There's no doubt that electric vehicles (EVs) have captured attention from consumers. From Nissan Leaf's polar-bear commercial spots to Tesla's high-profile clash with Top Gear to the escalating cost of gas, EVs are in the spotlight.

But EVs are largely a mystery to the average car shopper. A recent study from Synovate, a global market-research firm, showed that the public's general knowledge of hybrids (which have been on the market for 10 years) is relatively low — and it's even lower for EVs.

So if you are interested in an EV but don't know where to start, here are the steps that will help you decide whether a vehicle with a rechargeable battery and a plug is right for you.

Why Do You Want an EV?

This is the first question to ask, because if you're buying an EV to save money, you might be on the wrong track. While a pure EV will eliminate trips to the gas station, it doesn't eliminate fuel cost altogether. Electricity might seem to cost less than gasoline (depending where in the country you are), but once you factor in the higher price of the EV, a traditional hybrid or a fuel-efficient gasoline vehicle is almost always a less expensive purchase than an electric car.

If you're buying an EV to minimize or eliminate your carbon footprint, the purchase has a better rationale, since no tailpipe means your EV is not generating any greenhouse gases. But making electricity does, and the EPA, environmentalists and automakers are still debating whether an EV should be able to earn a perfect environmental score if the electricity used to charge it comes from a coal-burning power plant.

Finally, if you're a card-carrying early adopter of the latest technology, no matter what the cost, then EVs might have the cool factor you're looking for.

Examine Your Commute To See Which EV Is Right for You

Take a hard look at your daily commute to see if it falls within an EV's range. Calculate how many miles you drive to and from work. Factor in whether you make any other stops along the way, such as dropping off kids at school. Once you have a number, compare it to the stated range of the electric vehicles you are considering.

For example, the Nissan Leaf has an EPA-rated range of 73 miles, although the manufacturer says it can travel up to 100 miles in certain conditions. It would work best for people who have urban commutes but rarely take long drives. If you need to travel past the EV's range, you can always rent a conventional gasoline vehicle or use your household's second car (assuming you have one). The Tesla Roadster, the other pure EV that's currently available, claims a range of 227 miles, which would make it suitable for more than around-town drives. But the Tesla also has an MSRP of $109,000, meaning it won't be on the shopping list for most car buyers.

Other EVs scheduled to hit the market in the next few years from Fiat, Ford, Mitsubishi, Smart, Think and Volkswagen, among others, typically have ranges estimated at between 60 and 120 miles.

Plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and the upcoming plug-in Prius have all-electric ranges of 14-36 miles, although they can keep going after the battery is depleted. They work best for people with longer commutes or those who are prone to range anxiety. A plug-in hybrid is able to travel significantly farther than a pure EV, thanks to a gas engine that kicks in when the electric charge has been depleted. However, plug-in hybrids make the most sense if you are able to maximize the time you drive in electric mode. In the case of the Volt, a driver who travels less than 35 miles a day and charges daily would only use gasoline on longer weekend and vacation trips and when the engine-generator needs to run occasionally to keep its parts lubricated.

Know Your Electricity Rates

Examine a recent utility bill. Take a look at how many kilowatt-hours you consume per month and whether your utility company has pricing tiers based on usage. You might be in a certain price tier now, but daily charging of an EV will likely push you into a higher tier. When we examined the utility usage of some of our editors, we found that owning an EV could actually double their electric bills. Depending on how much you spend on electricity each month, this might or might not be an issue for you. That's why the next step is so important.

Investigate Utility Company Discounts

Talk to a representative for your utility company about rates and price tiers and ask about any special rate plans the company might have for electric vehicles. Some utility companies offer discounted rates for EV owners who charge their cars during off-peak hours. Some require you to install a second meter in order to get lower rates. The cost of installing this second meter can be $1,000 or more if the wiring to the grid needs work. This added cost could greatly lengthen the time it takes for your special EV rate savings to offset the installation costs.

Calculate the Cost of a Charge

When you look at an EV's window sticker, you'll likely see a miles-per-gallon equivalent (mpg-e) number prominently displayed. Don't let this number fool you. It tries to bring a familiar — but ultimately not useful — unit of fuel consumption to EVs. Edmunds helps you decode this number in this article. We also help you find out the true cost of powering your EV. Follow that link for a more effective formula than you'll find on the vehicle's window sticker.

Check Out Tax Incentives

Like most new technologies, electric vehicles are expensive. They can range from $32,780 for the Nissan Leaf to $109,000 for the base model Tesla Roadster. The federal government offers a tax credit of up to $7,500 for the purchase of an EV to help soften the blow to consumers' wallets and to encourage early adoption of electric-vehicle technology. There is also a federal tax credit of 30 percent, up to $1,000 to help recoup some of the costs for purchase and installation of a home charger.

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, as both Nissan and Chevrolet have done.

A number of states have additional incentives for EV buyers. California, for example, is still as of this writing offering a $5,000 rebate — not a tax credit — to people who buy or lease. A non-cash incentive is that solo EV drivers in California and several other states can use the carpool lanes.

Look Into a Home Charger and Inspection

When you begin the process of purchasing an EV, automakers including Nissan and Chevrolet will help you make arrangements to get a home charger, including a visit to your home by an authorized contractor. The contractor will inspect your home's wiring, give you a price quote on the charger and any other electrical work that might be needed, fill out the necessary permits and make installation arrangements with a specially trained electrician.

The inspection is important whether you choose to have a charger installed or not. EVs can place a large demand on a home's wiring. You need to make sure your home electrical system can safely handle the load. Some of our editors found this out the hard way, when they plugged in our long-term Mini E at their homes, overtaxed the electrical system and triggered a circuit breaker. The plug that you'll use for the EV should be grounded properly to avoid creating a fire hazard. You wouldn't plug a washing machine or dryer into any old plug, and you shouldn't do so with an EV either.

A home charger isn't mandatory, of course. You can recharge an EV through an ordinary 110-volt system, but it will take you up to 20 hours to recharge (using the Leaf as an example). But if you want to cut your charging times by half or more, you'll need a 240-volt home charger.

Complete the Sale

The last step is to purchase and take delivery of the vehicle. Dealers might not be willing to budge on price initially, but any hot car eventually cools down in price. Early adopters will be able to take advantage of the tax credits, but by waiting a model year or two, patient buyers might also get a discount from the sticker price.

It is also a good idea to request a walkthrough of the major features on the vehicle. Though EVs largely drive the same as a traditional car, they have a number of unique features. A walkthrough may include explanations or demonstrations of how to plug an EV in for a charge, how to read and use the gauges for maximum fuel efficiency, or the effects of the vehicle's different drive modes. Some automakers offer smartphone apps that can do everything from notifying you when a charging session is completed to starting the vehicle from afar. The dealer can help set up such apps on your phone.

Finally, make sure you look closely at the sales contract to verify that there are no additional fees. If the dealership offers you an extended warranty for this "unproven technology," it is important to know that both the Leaf and the Volt have five-year warranties on the drivetrain and eight-year warranties on the battery. The most expensive components on the car have excellent coverage, so think twice before choosing that warranty.