By Larry Printz
September 28, 2012
If you're considering a new car purchase, an electric car might be worthy of consideration for the first time since the Turkey Trot was a national craze. While the thought of never visiting a gas station again holds appeal, there are things to consider before you take the plunge.
How will you use it?
An electric car can be an ideal choice if your daily driving needs are modest. According to studies done by General Motors, on average, most Americans drive fewer than 40 miles a day. Now consider that, according to the EPA, the Nissan Leaf has a range of 73 miles before it needs recharging and the Mitsubishi i goes 62 miles before its battery pack is drained. The Chevrolet Volt — a plug-in gas-electric hybrid — travels 35 miles before its gas engine kicks in for the next 250 miles, but it's running almost exclusively on gas during that time.
If you only have one car, an electric car may not be for you given the modest range. For example, the 84-mile round trip to Busch Gardens from downtown Norfolk, Va., is beyond the EPA range of most electric cars without a recharge at the park.
Beyond a weekend outing, consider where and when you can plug your electric vehicle in. Do you have a place to recharge at your office, or are you going to have to wait until you get home? Given that, a Chevrolet Volt would be a better solution if it's your only car. Most days, you'd never burn gas. For other drivers, the Leaf or an i would make the perfect daily second car.
All of the cars in this story are recharged by plugging them into an electric outlet. Recharging times vary depending on the size of the car's battery pack and how much of its power is depleted.
All electric cars can be recharged using a conventional 120-volt electrical outlet, also known as Level One charging. But it can take as long as 20 hours to fully recharge a depleted battery. Most electric vehicles can be recharged faster using a 240-volt outlet, the sort used for an electric clothes dryer. Usually, this requires that your garage or carport be wired for a 240-volt outlet and the use of special chargers for the car. This is known as Level Two charging.
The difference in charging time is noticeable. The Nissan Leaf, which can take up to 20 hours to recharge at Level One, takes eight hours at Level Two.
Also consider if you can recharge your car while at work and what sort of charger is available — Level One or Two.
And finally, remember that the vehicle's battery size makes a difference in charging time. While the Leaf takes eight hours to recharge at 240 volts, the Chevrolet Volt, with its significantly smaller battery pack, recharges in five hours at 240. Chargers can be purchased from automakers or third-party vendors.
Take a test drive
An electric vehicle may seem similar to a conventional car, but the differences start the minute you hit the starter button.
Most noticeable is what's missing. Start it up, and there's no noise or shudder. Lights come on, but you feel and hear nothing. There is a transmission lever or knob, but no clutch pedal. It's not needed; the car uses a continuously variable automatic transmission. There are no fixed gears. Since electric motors lack engine braking, there's a separate gear to help slow the car.
There is no tachometer showing engine speed. Instead, a gauge shows the percentage of remaining charge. Another readout shows distance remaining until total battery discharge.
Usually, EVs have a normal driving mode and an eco mode, which restricts acceleration to conserve battery charge. The drive line of these cars shuts off when stopped for a light, but accessories such as radios, climate control and wipers still function.
Acceleration is quick off the line. Unlike gas engines, where power builds up gradually, electric power comes on instantly, like flipping a light switch. However, driving aggressively quickly depletes battery power. Weather, ambient temperature and accessory load (climate control, audio system use) can greatly affect range.
All electric cars use regenerative braking, which captures energy from braking to help recharge the car's batteries. As a result, the brakes grab quickly and the cars decelerate quicker than most drivers are accustomed to.
On the car's exterior, you'll find an electric charge port in place of an opening to gas up.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1969 at MIT, uses scientific analysis to address social issues such as climate change, energy, transportation, sustainable agriculture and scientific integrity. According to a study released last month by the group, the impact of driving a Nissan Leaf in Hampton Roads or Northeast North Carolina on global warming is at the same level as that of driving a gas-powered vehicle that returns 55 mpg in combined city/highway driving. For the Mitsubishi i, the gas-powered car would have to return 63 mpg to match the i's impact. According to the EPA figures, not a single car meets these standards.
This is despite electric utilities' reliance on coal.
Even when coal's dominance as an electric power source is considered, gas vehicles contribute more to global warming than EVs. The UCS study cites not just vehicle emissions, but the "wells to wheels" emissions generated by extracting, refining and delivering petroleum to the vehicle. By contrast, electric cars have no emissions; the only emissions come from power plants.
And, if a power plant increases its use of renewable energy, such as wind or solar, the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be significant. Considering that the average gas-powered compact car in the United States returns 27 mpg, charging an electric car on average has a greenhouse gas impact of 30 mpg nationwide, according to the UCS. But, if the power plant is fired by natural gas, that score would be 54 mpg; wind, 3,900 mpg.
Just like some gas cars travel further on a gallon of gas, some electric cars go farther off a kilowatt-hour of electricity. The Mitsubishi i is the most efficient, using 0.3 kWh/mile or the equivalent of 112 mpg, according to the EPA. The Leaf rates 0.34 kWh/mile or 99 mpg-e, while the Volt measures 0.36 kWh/mile or 94 mpg-e.
Electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i, and gas-electric hybrids cost more than your typical vehicle. The Leaf starts at $35,200, the i at $29,125 and the Volt at $39,145. All of them are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit.
Assuming these vehicles are driven 11,000 miles annually - or 30 miles a day - the Leaf driver would save $1,180 a year in Hampton Roads; the i driver, $1,210, according to UCS analysis. This assumes a gas price of $3.50 a gallon.
According to an analysis by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Chevrolet Volt drivers use electricity for 64 percent of their travel. Assuming that, you'd save $857 annually, assuming a premium gas price of $3.70.
If you drive more than 11,000 miles a year, the savings will be greater.
Or, put another way, the Leaf and i drivers save 400 gallons of gas annually, the Volt driver 260 gallons vs. your average gas car, which returns 27 mpg in combined city/highway driving.
Still, there's one more cost to consider: battery replacement. According to Consumer Reports, the Volt's batteries are estimated to cost $8,000, the Leaf's approximately $18,000. Thankfully, both EVs have 8-year/100,000-mile warranties on their battery packs and related components.
Given the positive environmental impact and the savings versus conventionally powered vehicles, an electric car is a viable solution for those who can live with its limited driving range. And the costs reported by the UCS show that while recharging an EV will raise your electric bill, it's still less than the price paid at the pump, in the air and overseas.