Electric vehicles: What you need to know

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Electric vehicles are now fully in the mainstream. EVs accounted for 8.4% of all new car sales in the US during the first three months of 2023, and the Tesla Model Y was the world’s best-selling car during that span. Sales of new gas-powered cars are even scheduled to be banned in at least a handful of states by 2035. EV owners also tend to be highly satisfied with their cars, particularly models from EV-exclusive brands like Rivian and Tesla. 

With more than 40 models currently available and dozens more on the way in the next few years, your next car could easily be an EV. Here's a primer on how to find one that’ll fit your needs.

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For most people, most EVs can handle daily drives, no problem. According to the Electric Vehicle Database, a typical new all-electric vehicle (aka battery electric vehicle or BEV) has a real-world range of about 218 miles. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimates that Americans drive an average of 40 miles per day, and less than 1 percent of all trips are longer than 100 miles (and that’s including air and rail travel). So today’s EVs should suffice for almost everybody’s work commute and shopping trips, especially if you're able to plug in at home. 

Even short-range EVs can be totally fine for some people’s needs. The Mini Cooper Electric has one of the highest customer satisfaction ratings among EVs, despite having one of the shorter ranges at just 110 miles.

Longer road trips are more of a toss-up. It depends on the specific car, how frequently you're willing to stop to recharge, and how long you're willing to wait at each stop. (And if you also own a gas car that you're willing to still use for long-distance drives, it's a moot point for now.)

Short-range, slow-charging EVs like the base-model Nissan Leaf aren’t practical for long trips out of town. You’d be forced to stop driving every two hours or so (145 miles), recharge for an hour, and repeat the process.

The basic Tesla Model Y might be practical for some trips or travel styles, but not others. In mild weather at highway speeds in a typical driving style, it realistically travels about 200 miles per charge (maybe 3 hours of driving), and can recharge the bulk of its battery in 25 minutes (on what's widely regarded as the best fast-charging network in the US). If you're okay with those breaks every two or three hours, it's no problem. But you'll never have the option to "push through" for longer stretches.

A plug-in hybrid could also be a viable option. (These are like half-electric, half-gas cars—more on them below, if you’re unfamiliar.) For example, the Toyota Rav4 Prime travels about 42 miles on a fully charged battery. Then it switches to a gas-hybrid mode that can carry you another 550 miles (at roughly 35 miles per gallon of gas) before you'll need to fill up again. 

True long-range all-electric cars are also common now, too, if they fit your budget. The Tesla Model Y Long Range can run for a respectable 250 miles on a full battery, and recharge to the recommended level in less than 30 minutes. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 Long Range goes about 240 highway miles, but has particularly quick recharging speeds, recovering the bulk of its range in 16 minutes. And at the very high end, the Lucid Air GT can cruise for a mighty 415 miles or more on a full charge—and can recharge quickly, too. 

Intimidated by managing the battery on long trips? EVs often have guides built into their infotainment systems that can map out your route, including charging stations along the way.

Cold weather can sap an EV's range

During the winter, you should expect a substantially shorter range from your EV than the advertised amount. When the temperature drops down to 15 Fahrenheit or so, expect a loss of about 25% of your real-world mileage in an all-electric vehicle.

Two things work against an EV's range in cold weather. 

First, EV batteries aren’t as efficient in low temperatures. The chemical reactions slow down, which results in greater electrical resistance and reduced overall performance. 

Second, heating your car and defrosting the windows also sucks up a lot of electricity. The more energy needed for warming up the car, the less that’s available for driving.

About 80 percent of EV owners charge their cars at home—in their garages or driveways, or sometimes the shared parking lots and garages of their apartment buildings or condo complexes. The upside is that pretty much every morning, your car is juiced up and ready to go.

Just like range, the charging station question gets more complicated during road trips.

