Should you buy a plug-in car? This is a tough question with no simple answer, but as things stand in 2019, our general response is this: If you want to make a difference, the answer is yes. If you want to save money, the answer is usually no.
From the environmental perspective there is no question that electric propulsion is superior, despite the propaganda to the contrary. This is why plug-in vehicles and regular hybrids have sold in the U.S. at all. Why they haven’t done better is because this is the land of consistently cheap gasoline and diesel fuel, and until efficient and/or clean alternatives are priced to beat the status quo soundly, they won’t make up a major chunk of the market.
Just so you know where we’re coming from, Cars.com’s editors are EV believers, though pragmatic ones. We loved driving our 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt, as we have many other plug-in models since then. But they have their limitations, and it’s not just the obvious limitation, range.
Below I’ll attempt to answer the basic questions about the two main types of plug-in vehicles — pure battery-electric models and plug-in hybrids — and in the future we’ll be going into more detail in each of these areas as automakers ramp up yet another plug-in push, amid questionable demand.
What Is an Electric Car?
Electricity plays a role in all vehicles, and an important one in common gasoline-electric hybrids, but we’re concentrating here on the vehicles you plug in and drive some distance on electric power alone, which represents two basic types. Typically when people refer to an electric car, they’re talking about a pure battery-electric vehicle that has no gas backup; when it does have a gas backup, it’s called a plug-in hybrid (which I’ll explain next). From the perspective of the automaker, with potential consequence for the consumer, a pure EV can be cheaper to build because it has one drivetrain, but because there’s no backup, more electric range is needed, and that means more battery capacity, which is one of the most expensive components and can gobble up whatever is saved by eliminating the gas engine and everything that goes with it.
What Is a Plug-In Hybrid?
A plug-in hybrid is a vehicle that can do two things: One, drive a limited distance on electricity from a battery that’s been charged by plugging into grid power, and two, also has a gasoline engine onboard that can turn on to keep the vehicle going indefinitely so long as it’s provided with fuel. The gas backup, whether it drives the wheels directly or provides electricity for the electric motor, eliminates concerns about being stranded with a dead battery, and arguably makes PHEVs a better choice if you or your family own only one car. Pure battery-electric cars, on the other hand, are not a great choice if you want to go on long road trips, because public charging is slow and unreliable.
Perhaps the best-known PHEV, and one of the best, is the erstwhile Chevrolet Volt, but there also have been plug-in versions of the Toyota Prius, now called the Prius Prime, and many others. Frankly, they haven’t been super popular, and I suspect it’s partly because some of them have had almost laughably short electric ranges. Also, some drive better than others, and the inclusion of both a gas tank and a battery pack often compromises the size (and range) of one or the other — or the cargo or passenger space. Still, there are good ones, like the Honda Clarity Plug-In Hybrid sedan and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan. Literally dozens more are coming.
What Don’t I Know About Plug-In Cars?
If you’re new to plug-ins, there are a few things you should know, some of which might surprise you — and are likely to irritate EV evangelists. I’ll address all of these issues below, but they bear calling out:
1. Public charging is not part of the equation; if you’re thinking that’s how you’ll keep your plug-in going, you’d better be a true believer.
2. EVs favor the homeowner. If you rent, or lack a garage, a pure EV is probably out of the question.
3. Range goes to hell as temperatures fall, losing more than 40 percent at 20 degrees, according to AAA (and super obvious to anyone with EV experience). There’s a reason plug-ins are more popular in warmer climates.
4. Charging takes a long time, which is just one reason behind our claim in No. 1 above.
5. Federal incentives worth as much as $7,500 on plug-in models with sufficient battery size have been tax credits, not cash rebates, since their inception. Funds won’t come back to you until tax return time for the year of purchase, and the amount depends on your tax liability (income level). In other words, you’ll wait months, at minimum, and might not get the full amount.
How Much Range Do I Need?
