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How to buy an electric car

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Buying a new car is tough, but buying a completely different kind of car is even tougher

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Tesla’s Model 3 is supposed to be the electric car that changes everything. Beautiful, high-tech, affordable: this is the car that is supposed to bring electric cars into the mainstream. But don’t expect to be driving one anytime soon. If you’re not already on the 500,000-person reservation list, you won’t be driving one this year. Or next. Or probably the year after.

Thankfully, there are dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars that are available right now. And more are on the way. To be sure, electric cars are still very much in their infancy. Sales of electric cars represent just 1 percent of the record 17.55 million cars sold last year in the US. And a recent survey of 2,500 American found that 60 percent were still “unaware of electric cars,” eclipsing concerns such as range or charging station availability. That’s a huge hurdle to overcome.

But the automotive industry is clearly trending toward electric. BMW will release two new electric cars by 2020. Mercedes-Benz plans to launch four EVs by 2018. Volvo said it would stop selling gas-only cars by 2019. Ford will release its first car built to be all-electric from the ground up in 2020. The new Nissan Leaf is coming out later this year, and the Chevy Bolt is already on the road.

So if you’re ready to the take the plunge and go all-electric, here are some things you need to consider.

Photo: Tesla

Why go electric?

The most obvious answer is that vehicles that run only on electricity produce zero tailpipe emissions. Of course, depending on where you live, the source of the electricity used to power your electric vehicle may in fact produce CO2 emissions. But if you live in an area where electricity is generated using relatively low-polluting energy sources, your “well-to-wheel” emissions advantage over fossil fuel-powered vehicles will be way more significant.

To be sure, electric cars are only as clean as their power supply. California’s electric vehicles, for example, can plug into a greener grid than most regions of the world — especially China, where coal generated 62 percent of all power in 2016 according to the International Energy Agency. The US gets about a third of its electricity from coal-fired power, IEA says. So a “zero-emissions” vehicle may not be entirely that depending where you’re charging it.

Most people will be motivated by cost savings. And it’s true: annual fuel costs for electric vehicles are less than half of those for gas-powered cars. There are a number of online calculators where you can determine how much money you’d save by switching to an EV. California’s state government has a good one, as does the US Department of Energy.

But electric cars aren’t just environmental statements. Thanks to Tesla, they’re now tech status symbols, too. And for those with money to burn, there are a slew of small startups currently building ultra-luxury, high-performing electric supercars that boast top-notch horsepower, as well as all of the autonomous bells and whistles to make these cars high-tech beasts.

There are other reasons going electric may be the right move, including more affordable prices, a host of subsidies and tax breaks, and a growing charging station network. But we’ll get into those a bit later.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The basics

Not all electric cars are created equal. There are basically two types of electric vehicles: all-electric cars and plug-in hybrid vehicles. All-electric cars run only on electricity, and typically have a range of 80 to 100 miles — though that’s steadily improving. Tesla, Chevy, and Nissan have recently cracked the 200-mile range. All-electric cars can include battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell cars. (For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to ignore hydrogen-powered cars because the infrastructure to support them is practically non-existent.)

Plug-in hybrid vehicles run on a combination of electricity and fossil fuels. Electric range usually tops out at around 40 miles, at which point the vehicle switches over to an internal combustion engine (ICE). Plug-in hybrids are generally a wise choice if “range anxiety” — defined as dread that your car will run out of power before reaching the next recharging station — is preventing you from going full-electric.

Depending on the model, the ICE may also power the vehicle at other times, such as during rapid acceleration or when using heating or air conditioning. And some plug-in hybrids come equipped with regenerative braking, which converts some of the energy lost during braking into usable electricity, stored in the batteries.

So where do you charge the vehicle? If you have a garage, the safest bet is to plug the car into a regular electric outlet, and by morning your car should be plenty juiced up. But charging on-the-go is more of a crap shoot. The number of electric charging stations in the US is pretty scant. According to the US Department of Energy, there are 1,764 stations classified as a DC (480 volt 3-Phase AC input) electric car charging station, with a total of 3,189 outlets. Tesla has set up an additional 828 Supercharger stations, with somewhere between 6–12 outlets found at each station. CEO Elon Musk recently announced plans to expand the network.

Add up those two numbers and compare that to the number of gas stations peddling their climate destroying fossil fuels — 168,000, according to FuelEconomy.gov — and you can see the problem.

“Lack of charging stations is another barrier amongst many in the adoption of electric vehicles by consumers,” said Rebecca Lindland, senior director at Cox Automotive. “Adding charging station certainly won't hurt, but it's also not a complete solution to increasing demand and adoption of EVs.”

If you live in a city and don’t have access to a power outlet or garage for overnight charging, you may want to consider buying a plug-in hybrid. Trying to keep an all-electric vehicle fully charged while parking it on the street overnight will probably prove to be too much of a challenge for most folks.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Let’s talk about range

Range is the distance an electric car can travel between charging. It’s one of the key metrics you should look at when considering which electric car to buy. The longer driving range, the more useful the car.

