7 Electric Car Questions, Answered

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Charge in minutes, free: Tesla Superchargers, strategically located across North America, replenish about half the battery of the Model S in as little as 20 minutes. Shown here: a Supercharger station in Columbus, Texas.
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This home solar array in Bellingham, Wash., produces 75 percent of the household’s electricity, including enough to recharge its owners’ 2013 Nissan Leafs.
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The 107-MPGe Smart ForTwo Electric Drive carries a base price of $25,000, making it one of the more affordable electric cars on the U.S. market.
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With its battery fully charged, the Toyota Prius Plug-in delivers up to 95 MPGe.
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Plug-in hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt, can travel on electricity alone for shorter trips, and seamlessly transition to gasoline power for longer excursions.

No longer hypothetical vehicles of the future, electric cars are shaking up the market much like hybrids did more than a decade ago. Nine models of rechargeable vehicles — all-electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars — are now widely available in the United States, and nearly every major automaker has at least one electric vehicle (EV) in the works. Here, we answer some of your most frequently asked electric car questions to help you better evaluate whether one of these electrifying rides may be right for you.

1. How much does it cost to drive an electric car?

Electric cars’ efficiency is measured in MPGe, which stands for “miles per gallon equivalent” and is the metric that federal agencies use to compare these vehicles’ energy consumption with that of gasoline-powered vehicles. (Our chart 6 Standout Electric Cars lists the MPGe for six top electric vehicles.) As impressive as 114 MPGe — the rating for the all-electric 2015 Nissan Leaf — may sound, perhaps a more practical way to gauge the money-saving merits of an EV is to look at the cost to drive one.

Consider the cost to fuel 50 miles of driving: With a 30-mpg gasoline car, assuming $3.50 per gallon of gasoline, the expense for a 50-mile trip would be $5.83. Assuming a rate of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh), the cost to drive the all-electric Leaf 50 miles would be $1.80.

Mile by mile, you’d pay about two-thirds less to charge an electric car versus what you’d pay to fuel a gasoline car. Run our Leaf example against the numbers for a 50-mpg hybrid car, and you’d still arrive at about 50 percent savings per mile. With that in mind, a savvy electric car salesperson could tell you, “The more you have to drive, the more you’ll save.”

2. How much does it cost to buy or lease an electric car?

While electric cars cost significantly less to drive than gas cars do, EVs currently cost significantly more to buy. The two least expensive of the most widely available all-electric options are the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (starting at about $23,000) and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive (about $25,000). In the plug-in hybrid arena, the two least expensive of the most widely available models are the Toyota Prius Plug-in (about $30,000) and the Ford C-MAX Energi (about $33,000).

Those prices do not factor in discounts from federal tax credits, which range from $2,500 to $7,500, depending on the capacity of the car’s battery pack. Several states offer additional tax credits, cash rebates and other incentives for electric car owners. Learn more at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Tax Incentives Information Center and on the PluginCars.com incentives roundup page.

Some electric cars are available for lease, including the Chevrolet Volt, Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf. Depending on the model as well as on current rates and incentives from the automaker, the monthly lease payment for an electric car can range from about $100 to $300.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher Bryan Welch leases a Chevy Volt for his daily 60-mile commute. Most of those miles are powered by renewable energy, thanks to solar panels at Welch’s homestead. His monthly savings in reduced fuel costs nearly cover his monthly lease payment for the Volt.

Just as with gas cars, the cost to drive and the cost to buy or lease an electric car do not represent all costs of ownership. Other considerations include taxes, interest, insurance, depreciation, and the cost to have a 240-volt outlet installed to allow for faster charging. A handy tool to assess all of this for any car is Edmunds’ True Cost to Own website. One particular perk of electric car ownership is that you can expect to save thousands of dollars over the vehicle’s lifetime by virtue of its lower maintenance costs. Imagine: no oil changes or any other maintenance associated with engines or exhaust systems.

3. What makes electric cars more efficient?

Often overlooked amid the glitz of electric cars’ superb MPGe numbers is the inherent reason for their efficiency: Electric cars do a far better job converting stored energy into movement.

In gasoline vehicles, only about 20 percent of the energy within the gasoline actually gets used to propel the car. The remaining 80 percent is lost, mostly during the engine’s combustion process. In contrast, about 75 percent of the power stored in an electric vehicle’s battery pack goes to the motor to make the car move. So, even if that electricity comes from a coal-burning power plant, an electric car will still consume less fossil fuel per mile (and cause less air pollution) than a gas-powered vehicle would.