Our short answer is: not as much as you probably think, though there are many disclaimers attached. Once you accept that EV ownership is fundamentally different, your true needs become clearer. If you accept my other positions — primarily that the point is to charge at home overnight and not rely on public charging — you’ll recognize that it’s all about how far you drive on a daily basis, not how far you drive between stops at a filling station. Our first EV was a 2011 Nissan Leaf with an estimated range of 72 miles, which plummeted in a Chicago winter. You know what? It was plenty when we charged at both home and work, and it proved to be plenty even when we charged only at home, despite the effect of cold weather on our range. Pure EVs with modest ranges would make great commuter cars for the majority of Americans. The requirement that the same car be able to drive much longer distances is what makes an EV less affordable and less likely to recoup your investment. The current Nissan Leaf starts at $30,885 with an EPA-estimated range of 150 miles. The Leaf Plus, with its larger battery and 226 miles, costs $37,445, a whopping $6,560 to add 76 miles of range (see the two side by side; prices include destination).
If you’re considering a plug-in hybrid, it’s the same equation. Technically, if you have a 20-mile commute and do 18 miles of it on electric power before the gas kicks in, that’s great (and usually cheaper than gas alone would be), but it’s even better if you’re running electric all the time. The length of your commute, electric range of the PHEV and how many opportunities you have to charge will all come into play.
How Long Does EV Charging Take?
The short answer is “too long.” The slightly more detailed answer is “too long, and there’s no simple answer because variables abound.” Having said that, if you’re doing it the right way, which is charging your EV at home overnight, charging typically turns out not to be the problem people think it is, and plugging and unplugging once a day proves preferable to visiting a gas station as often, if ever. But we’re not going to say charging speeds are a high point of plug-in vehicles. They are one of the reasons public charging isn’t the solution uninitiated shoppers often expect.
We’re all accustomed to spending five minutes at a gas pump to add several hundred miles of range, and unfortunately that’s the standard consumers expect. (If this is to become a reality for EVs through solid-state batteries or some other innovation, it won’t come soon, or cheap.) The ugly truth is that charging on a regular 120-volt household outlet adds only about 5 miles of range for every hour of charging — at best, for an efficient, small plug-in car. Something like 3 miles per hour is more likely with a larger vehicle. For a plug-in-hybrid car, as opposed to an SUV or van, 120 volts can work out fine, and you won’t have to spend any extra money on a 240-volt circuit if you don’t already have one.
Home 240-volt charging, which is called Level 2, can add 10, 20 or even more miles of range in an hour’s time if it provides — and the car itself accepts — enough current.
Unfortunately, low or high temperatures can slow the charging process, and all rechargeable batteries charge fastest when empty and slowest when nearing capacity.
What About Public Charging?
Public charging is nice if you can find it, but don’t buy an EV expecting to rely on it. I’m sure there are people who buy EVs and manage to get by on public charging, because everyone’s needs, expectations and environments are different, but at this point in time, our position remains that if you can’t charge at home, there’s no point to buying a plug-in. Charging takes a long time (see above), and public charging typically costs more than home — especially Level 3 DC fast charging (Supercharging is Tesla’s term), which is faster than Level 2 but still doesn’t match the gas-pump expectation. Most public charging is Level 2 and is sometimes free. It’s also sometimes in use when you need it, or splits the current between two attached vehicles (which slows the charging rate) or is broken.
There may be free charging options now, but are you willing to invest in a vehicle that relies on someone else providing the juice? After we bought our Leaf and Volt, we went from being the only ones using the two free charging points that appeared in our parking structure to being consistently beaten to them by other EVs that hogged them all day. After a couple of years, the parking lot began to bill after four hours’ time, which dampened the appeal yet made little difference in availability. Eventually these units stopped working and then were removed entirely, leaving us in a charging desert, many blocks away from an alternative. The above transpired over the course of roughly five years.
Is Home Charging Expensive?
In one regard, home charging isn’t expensive. Your electric bill will go up, but usually not as much as your gas bill goes down: The cost per mile of a plug-in easily can be less than that of a comparable gas-powered vehicle, and the advantage is even greater if you’re comparing with a car that requires premium gasoline. But bear in mind that electric and gas costs vary widely across the country, so there’s no single verdict.
