How to buy the best electric car

There's a lot to consider before buying your first electric car. Let's look at your choices.

Top picks

Premium: Tesla Model S

With up to 270 miles of range, a variant that hits 60 mph in under 3 seconds and a lithe, attractive body, not only is the Model S an excellent electric car, it competes well with premium gasoline-powered cars.

Affordable: Nissan Leaf

Purpose-built as an electric car, the Nissan Leaf can go up to 107 miles on a charge. It is also widely available, giving it an edge over electrics sold only in a few markets.

The electric car

Despite range inferior to gasoline-powered cars, electric cars are working for the daily-driving lives of a few hundred thousand people in the US. Freedom from gas stations and low running costs are two prime reasons you might want to consider an electric vehicle (EV).

Owning an EV requires changing your range expectations from internal combustion (IC) cars. The Nissan Leaf can go up to 107 miles on a full charge, a much shorter range than the 400 or 500 miles of a typical IC car, but how many trips do you take that are longer than 100 miles? And where you need to hit a gas station to fill up an IC car once or twice a week, charging an EV at home means you have can have full range every morning.

Many major automakers offer an EV model, but many are not available nationwide. A number of models, such as the Chevrolet Spark EV, are only available in states that mandate automakers offer zero emission vehicles. More aggressive EV makers, such as Tesla Motors, offer nationwide sales.

Segment overview

Tesla Model X

The Tesla Model X, built on the same electric-based platform as the Model S, offers SUV seating and cargo capacity.

Josh Miller/CNET

Automakers can fit an electric drivetrain into any type of vehicle, but this nascent market focuses on passenger cars. The range runs from the Tesla Model X, a roomy crossover SUV, down to the Smart Electric Drive, a tiny, two-seater hatchback. Among the middle ground for size, you will find the Mercedes-Benz B-Class and Kia Soul Electric.

A majority of EVs offer seating for five, with room for cargo, following the typical IC-based passenger-car model.

One important factor to consider with body type is whether the EV was built specifically for an electric drivetrain, or whether it was an IC-intended car that was converted into an EV. The Tesla Model S, for example, was designed as an EV, with the entire chassis built to hold its battery pack and drive motors integrated at the axles. As such, the battery pack doesn't intrude in the cabin, and there is no legacy accommodation for an IC drivetrain.

Compare that with the Ford Focus Electric, where Ford put an electric motor under the hood to drive the front wheels, and placed the battery pack at the rear, where the gasoline tank would normally fit. Because the Focus wasn't initially designed as an EV, the battery pack intrudes on the cargo space.

Some EVs born of IC designs do better at packaging their electric drivetrains. The subcompact Chevrolet Spark EV offers the same interior space as standard IC Chevrolet Spark.

Power versus fuel economy

Driving an EV is a unique experience, as the accelerator feels more directly in control of the output than with a gasoline engine. Where a gasoline engine turns at an ever-changing ratio relative to the speed of the car, an EV's motor typically delivers a direct connection between your foot on the accelerator and the car's response.

That feeling comes from the much greater energy efficiency of an electric drive, which converts over 90 percent of electricity into kinetic energy. Combustion engines only manage to send about 35 percent of fuel energy to the wheels.

Tesla Supercharger

Tesla offers what it calls Superchargers, free high-powered charging stations that only work with the Model S and Model X.

Claire Reilly/CNET

This energy efficiency lets Tesla give certain versions of the Model S acceleration from zero to 60 mph in under 3 seconds, and even the little Chevrolet Spark EV hits 60 in just 7.9 seconds. However, where we are conditioned to think of engine horsepower in traditional cars, the electric motors of EVs aren't really as important as their battery packs.

Automakers measure battery capacity in kilowatt-hours, but you don't need to focus on that specification when shopping for an EV. The estimated range and charging times, both directly related to the battery capacity, are all you really need to know. The Tesla Model S' maximum range of 270 miles has gone unchallenged among current EVs. Tesla achieves that range partly by giving the Model S a huge 85 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That's an expensive investment, but given Tesla's premium pricing, that cost is easier to absorb than less-costly models. More typical of EVs is the Kia Soul Electric, its 27 kilowatt-hour battery giving it an EPA-estimated range of 93 miles.

