Ultimate EV Buyer's Guide by Swing, Chapter 2

Picking an Electric Car

With 15+ all-electric models on the market, learn how to cut through the new jargon and find the model that will get you driving electric today.

The first step in buying an electric car is, of course, picking out which car is the best fit for you. There are key considerations that are common to buying any type of car such as price, but there are also a handful of important factors inherent only to electric cars like the type of powertrain, the electric range, battery technology and warranties, charging speed, and the availability of ultra-high speed DC Fast Charging capabilities

 

Powertrain (Hybrid vs. PHEV vs. BEV)

The design of electric powertrains has split into three classes:

Traditional Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV)HEV: (classic) Hybrid Electric Vehicles
The Toyota Prius defined this category (although Toyota now builds a Prius Prime with a PHEV powertrain). Hybrids have small batteries that give a small electric boost and recycle some of the car's gas energy when braking.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)PHEV: Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles
Think of these as super-charged hybrids. They have larger batteries than classic hybrid HEV's, but they can go only 15-30 miles all-electric before the gasoline engine kicks in.
Fully Electric (BEV, or Battery Electric Vehicle)BEV: Battery Electric Vehicles
These are all-electric cars. Their batteries are much larger than hybrids for more all-electric range.

We won’t spend much time exploring traditional hybrids but we will describe the difference between hybrids and BEVs/PHEVs in this section.

Diagram of HEV, PHEV, and BEV powertrains
A diagram of how different electric powertrains work. Source: SolarJourney 

If you’re not familiar with hybrids, they essentially combine a gas-powered car with a small battery. The battery is used for accelerating at low speeds and is typically charged when the car slows down by converting the car’s motion into stored energy (“regenerative braking”). Battery packs of today are very efficient at moving vehicles at lower speeds while internal combustion engines have traditionally been better at moving vehicles at higher speeds. Hybrid vehicles offer a nice marriage between the two technologies. Hybrid vehicles offer lower tailpipe emissions (but not zero-emissions), lower fuel costs, and are less polluting around the city. Unlike BEVs (described in more detail below), hybrids conveniently only depend on traditional gas stations and can be refueled in a matter of minutes, no need to find a charger. The downside of hybrids is that they tend to be mechanically more complex which can lead to increased maintenance costs and their emissions exacerbate air pollution and climate change. Their batteries are sized only for an electrical “boost”, so you do very little emissions-free all-electric driving. If you are especially worried about the availability of charging infrastructure, a hybrid might be for you but you should also consider a PHEV.

The Toyota Prius is one of the most popular hybrid cars.
The Toyota Prius is one of the most popular hybrid cars. Source: AxleAddict 

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), like the Honda Clarity PHEV, is similar to a traditional hybrid but with a much larger battery pack in charge of powering the vehicle. These PHEVs allow you to plug in a charger to increase their electric range but aren’t solely dependent on electricity like a BEV. In fact, the gas engine’s role is often to act as a generator of electricity for the battery rather than powering the wheels directly. They can travel dozens of miles on electricity alone (most are designed so you can perform an average commute on electricity alone), they pollute significantly less than hybrids and, likewise, require less for fuel costs. Their more powerful batteries allow them to accelerate quicker than traditional hybrids or gas cars. PHEVs might be a good choice for you if you want to substantially reduce your emissions and drive primarily around town, but aren’t ready for the (sometimes) higher price or electricity-dependence of a pure BEV.

The Chrysler Pacifica comes in a PHEV trim!
The Chrysler Pacifica comes in a PHEV trim! Source: US News 

BEVs, like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, are quickly becoming the new standard for electric cars. They offer a simpler and cheaper to maintain powertrain design whereby the power from the car’s battery is delivered directly to one or more motors attached to the car’s axle(s). The main drawback of this type of vehicle has traditionally been a smaller range, although that’s starting to change. More and more BEVs are debuting with 200-300 miles of range. Of course, a BEV requires a source of electricity for charging – you cannot fill up at a traditional gas station. Fully charging a BEV at home is typically done overnight with a Level 2 charger (more on charger levels below). Using a public DC Fast Charging Station can get a BEV ~80% full with 30-60 minutes. We generally don’t recommend sticking to a Level 1 Charger with longer range BEVs because it will take too long to charge.

The 2019 Hyundai Kona is a BEV SUV with 200+ miles of range!
The 2019 Hyundai Kona is a BEV SUV with 200+ miles of range! Source: Paremus Hyundai 
 

Price

Internal combustion engines tend to be less expensive simply because they have been around for so long, but electric cars are quickly achieving price parity, especially with available incentives.

In general, a new BEV or PHEV is going to cost you $30,000 and upwards, before incentives. Depending on where you live, you can receive $10,000 or more in rebates and tax credits (more on that below) which brings the price down to around $20,000 for the cheapest models.

If that’s too high for your budget, we recommend you looking into traditional hybrid vehicles or used cars.

Learn EV Cost-Savings Tricks
 

Electric Range

If you’re hoping to buy a plug-in hybrid, you’ll come across several range figures: electric range, gas range, and combined range. Electric range is the distance you can travel on energy stored in the battery and the gas range is how far you could travel if the battery was empty but the gas tank was full. The combined range is the sum of those two figures. PHEVs typically have ranges of 230-400 miles before you need to refill the gas tank, battery or both.

If you buy a battery-electric vehicle, you only need to worry about electric range because it’s the same as the combined range (hooray, no gas tank!). Modern lower-end BEVs like the Nissan Leaf and Hyundai Ioniq offer a range between 100-200 miles, mid-range BEVs offer 200-300 miles, and premium BEVs offer 300+ miles of range. We find that after 200 miles of range, range anxiety (the stress you may feel about making it to a nearby charger) tends to disappear.

