Electric Cars

How to buy the best electric car

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

Emme Hall/Roadshow

Top picks

Premium: Tesla Model S

With over 300 miles of range, a variant that hits 60 miles per hour in well 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: Chevrolet Bolt

Purpose-built as an electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt goes up to 238 miles on a charge, and with a base price of $37,495, government incentives can bring that price below $30,000. A hatchback design and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrated into the dashboard make it useful for errands and commutes.

The electric car

Despite range inferior to gasoline-powered cars, electric cars work well for the majority of commuters in the US. An influx of recent models boast range well over 100 miles, with affordable models coming in at over 200 miles. 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 Hyundai Ioniq Electric can go 124 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 fill up an IC car once or twice a week at a gas station, charging an EV at home means its battery, and range meter, will be full every morning.

Some automakers restrict availability of their EVs to just a few states, but newer models can be had across the US. This trend will likely continue as EVs become less about complying with state emission regulations, and more about testing the markets for what most recognize as the future of the automotive industry.

Segment overview

Tesla Model 3

Tesla came out with a medium-sized electric car, the Model 3, at a more affordable price than its SUV and large sedan.

Tesla

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 Tesla Model 3 and VW e-Golf.

With the success of Tesla, a few other startup electric automakers may offer products soon. Look for the Bollinger B1 electric SUV and the Lucid Air to begin production in the next couple of years.

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

One important factor to consider 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.

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/Roadshow

This energy efficiency lets Tesla give certain versions of the Model S acceleration from 0 to 60 mph in under 3 seconds. Where we are conditioned to think of engine horsepower in traditional cars, however, the battery packs of EVs are more important than their electric motors.

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 315 miles has gone unchallenged among current EVs. Tesla achieves that range partly by giving the Model S a huge, 100 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The cost of batteries goes a long way to explain Tesla's premium pricing. Range is on the rise with other EVs, though. Where many got under 100 miles range, the new VW e-Golf manages 125 miles, and the Chevy Bolt can go 238 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. Plug it into a 240-volt charging station at home, however, and it will only take 4 hours. Charging stations have become relatively cheap and easy to install, plugging into the same 240-volt 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/Roadshow

Tech-savvy buyers certainly expect more advanced dashboard electronics in their EVs, but this equipment also enables 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 website or phone 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. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are featured in some newer EVs, such as the Chevy Bolt, but EV-oriented apps have not yet become integrated.

As with IC cars, driver assistance features are are becoming more common among EVs today. Look for forward collision prevention, which automatically hits the brakes to stop for pedestrians or traffic. The Tesla Model S can be had with a driver assistance system that keeps it in its lane and maintains distance from slower traffic ahead, even in a traffic jam. The Model S also proved incredibly durable in crash tests, achieving five-star ratings for every National Highway Safety Transport Agency category.

Top EV picks

2016 Tesla Model S 60

2016 Tesla Model S 60

Emme Hall/Roadshow

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 315 miles for the top model, according to EPA testing (Tesla claims over 500 miles in optimal conditions). But at a base price of $70,000 before incentives, the Model S is aimed at well-heeled buyers. 

2017 Chevy Bolt

2017 Chevy Bolt

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

For a more affordable option, Chevrolet prices its all new Bolt electric hatchback at about $38,000. The Bolt combines decent range with a reasonable price, and nationwide availability, all factors that should make it a hit. Its 238-mile range should serve the daily needs of the vast majority of drivers, especially those who live in extended suburban sprawl. The Tesla Model 3 makes for an impressive alternative, and at a completely base configuration undercuts the Bolt's price by $3,000 while still getting 210 miles range. Given the huge number of preorders for the Model 3, however, it will be a year or more between ordering one now and receiving it. 

You may get sticker shock looking at the manufacturer prices of EVs, especially compared with equivalent-sized IC cars. But 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. Also note that the EPA estimates annual fueling costs for EVs ranging from $500 to $750, while a typical IC car costs twice that amount. Likewise, the simplicity of electric drivetrains suggests lower maintenance costs.

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