But how can you tell which range figures are accurate and which are just marketing? According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the combined miles-per-gallon value is the most prominent for the purpose of quick and easy comparison across vehicles. But we’re talking about cars that run on electricity, not dinosaur sludge. For these vehicles, the labels display miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent (MPGe). Think of this as being similar to MPG, but instead of presenting miles per gallon of the vehicle’s fuel type, it represents the number of miles the vehicle can go using a quantity of fuel with the same energy content as a gallon of gasoline. This allows a reasonable comparison between vehicles using different fuels.

If range anxiety is getting you down, here are some of the vehicles available now with the longest range:

Electric cars with the best range

Car Range
Car Range
Tesla Model S 335 miles
Tesla Model X 295 miles
Chevy Bolt 238 miles
Tesla Model 3 220 miles
VW e-Golf 126 miles
Hyundai Ioniq 124 miles
BMW i3 114 miles
Nissan Leaf 107 miles
Kia Soul EV 93 miles
Mercedes-Benz B250e 87 miles
Fiat 500e 84 miles

But are they worth the money?

If you’ve gotten the far, you’re probably most attracted to the idea of never having to buy gas again. And indeed, there are significant cost savings associated with going electric. But the cars themselves, especially the most powerful ones, can be pricey. No one said going green was going to be cheap all the way.

BeFrugal.com has a great online calculator where you can compare the annual cost of your current vehicle with that of an electric car. For example, if I traded in my 2013 Subaru Impreza for a Tesla Model S, I could save $738.82 every year. Also, my yearly CO2 output was decrease by over 82 percent.

Tesla plays an outsized role in the EV market right now. The company’s Model S sedans and Model X SUVs accounted for more than half of the EV market in the US in 2016, more than the next 12 models combined. But both of those cars are out of many peoples’ price range. The Model S starts at around $60,000, and the Model X at around $80,000, but after options, those prices can creep over $100,000.

The Model 3 is an affordable $35,000, before incentives. But as The Verge’s Micah Singleton recently pointed out, for that price you pretty much only get a box on four wheels. To get a Tesla Model 3 — a real Tesla with all the bells and whistles people associate with the buzz-worthy brand, like Autopilot — you’ll have to fork over $50,000 or more. And that’s probably out of a lot of people’s price range.

That said, many car makers have begun to introduce truly affordable, mass-market electric cars. The Chevy Bolt is one. And the 2018 Nissan Leaf, which promises to feature the Japanese brand’s most advanced driver assist system yet, also packs a lot of punch for a modest price. Websites like PlugInCars are an excellent resource for learning about all the latest EVs on the market, including range, cost, and other features.

Don’t forget about tax breaks

The US government has been subsidizing the purchase of EV and plug-in hybrid vehicles to help encourage more people to ditch their old fossil fuel-burning cars for cleaner transportation. But there’s a lot of caveats here, as The Verge’s Sean O’Kane expertly summarized recently.

A $7,500 federal tax credit is available for many electric cars, but the state credit changes based on where you live. In California, for example, you could receive up to $2,500 in addition to the federal tax credit, bringing something like the Model 3’s base price down to $25,000. The state credits scale depending on which tax bracket you’re in, though, and there are other factors that could change the total amount. It’s worth investigating how your own state handles these clean vehicle rebates. (This post from Edmunds is a good place to start, as is this interactive map from Plug-in America.)

There’s a bigger catch here, though: the full $7,500 federal tax credit only applies for the first 200,000 eligible vehicles that a manufacturer sells. After that, the rebate decreases by 50 percent every six months until it’s retired.

As Sean notes, that means Tesla likely will become ineligible for the federal tax cut sometime next year, assuming the company is able to hit all of its production goals. And even more worrisome to Tesla and other EV manufacturers is the fact that Congress and the Trump administration could decide to nix the $7,500 tax credit altogether. Given the volatility in Washington, most experts predict the credit will simply be eliminated rather than replaced with anything similar.

electric car

Ultimately, it’s up to you

Purchasing a new vehicle is a big choice. Buying a completely different type of car altogether even more so. You need to think carefully about how you use your vehicle — to commute to work? For errands and occasional day-trips? For cross-country road trips? For a long time, cars were either tools or status symbols. Now they’re starting to reflect our personal values, but they need to continue to fit our lifestyles, too.

But the demand for electric cars is certainly there. Electric-vehicle sales jumped in 2016, with US sales up 30.7 percent through October to 120,517 units, and worldwide sales were up 30.1 percent to 518,440 units. And that could be the calm before the storm. The rapid decrease in the price of batteries — more than 70 percent between 2008 and 2014 — and the introduction of more mass-market EVs is certainly encouraging some consumers to consider switching to electric. Will you be one of them?