Unfortunately, lengthy charging times exacerbate EVs' limited range. If you plug a Fiat 500e into a standard 110-volt outlet in your garage, it will take 24 hours to fully charge the batteries. However, plug it into a 240-volt charging station at home and it will only take 4 hours. Charging stations have become relatively cheap and easy to install, plugging into the same power source as a clothes dryer. If you buy an EV, you will also want to get a charging station.

You can read more about EV charging options, including DC fast charging, in our guide to charging electric cars.

One bright note, on a mile-per-mile basis, electricity costs substantially less than gasoline, although EVs typically cost more to purchase initially than comparable IC cars, even after federal, state and local incentives are factored in.

Tech and safety

Where dashboard touchscreens and navigation come as options in their IC equivalents, EVs often get more advanced dashboard electronics as standard. The Kia Soul Electric benefits from a navigation system that you would have to option up in a standard Soul model. One feature to look for in EV navigation systems is a listing of public charging stations, so you can plug in while shopping or get an emergency boost if you need a few more miles.

Nissan Leaf navigation system

The Nissan Leaf integrates driving range information into its navigation system, showing how far you can go.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

The reason automakers give EVs more advanced electronics is partly buyer expectations, catering to a more tech-savvy crowd, and also to enable information displays and controls for the electric drivetrain. Likewise, EVs usually get uniquely designed instrument clusters that show a power usage gauge instead of a traditional tachometer.

One key feature to look for in an EV's dashboard electronics is the option to schedule charging times. The Nissan Leaf lets you plug in the car and set it to begin charging the battery at a specific time, say 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., taking advantage of less expensive off-peak electricity rates.

In addition, many EVs include a telematics service, reporting their charge status over a dedicated data connection. You can access that information through a Web site or smartphone app, and even initiate charging remotely.

As with other new cars, expect EVs to offer USB ports connected to the stereo and Bluetooth hands-free phone systems as standard.

Driver assistance features are of limited availability among EVs today, having much to do with the limited number of models. However, not only can the Tesla Model S be had with systems that keep it in its lane and maintain distance from slower traffic ahead, it also proved incredibly durable in crash tests, achieving five-star ratings for every National Highway Safety Transport Agency category.

Top EV picks

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
Josh Miller/CNET

The undisputed king of the EV set, and an exceptional car compared with its gasoline-powered competition, is the Tesla Model S. Designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle, the Model S takes advantage of its cabin space, offering seating for five plus two optional third-row child seats. A large tablet-style LCD in the center of the dashboard shows connected features such as music apps, Google Maps and even a browser, while range comes in at up to 270 miles for the top model. But at a base price of $70,000 before incentives, the Model S is aimed at well-heeled buyers. As an alternate, the $50,000 Mercedes-Benz B-Class uses a Tesla-sourced electric drivetrain and retains premium brand cache, but has limited regional availability.

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

For a more affordable option, we suggest the Nissan Leaf, at a base price of $30,000. Nissan has been very aggressive in marketing the Leaf, entering the market before other EV offerings. While the base model only offers 84 miles of range, it can be optioned up to 107 miles, and it comes with DC fast-charging capability. To be honest, we also like the Kia Soul Electric and Chevrolet Spark EV as more affordable electric cars, but our pick goes to the Leaf because it is available nationwide.

Watch for the Chevrolet Bolt, introduced in January of 2016. It promises 200 miles of range and a price around $38,000 before incentives. If its specs hold true, it will likely replace the Leaf as our affordable pick.

You may get sticker shock looking at the manufacturer prices of EVs, especially compared with equivalent-sized IC cars. However, the federal government offers a tax incentive of up to $7,500, and some states offer their own tax reductions and perks. In California, solo-driven EVs get to use carpool lanes, which can greatly reduce commute times.

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