, you can easily get price quotes from local dealerships and check what a fair price would look like. Finally, How to Buy a Car quickly summarizes the best, most stress-free, cost-conscious way to buy any car. Including one with a plug.

Related Articles

Electric Vehicle Tax Credits: What You Need to Know
The True Cost of Powering an Electric Car
Tesla Model Y vs. Porsche Taycan: Real-World Range Test
Edmunds' Best Electric Car Rankings
Edmunds EV Range Super Test
Edmunds Tested: Electric Car Range and Consumption
Edmunds' Best Hybrid Car Rankings


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