If your car can plug into a Tesla charger, you're in great shape. The Supercharger network is the largest and most reliable network of high-speed chargers in North America, with nearly 20,000 stalls in the US as of June 2023, and growing all the time with major expansion plans underway. They’re available every few dozen miles on essentially every major interstate in the US, and along many state roads as well.

Tesla EVs work with Tesla charging stations, of course. But it looks like most North American EVs will soon be able to use this network, too. Tesla has announced plans to open their network to other EV brands, and major automakers including GM and Ford have announced that they will start to build Tesla charging ports into their vehicles, too. Technically the Tesla charging port is known as the North American Charging Standard (NACS), though time will tell if that name catches on.

The other notable fast-charging standard is the Combined Charging Standard (CCS or CCS-1), with a little over 10,000 charging ports available. Most non-Tesla EVs in the US have come equipped with this port. Some of these stations can even reach higher charging speeds than Tesla Superchargers currently do.

Finally, about 7,000 stalls with the older CHAdeMO fast-charging standard are available in the US, though there are no longer any EVs in production in the US that use this plug shape.

Don't need a fast charger?

If you're not in a big hurry, you could plug into one of more than 100,000 mid-speed Level 2 chargers that are available in parking garages and lots around the country. For every hour you're plugged in, these chargers add about 20 miles worth of range. It's not great if you're trying to cover more than a couple hundred miles per day on a long road trip, but it's a fine strategy for overnight charging, or if you can cool your heels for a few hours during the day.

About 10,000 of these Level 2 stalls are Tesla Destination Chargers, though the vast majority use a generic J1772 plug type. (Teslas can work with the generic plugs—you'll just need to use a common adapter.) Thousands of these were actually installed way back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, thanks to funding from some of the Great Recession-era stimulus packages. So if you ever spot a clunky, weathered-looking EV charger behind your town hall or next to the local train station, it might have been installed as part of this program.

In general, EVs cost more to buy than gas-powered vehicles of a similar style. The ever-popular Toyota Camry midsize sedan starts at $26,320, while the midsize Tesla Model 3 starts at $40,240, for example. And the best-selling Honda CR-V crossover starts at $28,140, while the similarly shaped VW ID.4 starts at $40,290.

But a bunch of EVs are eligible for a massive $7,500 tax credit, and many states and utility companies offer rebates or other incentives worth anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. (You can check for programs in your area at the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, aka DSIRE, and Electrek maintains a thorough list as well.) Incentives can knock more than five figures off the purchase price of some EVs—including the models we mentioned above, which makes them highly cost-competitive with similar gas-only models.

The lifetime costs of fuel and maintenance also tend to be significantly lower for EVs than for gas cars. This is especially likely if you have cheap electricity, like from rooftop solar panels.

So it's not some kind of pipe dream that you'll actually save money with an EV. A few EVs actually start at less than $30,000, including the Chevy Bolt and Chevy Bolt EUV. Both of those are also eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit. They generally qualify for any state or utility incentives, too. The out-of-pocket cost could easily end up below $20,000, for an EV with a decent range and some cargo room.

Even fun-to-drive EVs with a long range, speedy recharging, and plenty of cargo room can compete on cost. The starting cost of the incredibly popular, highly rated Tesla Model Y ($47,490) is actually less than the average price paid for a new vehicle in the US ($48,008). And again, that's before incentives, so the out-of-pocket cost could be well below $40,000. 

Really high-end EVs, though, can be quite pricey. The Rivian R1S starts around $80,000, with the higher-end trim breaking the $90,000 mark. The Lucid Air starts at about $90,000, with the mid-lineup Grand Touring trim going for about $140,000.

EVs aren't yet available in quite the same breadth of shapes and sizes as gasoline-powered vehicles, but it's getting close.

Sedans: This is the most energy-efficient design, and you'll get the most range for your money in this style. Some notable models include the Tesla Model 3, Hyundai Ioniq 6, Polestar 2, and Lucid Air. You could lump the hatchback-esque Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf into this category, too.