Powertrain TypeGas RangeElectric RangeCombined Range
Traditional Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV) HEVFarNegligible (assist only)Far
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) PHEV200 - 320 miles30 - 80 miles230 - 400 miles
Fully Electric (BEV, or Battery Electric Vehicle) BEVN/A (no gas tank)80 - 300 miles80 - 300 miles
 

Battery Technology and Warranties

All electric car batteries will degrade over time. That is, the total amount of energy they can hold will dwindle, just like your smartphone’s battery. However, now that the first generation of mass-market-ready EV’s are coming off their first leases, we’re finding fears about battery degradation are largely overblown. Although no BEV’s are ‘unusable’ after their first few years, the BEV’s that experience non-negligible degradation tend to be ones that have battery packs that are air cooled and have been driven in areas with extreme temperature swings. Air cooled battery technology is not as effective as liquid-cooling (sometimes called “active thermal management”) at preventing battery degradation. Air-cooled batteries will experience 3-5% degradation per year, while liquid-cooled batteries will experience 1-2% degradation. Needless to say, we recommend you pick a car with liquid-cooling to ensure the car’s range continues to meet your needs and the resale value stays high.

Almost all EV manufacturers provide a battery warranty, however, the quality of these warranties vary wildly. Not only do they differ in the number of years or miles that the warranty covers but, most importantly, they vary in coverage when ownership changes and what problems are covered. Some warranties only cover catastrophic issues (“my car won’t charge”) while the better ones cover excessive degradation. The industry seems to have standardized on no more than 30% degradation over 10 years. The industry-leading warranties cover 10 years and 100,000 miles.

Examples of battery warranties (2016)
Examples of battery warranties (2016) Source: GreenCarReports 
 

Charging at Home

If you purchase a BEV or a PHEV, you’ll need to charge your vehicle regularly. You may or may not need to buy dedicated hardware for charging, depending on your driving habits. We recommend you decide which charging option suits you before you purchase your EV so you can factor in the additional cost. There are three charging speeds available to EV owners:

Level 1, or “trickle charging”
Uses a standard wall outlet.
Level 2, or “home charging”
Requires professional installation of a high-energy (240V) outlet that looks like a dryer or oven plug.
Level 3, or “DC Fast Charging”
Not available at home. Discussed more in the next section.

Level 1 (also known as a “trickle charging”) refers to using a standard wall outlet and cable to plug in your car just as you would your mobile phone. Level 1 cables typically come standard with any new electric car. The amount of “juice” available out of a standard wall plug is limited, however, so charging speeds are slow (often around 4 miles of range per hour of charge, or 30 miles of range per night). People who have short commutes can often get by on just a level 1 charger, especially if they have charging available at work or a nearby supermarket for the occasional top-off.

An example of Level 1 “Trickle Charger” cord.
An example of Level 1 “Trickle Charger” cord. Source: Amazon 

People who have more demanding commutes or don’t want to feel like they’re barely making ends meet on a 25 miles per night budget install a Level 2 charger in their garage or next to their driveway. Level 2 chargers use a dedicated, 240V circuit (like a clothes dryer) to shove electrons into the car’s battery faster than they can with a standard wall outlet. Level 2 chargers can provide up to 25 miles of range for every hour of charge, or 200+ miles of range per night. The exact amount of range per hour depends on the power rating of the charger unit itself and the power rating of your car (see the Compatibility section below).

Examples of Level 2 Chargers.
Examples of Level 2 Chargers. Source: My Chevrolet Volt 
Learn More About Home Chargers
 

DC Fast Charging

A Level 3 'DC Fast' Charger

DC Fast Chargers (also known as Level 3 chargers or Superchargers for the Tesla network) are able to refill most electric car batteries to 80% in 30-60 minutes and the final 20% in another 30-60 minutes. These aren’t chargers you install at home, but rather ones you find at dedicated charging stations, at grocery stores, and other public places (it would be too expensive to install at home). This sometimes-optional feature is like prozac for your range anxiety -- if you take lots of longer road trips or don't live in a place that you can install a charger at home, strongly consider getting a car equipped with DC Fast Charging technology. Most new electric cars have the capability to use DC Fast Chargers but it’s not a standard feature on some.

Level 3 chargers provide energy at different power ratings (in kW) which is essentially equivalent to charge “speeds”, in kW. Most public charging stations are 50kW but some of the more advanced Level 3 chargers are 70kW or even 150kW. Different EVs support different powers of Level 3 charging. The I-PACE for example made news that they future-proofed by being able to support up to 150kW charging.

If this is a feature you think you’d need to meet your driving demands, make sure you double check that it’s on the trim you want or an added package on the car you selected from the dealer’s inventory.

 

Lease Versus Buy

We recommend most people lease electric cars rather than purchase them outright. The state of electric vehicle technology (namely, battery packs) is improving so rapidly and rebates are so high that there is a high level of volatility in the resale value of these cars.

As evidence, most 3 to 4 year old Nissan Leafs are now worth 20% or less of their original MSRP. Most original Leaf owners took $7k-$10k off of MSRP with various incentives – the post-incentive depreciated value is, more or less, inline with the depreciation of non-electric cars. The exception to that rule seems to be Tesla which has held its resale exceptionally well over the years. This is primarily due to a dearth of used Teslas on the market. That Tesla resale resilience might weaken as the market is flooded with Tesla Model 3’s.

One final important consideration is the federal tax credit. As we describe in more detail in the next chapter on Incentives, this credit can only be used to lower tax liability (as opposed to contributing towards a tax rebate). If you expect to owe significantly less than $7,500 in taxes, an EV lease might make more sense because the dealer will absorb the tax credit and pass that savings along in the form of lower monthly payments.

SwingElectric Ultimate EV Buyer's Guide
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