4. What’s the range of an electric car, and how long does it take one to recharge?

Range is probably the most significant question on the mind of anyone considering an EV — perhaps even more so than price. The all-electric models currently on the market have different range estimates, but each falls within approximately 75 to 90 miles. The distinct exception is the Tesla Model S, which, thanks to its more robust battery system, achieves a range of about 208 or 265 miles (for the 60-kwh or 85-kwh battery options, respectively).

Weather, driving conditions and your driving style will all influence how far you can drive an electric car on a full charge. If you live in a region that experiences serious summers or wicked winters, you should evaluate the heating and cooling nuances for both the cabin and the battery pack of any potential EV purchase. Extreme temperatures can notably diminish an electric car’s range — by 25 to 50 percent. While automakers continue to make improvements on this issue, it’s one of a number of considerations you can get valuable perspective on by consulting EV drivers who live in your area or in a similar climate. The chart 6-Standout-Electric-Cars6 Standout Electric Cars lists online forums where you can read about other drivers’ firsthand experiences and ask the community any questions.

The 75-to-90-mile range of currently available all-electric cars can accommodate the daily driving needs of the vast majority of drivers. Rapid-charging stations, paid and free, for all EVs are quickly increasing in number. Such expansion will be critical to making electric cars a feasible means of transportation for more people, especially for trips upward of 90 miles.

Plug-in hybrids eliminate any “range anxiety,” because after their battery power has been depleted, these cars keep running via their gasoline engines (meaning you’ll still need to fuel up at a gas station). The Chevy Volt (about 380 miles of total range) and the Toyota Prius Plug-in (about 540 miles of total range) are the banner examples of plug-in hybrids.

Recharge time varies more than range among electric car models. In general, it takes an overnight stretch or more (10 to 20 hours) to fully recharge via a standard 110-volt outlet. You can cut that time by half or more with a 240-volt outlet.

5. What’s the battery situation?

All current models of electric cars have roughly the same warranty on their battery packs: eight or 10 years/100,000 miles. In the highly unlikely event that your electric vehicle’s battery pack goes kaput before that, you’ll be covered.

How much would a battery fix or replacement cost after the warranty expires? That’s uncertain territory at this point. Nissan recently priced a new battery pack for the Leaf at $5,499 (not including taxes and installation fees). The takeaway points here are that (a) costs for advanced lithium-ion battery packs will continue to decline, and (b) drivers shouldn’t worry that these battery packs will die before 100,000 miles.

6. Are electric cars really green and safe?

Several studies have shown that EVs, even when recharged with conventional fossil fuel energy, emit less pollution than gas-only vehicles do, and thus help slow climate change. For much more info, see Why Electric Cars Are Cleaner.

Of course, the best scenario would be to recharge your electric car from renewable energy sources, which would also protect you from rising gas prices or gas shortages. Whether powered via solar panels on your roof or via a wind farm tapped by your utility, all-electric vehicles that operate on renewable energy are a truly zero-emissions means of transportation. This speaks to a major long-term advantage of electric cars: They support the essential shift away from fossil fuels to renewables.

A tangential concern is whether our power grid can handle the energy demands of electric cars, especially if sales skyrocket. “Study after study shows that electric cars won’t tax the grid if they charge primarily at night,” says Jim Motavalli, author of High Voltage: The Fast Track to Plug In the Auto Industry.

When it comes to safety, all-electric and plug-in hybrid cars have performed as well as if not better than their gasoline-only counterparts in crash and rollover tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. For an in-depth look at a number of aspects of these vehicles’ safety, check out our article The Truth About Electric Car Safety.

7. What’s it like to drive an electric car?

Perhaps the least known “fact” about electric cars is how fun and fulfilling they are to drive and own. They float down the road with such rocket-like acceleration (they have no gears to cycle through) that you might feel like you’re piloting a spaceship. Speaking of spaceships, What it’s like to own a Tesla Model S: A cartoonist’s review of his magical space car is an educational, entertaining and slightly profane comic about the Tesla Model S that’s a worthwhile read. As remarkable as the Model S is, the most promising output from Tesla is still to come: The automaker has set its expectations for its Model 3 at about 200 miles of range for about $35,000. It will go on sale in 2017.

John Rockhold is a green car enthusiast and Contributing Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Find him on Google+.

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