Compact SUVs / crossovers: America's favorite style, with more cargo room and ride height than a sedan, and less of the bulk and expense of a larger vehicle. And as the cost of batteries falls, crossovers are becoming a very common style for EVs. Some notable models include the Tesla Model Y, VW Id.4, Hyundai Ioniq 5, and Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Large SUVs and trucks: Just like gas-powered vehicles, bigger EVs have worse mileage. That means a bigger battery pack to preserve the range—which also means a much, much higher purchase price. But if you want extra room for passengers or cargo, there are now several large EVs to choose from. Notable models include the Ford F-150 Lightning, BMW iX, Rivian R1T and R1S, and of course the Hummer EV. 

Wagons and vans: These are harder to find in the US. One of the Audi e-tron variants skirts the line between a boxy SUV and a lifted wagon. The Porsche Taycan comes in a wagon variant. The closest you'll get to an electric minivan is the Chrysler Pacifica Plug-In Hybrid. And the VW Id.Buzz is a modern all-electric take on the classic VW Bus, though it's not currently available in the US.

What about plug-in hybrids?

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are part EV and part gas-hybrid. They can be a solid choice if you're nervous about relying on public EV chargers for long road trips but want most of the other upsides of an EV. Another advantage is that large PHEVs—three-row SUVs, and even a minivan—cost a lot less than the all-electric counterparts with similar passenger counts and cargo space. 

PHEVs can travel some modest distance using only a battery—usually somewhere between 15 and 45 miles, enough to greatly reduce or even eliminate all the gas you'd use for commuting, running errands, and other day-to-day driving. When the charge runs low (or with some models, if you smash the accelerator), they switch over to a gas-hybrid mode that gets something like 30 to 50 miles per gallon of gasoline, depending on the body type.

So what are the downsides to PHEVs? If you're committed to cutting all fossil fuels out of your life on principle, PHEVs don't quite get there.

PHEVs also need to have all the components of both an electric and internal-combustion drivetrain, plus a decent-sized battery, crammed into a chassis that looks and drives OK, runs efficiently, and competes on cost with both gas-powered and all-electric cars. It's tricky to thread that needle in a way that appeals to lots of buyers—and several auto execs have noted that PHEVs are a tough sell. 

But none of that should prevent you from considering a PHEV if you find one that suits your needs. Even a relatively short electric range can dramatically reduce your gasoline use, and your fuel costs should drop noticeably. Some models are even eligible for incentives—generally less than all-electric vehicles, but it's something.

A final note: One common anti-PHEV argument is that they cost a lot to maintain because they're so complex. It sounds logical, but the original PHEV (Chevy Volt) has been available for 12 years now, and there's still no evidence we've seen that demonstrates that this is actually true.

Nobody knows the average lifespan of an EV, because they haven't been around long enough to tell. The first EV produced in any significant volume (Tesla Model S) was launched in 2012, while the first true mass-market EVs (Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3) have only been around since 2017.

However, there are some strong indicators that EVs could last much longer than typical gas-powered cars. An early EV transit company called Tesloop ran most of their fleet well past 300,000 miles, with some models approaching a half-million miles

Battery health is the biggest open question because the battery is the most expensive part to repair. Nobody disputes that EV batteries will lose range over time, but it's a question of how much and how fast. Federal law provides a solid backstop, requiring a full 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty on all EV battery packs (it's 10/150,000 in California). Technically that warranty only protects against total battery failure, though a bunch of automakers guarantee at least 70% of the original driving range as part of that warranty. Some even throw in coverage over longer distances.

Real-world data on battery longevity looks pretty good so far. Tesla claims an average 12% range loss after 200,000 miles. Another analysis suggests that it's about a 1% range loss per year. So a 250-mile Tesla Model Y Long Range would travel more like 225 miles after 150,000 miles of driving, or a decade on the road, give or take.

There have been a few big battery-related fiascos. In 2022, GM recalled every Chevy Bolt and Bolt EUV ever made due to the risk of spontaneous combustion, for example. Jaguar and Hyundai issued similar recalls as well. But in general, the tech is proving to be as safe or safer than gas-powered vehicles, and plenty long-lasting, too.

