How to buy an electric car: A shopper’s guide

Electric vehicle plug: Image via Toyota UK

I’ve been thinking about upgrading to an electric car for a while now. And in today’s market, there are plenty of models to choose from.

But having a lot of options makes for a complicated decision! Each model of electric car has its own unique mix of efficiency, charging time, and driving range—and since buying a car is a big decision, I want to find the model that makes the most sense for my family. To add to the confusion, there doesn’t seem to be any single, unified source of information on the many electric car options out there.

So, for my own convenience—and hopefully yours—I pulled together a table with basic stats on the major electric and plug-in hybrid cars:

Click on image for a larger version of the guide

What I took away from this research is that there’s no “perfect” choice among the EVs on the market. They’re all far more efficient in electric mode than gas-only models. That means less money spent on fueling your car, and lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions for each mile driven. But whether you’re willing to pay a premium for a longer range, a faster charge, or a higher top speed seems like a personal choice that I can’t help you out with.

But at least you now have the numbers. Happy comparing!

And now for the notes and caveats:

  • I’ve restricted my search to electric and plug-in hybrid sedans that can carry at least 4 people—which is what my own family needs most days of the week—and to cars that are either on the market right now, or are expected to be offered later this year, in at least some part of the Pacific Northwest. I decided not to include a couple of cars—the Coda and the Toyota RAV4 EV—that are only being sold in California right now. If I’ve missed some cars, let me know in comments and I’ll be happy to update the table!
  • MPGe stands for “miles per gallon equivalent“—which is how the EPA rates the efficiency of electric vehicles.
  • I sorted the models by base MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) minus the maximum US tax credit allowed for that model. But note that you only get the full tax credit if you actually owe that much in federal income tax! Also, I decided not to include the cost of installing an in-home 240V charger in the vehicle price, since people with ready access to a public charging station might not need one.
  • Some of the figures above are estimates, rather than official figures. I did my best, but unfortunately you may need to check the official figures as they’re released.
  • The Honda Fit EV isn’t actually available for sale yet. A limited run will be leased to customers in Oregon and California beginning this summer. I’ve included its MSRP price (with tax credit) for comparison’s sake, but folks who lease a Honda Fit aren’t even allowed to buy it after the lease is over. That means that the price I quote is sort of irrelevant at this point.
  • Retail deliveries for the Tesla Model S are scheduled to begin in June, but it looks like the smaller-battery models won’t be shipped until late 2012. I wasn’t able to find solid data on 120V charging times on the Tesla website, and the 240V charging time estimate can be cut in half if you buy an optional “twin charger” for $1,500. The Tesla website quotes a 300 mile range for its 85 kWh model…but recently announced that its range is 265 miles under EPA’s new test cycle, which makes me suspect that the ranges for the 40 and 60 kWh models may be slightly overstated—thus the asterisk. UPDATE: In the comments section, a reader points out that a previous version of this table likely overstated the range 40 and 60 kWh Tesla Model S—he recommends adjusting downwards, based on the results of recent EPA tests on the 85 kWh model. I’ve kept the MPGe figure from the Tesla website for the 40 kWh model, but we should probably treat the Tesla figures as preliminary until official numbers are released.
  • The MPGe (miles per gallon-equivalent) figures for the Prius Plug-in and Chevy Volt are for electric-mode only. The Volt gets 37 mpg in all-gas mode, and the Prius gets 50 mpg.
  • And as a reminder, the differences in miles-per-gallon equivalent (MPGe) in all-electric mode are actually quite small. As we’ve written a number of times, miles-per-gallon math is actually quite deceptive: differences at the low end of the MPG scale matter much more than do differences at the high end of the scale. So the difference between the top performer (the Honda Fit, at 116 MPGe) and its closest rival (the Mitsubishi MiEV, at 112 MPGe) is actually quite small.

(Sources for the chart include the manufacturers’ websites, Wikipedia, FuelEconomy.gov, and Motor Trend Magazine.)

Clark Williams-Derry is the programs director at Sightlinea non-profit online news source covering environmental, social, and economic issues affecting the Northwest

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ted-Marlow/100001906709174 Ted Marlow

    how does charging more for something that does less become an “upgrade”?

  • Guest

    Thank you, Clark, for this buying guide! Here in the Pacific Northwest, where 93% of our energy comes from non-greenhouse-gas-generating sources, electric vehicles are truly the way to go.

    • Guest

      And the magic electron fairies send the power into these wonderful vehicles….  Oh, nope, it’s damns that have destroyed Salmon runs and completely changed our local environment forever.  Don’t forget those massive batteries have mystical insides that come from Afghanistan, Russia and China mining http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?pagewanted=all

      • Guest

        I’ve done my homework and electricity is still much, much cleaner than petroleum. Do you want your car to be belching toxins from its tailpipe or can you live with a few fewer salmon in our rivers and a few more miners in the third world?

  • Anonymous

    And remember, Your Mileage May Vary. I’ve owned a LEAF for just over a year, and I average 6 miles/kWh with mostly city driving – that’s good enough to get me ~100 miles of range, not the 73 in your chart.

  • Mike_Acker

    “upgrading” ??
    electric cars were dropped in 1901

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jesse-Casman/224308 Jesse Casman

    Helpful information, thank you. Any chance that you’d make the guide sortable by column? Would like to be able to quickly sort based on different data. Range, for example.

  • Hubert from Belgium

    French Renault has started to deliver the Kangoo ZE, the Fluence sedan ZE, the Twizzy scooter and soon also the Zoe in most European counteies. All models are delivered with leased batteries. We ordered today the Kangoo Maxi ZE van for our company. Hubert from Belgium

  • Richard

    Excellent timing! I have a Chevy Volt right now via a Klout Perk and ABSOLUTELY love it!  I also own a 2010 Prius (not plug-in).  The Volt is SOOO much more fun to drive.

  • http://twitter.com/jclaussftw Jason Gerard Clauss

    Who in their right mind would spend $30,000 on something that can’t even go 100 miles on a charge? Until I can afford a Tesla, I’m sticking to good old internal combustion.

  • Hundreth Monkey

    I didn’t see DC Quick Charging (QC) times listed. On the west coast the network of fast chargers is growing finally! Both the Mieve and Leaf are compatible with these charging stations, offering an 80% charge in just 30 minutes, substantially increasing the usable range of these vehicles. I have driven 160 miles in one day while only having to stop twice for 30 minutes! The Tesla S will only accept AC current and will be hindered until they put their proprietary stations in place by the fact that they have not created a DC QC adapter for the west coast stations, a big mistake IMHO. My family of 4 has been relying on the Leaf for over a year now, with 17,000 miles of zero emission driving, hardly ever having to wait for the car to charge. One of the other posters mentioned hydro power being problematic because of environmental damage from the dams, it should be mentioned that over 800 utilities across the country, including the ones in the north west offer programs such as “green up”, excluding things like mass hydro, coal, gas and instead use truly renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal. For a small fee each month, our entire household electricity use is offset by truly renewable energy. We are very happy to be consumers and supporters of renewable energy. No matter how one’s electricity is sourced, it is domestic which is a far cry from buying gas/oil from foreign regimes that don’t have good plans for us! If you want to see an end to terrorism, stop sending them your money!!

  • Papajaws

    Pluginamerica.org is a great website that tracks most of this information and more. They have a database sortable by type, size, availability, etc. And they have been a driving force in encouraging adoption and government support of EV’s. Worth checking out!