Where the expense might come in is the installation of 240-volt, Level 2 charging if needed. Like most aspects of plug-ins, there’s no simple answer to the question of cost.
Level 2 hardware ranges from about $200 to $1,000, with higher current capacity costing more. Installation costs are the big mystery, depending on how close your garage or parking space is to your home’s electric service panel. If you already have an unused 240-volt circuit in your garage, you might be ready or very close to being able to charge at home. If your service panel is in the garage, you might be less than $100 from being in business. But if a new 240-volt circuit must be run to the parking area, it could mean several hundred to several thousand dollars’ worth of installation charges. It all depends on the distance involved and what’s in between — walls, concrete, asphalt or what have you. This is why the process of buying a plug-in usually starts with a site survey from a licensed installer or electrician.
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Will a Plug-In Car Save Me Money?
It’s hard to say definitively because there are so many variables, but the honest answer is probably not, or not much. In our experience in Chicago, the cost per mile on electric power has been about half that for regular gasoline — and even better versus premium gas. (Compare your region’s electric and gas cost per mile here.) But that’s just the cost of operation. Even with the incentives available today, plug-in vehicles tend to be relatively expensive. Pure electrics prove to have lower maintenance costs associated with their drivetrains and some other systems, so we see signs of how the car ownership paradigm might shift, but we’re not there yet.
Unfortunately, it can shift in the other direction as well. The federal tax incentives alluded to above have already begun to phase out for Chevrolet and Tesla, and the Trump administration has expressed interest in eliminating them midstream — once before the tax reforms of 2018 (automakers successfully lobbied to leave them in place) and again shortly thereafter when GM announced the de-allocation of some assembly plants. With the Republicans in the majority of the U.S. Senate and the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s less likely that the incentives will indeed vanish, but it’s also unlikely that they’ll be extended.
Similarly, there are legislators at the federal and state levels who are attempting to institute road-usage fees for plug-ins to compensate for the revenue otherwise collected only in gasoline and diesel taxes. (EV advocates claim that the higher prices of plug-ins already compensates in the form of higher sales tax.) Annual registration fees, which also have been equal to or lower than those for conventional vehicles — as an incentive — may also be on the rise.
Is There an Exception?
Perhaps the best chance you have to save money on a plug-in vehicle over the long run is this: Buy a used EV as a second car that you can charge at home. Used battery-electric cars tend to be surprisingly cheap, for a few reasons: First, they’re used, and that alone represents a major discount. Second, incentives are available only on new purchases, so the market has subtracted them from the initial value. Third, like all cars, EVs keep improving and adding range, so those with shorter ranges seem less valuable. Fourth, consumers worry about EV batteries dying completely and being prohibitively expensive to replace. In reality, we’ve learned from more than a decade of hybrids as well as plug-ins that outright battery failures are rare. Traction batteries lose about 20 percent of their capacity over the course of 100,000 miles and/or 10 years, consistently enough that automakers account for it. Warranties are pretty long but don’t cover marginal loss of range. Worry less about failure and more about whether a 20 percent loss still gives you enough range to work with.
In the above scenario, with another car available for longer trips and the lower cost per mile of electric motoring based on home charging, you have a better shot at coming out ahead, even if higher registration fees or road-use taxes come into play.
There might also be some deals on plug-in hybrids, though it’s tough to gauge. Their market acceptance has been modest at best in the U.S., but automakers are compelled to produce plug-in hybrids to comply with zero-emissions requirements in some states, so there are literally dozens on the way. There’s a chance, if demand just doesn’t materialize for this type of vehicle, that you’ll be able to get a really good deal on one. Automakers get credit for selling them, not just offering them. Our cheap gas, disinterested politicians and widespread climate-change denial are the worst things going for the plug-in market in the U.S. The best thing going for it is that many other advanced countries are the opposite in all of these respects, so automakers are building the vehicles regardless.
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