The most credible and thorough analyses have found that EVs have significantly less impact on the environment than gas-powered cars, especially in terms of local air pollution and global greenhouse gas emissions. This is true even though most electricity in the US still comes from fossil fuels, as well as the significant energy required for mineral mining and battery-pack manufacturing. 

One key advantage is that EVs use energy much more efficiently than gas cars.

Head-to-head comparisons between EVs and gas cars are a little tricky. That's partly because they each use different units of energy—1 gallon of gas contains as much energy as 33.7 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. But it's also because electric vehicles are about 2.5 to 6.5 times as efficient at turning that energy into motion as internal combustion vehicles, according to the Department of Energy

So the Environmental Protection Agency developed a standardized miles-per-gallon equivalent rating (MPGe) that accounts for all of those differences. Some of the most popular EVs like the Tesla Model 3 are two or three times more energy efficient than even a gas-sipper like a Toyota Prius.

The MPGe standard doesn't account for how electricity gets generated. It's true that some of an EV's environmental advantage gets offset when fossil fuels are used in the electric mix. But even then, a reasonably efficient EV already emits far less CO2 into the atmosphere per mile driven than a reasonably efficient gas vehicle. It almost always beats a Prius hybrid, too. That's largely because the electric grid in many parts of the US is already cleaner than many people realize. Coal in particular is a rapidly shrinking part of the pie, while clean nuclear and renewable energy make up large chunks of the mix in several parts of the country. In the Northeast and along the West Coast, EVs have an especially huge environmental advantage.

What about the extra energy and carbon emissions that it takes to manufacture an EV's battery pack? According to an analysis by the DOE’s Argonne National Lab (and reported by Reuters), EVs pay back their "carbon debt" relatively quickly. This Forbes article highlights a strong case that full EVs are also a cleaner choice than gas hybrids with small batteries like the Toyota Prius, based on the same data from the DOE.

With the typical electric mix in the US, a Tesla Model 3 breaks even with a Toyota Corolla around 13,500 miles, and a Toyota Prius around 45,000 miles. A Tesla Model Y eclipses a Honda CR-V around 14,800 miles. Huge battery-powered cars like the Hummer EV or even Ford F-150 Lightning could struggle to break even with some smaller gas-powered cars in some parts of the country. But in most cases, the EVs will emit far less carbon during their lifespans—which, as we covered above, could also turn out to be much longer than a typical internal combustion car’s. 

(There’s a separate argument that the intensive mineral mining needed for EV batteries creates other kinds of environmental and social problems outside of carbon emissions. It’s a perspective that’s worth considering, alongside similar downsides from extracting oil and other fossil fuels.) 

The impacts of EVs on local air quality and health are still in the early days of research, but the first real-world study, published by the University of Southern California, paints a promising picture. For every 20 additional EVs per 1,000 people, asthma-related emergency room visits dropped by 3.2%, alongside small drops in levels of NO2 (a respiratory irritant and byproduct of gas-powered cars).

EVs do seem to chew through their tires faster than typical gas-powered cars—up to 30% faster if we’re taking one of the major tire manufacturers at their word. It’s a side effect of their speedy acceleration and heavy battery packs. That leads to extra tire wear, which means more particulate pollution on roads and in the air near roads. Not ideal. And since EVs tend to be heavier than gas-powered cars in a similar body style, it’s possible that they’ll contribute to roads wearing down faster than intended, though that’s a matter of debate.

Solar power makes your EV even better for the environment and for your bank account. With enough rooftop solar, your fuel is free. Even a community solar farm subscription could save you some cash on electricity, too.

Thinking about going solar? The EnergySage Marketplace makes it easy to get multiple quotes from vetted rooftop solar installers, all competing for your business—and without the hassle of constant calls and emails from sales reps. EnergySage can help you find a community solar project, too.

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