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The Consumer Guide to 2012 Electric Vehicles

February 28, 2012   ·   0 Comments

Electric-car buyers used to essentially have two choices: Buy a vehicle akin to a glorified golf cart that could go no faster than 25 mph, or buy a cramped, 2-seat Tesla sports car that cost upwards of $ 100,000. Neither fit the needs of many buyers, making electric cars a futuristic fantasy whose time had not yet come.

But that has now changed. In 2011, the Nissan Leaf became the first pure electric vehicle that could mimic conventional-car performance at a mass-market price. Leaf is very much like a conventional compact car in terms of passenger accommodations, handling, and ride quality. It’s a 5-passenger 4-door hatchback with a top speed of 90 mph and acceleration on par with most 4-cylinder competitors. Moreover, it has a useable (if somewhat limited) driving range and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Purchase price, battery range, and charging time are the three biggest drawbacks of owning an EV. The Nissan Leaf starts at $ 35,200–about twice the price of gas-powered compact cars–though a federal tax credit of up to $ 7,500 (plus other incentives in some states) helps defray some of that cost. While the range of a conventional car is typically 300 miles or more before having to stop for gas, Leaf’s range is only 73 miles on average according to the EPA. And unlike gas stations, public charging stations are still few and far between. As a result, Leaf owners are subject to “range anxiety”–the fear that their car will run out of power and leave them stranded. Furthermore, recharging takes far more time than simply filling a gas tank. With the Leaf, it takes about 20 hours to charge a depleted battery from a 120-volt (common household) outlet; this is known as a “Level 1” charge. However, homeowners can install a 240-volt “Level 2” charging station in their garage that’s similar to many upcoming public charging stations, which can recharge a low battery in about eight hours. Less common will be 480-volt Level 3 public chargers that can charge the battery to 80 percent “full” in about 30 minutes.

Battery life is another concern. Nissan offers an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on its battery, and other companies offer similar warranties for their electric-car batteries. And manufacturers say the batteries are expected to last much longer than that. But it’s sort of a leap of faith at this point, as current replacement costs for a battery are so high as to make it prohibitive on a car that already has 100,000 miles on it, though this cost may come down as battery technology improves and more EVs get on the road.

All pure-electric vehicles face the aforementioned issues. But the Chevrolet Volt, Leaf’s main rival in 2011, is one “electric” car that’s different. Referred to as an “extended-range electric vehicle,” Volt has both a large battery and a conventional gas-powered engine that drives a generator. It can run solely on electricity for about 35 miles. When the battery gets low, the gas engine automatically starts up, and the generator it drives supplies electricity to the motor for another 300 miles. At that point, you can fill the gas tank just like in a conventional car and drive another 300 miles. The beauty of this setup is that on days you drive less than 35 miles, you can recharge the battery overnight in your garage (or public charging station) and never use a drop of gasoline. Yet when you want to drive farther, the car runs on its gas engine just like a normal car. The downside is that the all-electric range is only about half that of the Leaf, and the car costs more due to the added gas engine and generator–about $ 40,000 to start–though the same federal and state electric-car tax incentives apply.

Considering all these issues, why should Americans buy an electric car? There are a lot of reasons to find another way to power our automobiles, such as ending dependence on foreign oil and decreasing emissions. But the overriding reason is the cost of powering the vehicle. The electricity cost for an electric car is usually about three cents per mile, and electricity costs are relatively stable. A typical compact car that gets 25 mpg on $ 3.50/gallon gas costs 14 cents per mile to run, and gas prices can fluctuate wildly.  

Electric vehicles are still in their infancy, and despite their advantages, their acceptance by the American public is expected to be slow. According to a 2011 report by J. D. Power and Associates, only 0.02 percent of light vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2010 were EVs, and that percentage was expected rise to only 0.5 by 2015 and 0.9 by 2020.

As evidenced by the large number of EVs that are in the works, manufacturers seem more optimistic than J. D. Power. Following the introduction of Volt and Leaf, Mitsubishi introduced the i in late 2011, which has a smaller footprint and price ($ 29,125) than the other two vehicles. (Note that, as of this writing, none of the three are yet sold nationwide, and the Mitsubishi i is sold in only four states.) An all-electric version of the Ford Focus is due in early 2012, though at the announced price of $ 39,995, it won’t be cheap. There have also been a couple of low-volume lease-only vehicles (the Smart Electric Drive and Mini Cooper-based Mini E) and higher-priced commercial vehicles (like the Ford Transit Connect Electric).

The Consumer Guide to 2012 Electric Cars includes eight vehicles that are available in the U.S. in calendar year 2012. These do not include low-speed electric vehicles, microcars, low-volume EVs (such as the Th!nk City), or the electric cars sold in other countries. Also, many other EVs are in development, such as the Honda Fit EV and Toyota RAV4 EV (both due out late in 2012) as well as the Chevrolet Spark EV (2013). As with hybrids and diesel-engine cars, many more electric vehicles will be rolled out in upcoming years.

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