auto

The pros and cons of electric cars

While there are clear advantages and disadvantages to driving a purely electric car, or EV, as in electric vehicle, it would actually suit most Americans.

"Studies show that most drivers travel less than 40 miles a day," says Mike Quincy, auto content specialist at Consumer Reports. "It is really doable for most drivers in most situations."

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Today's 3 types of electric drive vehicles

  • An all-electric battery-powered car, or BEV. It must be plugged in and charged up.
  • A plug-in hybrid, or PHEV. It relies on a battery but has a gas tank to extend its range.
  • A hybrid electric vehicle, or HEV. It doesn't plug in, but it's the most popular type.

Quick look: Electric car pros and cons

Pros:

  • Lower per-mile fuel costs because electricity is cheaper than gas.
  • Lower maintenance costs because there are fewer moving parts.
  • Powertrain is under warranty for longer than most gas engines (at least eight years/80,000 miles).
  • Can be more fun to drive than gas cars because electric power has continuous torque.

Cons:

  • Costs more than equivalent gas cars, but federal and state tax credits, plus direct rebates, reduce cost.
  • Typical range of only 75 to 100 miles.
  • Popularity has made availability of public charging stations a challenge in some areas.
  • Added cost of in-home charge ($500 to $2,000, though sometimes subsidized by state/county).

The driving range extends

Most fully electric cars on the market today offer a range of 75 to 100 miles, which suits the needs of most typical driving situations, but does not allow for longer trips.

"Ideally, EV drivers will have a second car that has longer range, or they are willing to rent a car for the occasional road trip," says Ron Cogan, editor of CarsOfChange.com.

Exceptions to the range limitations are the Tesla Model S, which has a range of 200 to 265 miles and is priced from $69,900 to $93,400, and a score of plug-in hybrids, which run for 15 to 40 miles on electric power, then switch to a hybrid system using gasoline to provide the range of a typical gas-only car.

Drive down fuel, maintenance costs

While plug-in hybrids offer electric-only power, they negate the two primary advantages of driving electric cars: the reduced cost of fuel and maintenance.

For example, the Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric car, costs as little as 3.5 cents per mile at national average electric rates, according to Consumer Reports.

"If you happen to have the ability to have solar on your house, it gets really cheap," says John O'Dell, green cars senior editor at Edmunds.com, who has leased a Leaf. "In three years, my total cost for maintenance on the car was $80 -- for a cabin air filter."

A time to charge

O'Dell is perhaps the ideal candidate for driving an electric car. He and his wife generally travel fewer than 30 miles from home and own a small gas SUV for longer trips. Because he has an in-home charging unit that runs on solar power, his fueling costs were minimal and the ability to charge was never in question.

"EVs have become so popular in Orange County (California) that we are now finding that it is hard to count on a public charging station being available," he says. "If they are, we can't always get enough charging time. At one mall, security limits charging to two hours per car and then issues a ticket."

Worth the price?

Because electric cars are expensive to build due to the cost of the batteries, automakers charge more for electric cars than for gas-only cars. "However, between the automaker incentives, plus the federal and state incentives, and the reduced ownership costs, electric cars can actually be quite affordable," Cogan says.

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