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Is an electric vehicle right for you? What to know before you shop

Here's how to navigate the expanding world of EVs and what to look for.
How to shop for an electric vehicle
Are you ready to try an electric vehicle?TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

As electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids become more popular among car brands, many consumers are wondering whether they should make the switch.

It's always a good idea to brush up on the facts before heading to the dealership and understand if an EV is right for you. While driving an EV is known for reducing emissions and helping the environment, there are plenty of other perks that may surprise even those who are most committed to their gas-guzzler.

To better get to know the scope of EVs available to consumers right now, TMRW spoke with Chelsea Sexton, one of the key experts in the 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car." Sexton also co-founded and served as former executive director of Plug In America, a non-profit that works to reduce petroleum, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality by promoting clean, affordable cars that run on domestic electricity. Every year, Plug In America hosts a nationwide driving event during National Drive Electric Week in late September when customers can discover and test drive electric cars without pressures from a dealership.

Here's what we learned about EVs so far.

Polestar 2 US Media Drive - USA - Aug 2020
The Polestar 2, a Sweden-based company rivaling Tesla, just launched its first electirc vehicle for U.S. consumers.Paul Barshon / Polestar

What are advantages to buying or leasing an EV?

You may assume that most electric vehicle consumers are choosing them for environmental reasons. Sexton said that it's a lesser factor than you'd think.

"We buy emotionally and justify rationally," she said, explaining that people look to other factors to purchase an EV. "The car itself has to be better, cheaper or something above and beyond."

Here are some rational points people shopping for an EV or hybrid may cite:

  • A great drive: "The No. 1 response EV owners will give you is that it is a better driving experience," Sexton told TMRW. "They're all torque. They're fun, quiet and smooth because there's no gear changes, which makes them feel calmer in traffic." The new Chevrolet Bolt EUV and EV, for example, deliver 200 horsepower and 266-pound feature of near instant torque.
  • Convenient: "No one thinks of going to the gas station as inconvenient, unless you don't have to," Sexton pointed out. She added that the vast majority of EV drivers charge their car overnight at home while they sleep. The experience becomes as benign as charging a phone. And suddenly, the experience of leaving early for work to get gas because you didn't feel like pumping in the rain the night before doesn't happen anymore. (Longer road trips might be a different story for now.)
  • Incentives that make life simpler: Depending on where you live or your employer, there are a range of incentives for EV drivers. Many states allow EV drivers to use the HOV lane (aka the "carpool lane") even with just one person in the car. Depending on where you live, this can save up to an hour in commuter traffic. Sexton shared how one mom said the best part of buying an EV was that she got an hour extra with her kid each day instead of spending it with traffic. Now that's a perk! Some companies, such as Bank of America and Google, reward employees who drive the more eco-conscious cars with various perks.
  • Potential tax write-off: Sexton explained that there are some tax incentives for those who buy an electric car, but they can vary or change. There could be up to $7,500 in tax refunds available but it depends on the brand and not everyone qualifies. Some of the incentives are also set to expire so be sure to check how it works in your state.
  • Save money on utilities: Plus, certain utility companies will give EV users cheaper rates to charge cars outside of peak daytime usage times, or discount bills for installing an at-home charging station. In addition, many municipalities allow free metered parking for EVs.
  • Helps with public health: Charging a car versus having every car idling in traffic, puffing out exhaust, is a way to help alleviate basic air pollution.

What hybrids and EVs are available right now

Plug-in hybrids

Plug-in hybrids operate on a combination of electricity and gas. Most have between 25 and 45 miles electric range and roughly 30 to 50 miles gas range (saving roughly half of your annual expenses on gas). Hybrids are great options for people who are curious about the EV experience but aren't ready to go all the way. They're also a useful choice for those who drive locally most days a week — charging nightly and rarely tapping into the gas tank for shorter commutes — but also take road trips frequently and don't want to worry about finding charging stations during longer drives.

People who rarely use gas in their hybrids because they charge it often or drive very little (like many during the pandemic) will certainly save money on gas. And if the hybrid's operates on electric for an extended period, the car automatically notifies the driver that it's going to use some gas miles so the gas in the tank doesn't get stale.

Standard sedans and crossovers:

  • Prius Prime - 25 miles electric range (MSRP starting at $28,220)
  • Toyota RAV - 45 electric miles (MSRP starting at $28,800)

Family-sized vehicles :

  • Chrysler Pacifica, the only plug-in minivan on the market right now, is around 30 miles electric range (MSRP starting at $39,995)
  • Jeep wrangler 4xe (MSPRP starting at $47,995)
  • Volvo XC90 (MSRP starting at $49,695)

Pure Electric Vehicles

The new 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV adds more legroom to its classic model and has self-driving assistance.
The new 2022 Chevy Bolt EUV adds more legroom to its classic model and has self-driving assistance. Chevrolet

These EVs are different from hybrids in that they run solely on electricity. EVs that are now available to consumers range in size and price (from affordable to luxury models) and have longer electric ranges to ensure drivers can drive significant distances (often 200 plus miles) before plugging in and recharging.

EVs models have batteries with three charging speeds, ranging from 55 kilowatt-hours in the Chevy Bolt and Tesla 3 models to about 150 kWh in an Audi and 350 kWh in the more expensive Tesla and Porsche models. The first Volkswagen ID.4 on the market for consumers is changing the game a bit, as it's in an affordable category but charges three times as fast as both Chevy Bolts.

"In reality, that doesn't practically affect people as much as they think. But if you're traveling far every weekend, a half-hour stop versus and one-and-a-half-hour stop may matter," Sexton told TMRW.

Here are some of the more common 2021 and 2022 vehicles available now, priced lowest to highest.

Standard-sized sedans:

  • Hyundai Ioniq (from $23,200)
  • Nissan Leaf (from $31,670)
  • Chevrolet Bolt EV (from $31,995)
  • Tesla Model 3 (from $38,490)

Medium-sized crossovers (a very popular category among consumers):

  • Hyundai Kona ($20,500)
  • Kia Nero (from $24,690)
  • Chevrolet EUV Bolt - charges about 175 miles per hour (from $33,995)
  • Tesla Model Y (from $39,990)
  • Volkswagen ID.4 - 250 miles of electric range; charges about 150 miles in 30 minutes (from $39,995)
  • Ford Mach-E (from $42,895)
  • Polestar 2 - first model to hit the mainstream market competing with Tesla's Model Y with a sporty, smooth handle and unique design ($59,900)
  • Jaguar I-PACE (from $69,850)

Larger SUVs and trucks

  • Tesla Model X (from $79,990)
  • Other larger models coming soon to U.S. markets include sleek, luxury adventure vehicles like the Rivian R1 T and R1 S SUV and truck (the Rivian delivery vans are currently being tested by Amazon), as well as Chevy Silverado and Ford F150 EVs.

What are the most important things to consider when shopping for an EV?

1. What type of driving do you do?

When you're looking at EVs, ask yourself, "how much range do I really need?" In urban areas, Sexton advised, it's easy to overestimate how much driving we actually do. The average person in the U.S. drives about 35 miles a day (or 50 miles for rural-area commuters). Even the most affordably priced pure EVs, have about 200- to 300-mile ranges before drivers need to recharge vehicles.

For those who do travel far distances, traveling with an EV is not very challenging as there are growing networks of public charging stations available throughout the country.

2. Where are you charging?

At home: Most people charge their EVs at home in a regular outlet, where one overnight charge works well for daily driving needs. For most moderately priced EVs, you'll get three to four miles for every hour of charging in a typical outlet.

Folks who like charging at home can also get a special outlet (240-volt) installed in their garage (which Sexton said is about same power as oven range). This will give the car about 25 to 40 miles per hour of charging. This is one of the EV upgrades for which utility companies often offer discounts or free installation.

In public: There are an increasing numbers of charging stations across the country. The vehicle manufacturers and charging companies both have apps drivers can download to find public places to plug in. Sexton advises using the app Plugshare as it is agnostic to brands and shows all public charging stations. You can filter searches by car model, location and how fast you need to charge the car.

One thing to note: There are different speeds of charges. Some are free but may require a full day or overnight charge while others, like DC Fast Charging, can charge the car completely over a quick lunch break — about 80% over 20-30 minutes at approximately 29 cents per minute, depending on the charger brand and location. These typically cost no more than filling up a tank of gas with rates varying by charger but the high-speed chargers often require more money if the car is left plugged so people don't take up the space all day.

3. Do you want a used EV car?

There are more and more EVs on the market for consumers, but not everyone wants or can afford a brand new car. According to Sexton, the average EV starts at $35,000 before any incentives or tax reductions, should the driver qualify.

"For pure EVs, just like any other device, batteries in cars degrade over time — especially those over three years old. Relatively new EVs, like off of a two-year lease, will be fine," Sexton told TMRW. "Depending on the model of EV you're looking at and range, this could be much less than when new. Just make sure to get an assessment on the battery first."

Sexton said those looking for a plug-in hybrid used car need look no further than the Chevrolet Volt (not to be confused with their new EV and EUV models, the Bolt).

"It's their plug-in hybrid they offered for eight years, had two generations of it and just stopped making it. They do really well used and are a highly recommended; solid model available nationwide and about the same size as Nissan Leaf."

4. Budget and space?

The rest of Sexton's car shopping tips fall right in line with what consumers think about when looking at a typical gas-operated vehicle. With the expansion in the EV market, hopefully most folks shopping for one, from a smaller sedan to a large truck, can find something that fits their needs.