A lot of recent car shows, including the recent Detroit auto show, have showcased automakers' push to bring practical, fully electric cars to market. With one new all-electric vehicle already for sale from Nissan and with others on the way from Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes and Fiat in 2011 and 2012, I thought it might be worth looking at some of the pros and cons of electric cars as they now exist.
- Cheap fuel. Nissan estimates it will cost approximately $2.75 at average utility rates to charge its Leaf from empty to full. The Leaf has a range of around 100 miles, a distance that would cost about $10 to drive in a compact car getting 30 mpg (3.33 gallons x the average gas price of $3.089). That gap will become even wider if gas prices rise in the coming years.
- Less frequent maintenance. Because they don't have to deal with the heat and force generated by an unending series of powerful explosions the way combustion engines do, electric engines don't need the oil changes and other regular maintenance that conventional engines need to stay running. That can add up to significant savings over time.
- Tax credits. Buyers of electric vehicles can get a significant tax credit from the federal government. The Nissan Leaf is eligible for a tax credit up to $7,500, for example.
- Cleanliness. Leaving aside the environmental benefits, which are considerable, an all-electric car means freedom from a substance that can be really messy: oil. If you've ever knocked over an oil pan, spilled gas on yourself while refueling or loaded a car up while it was idling and blowing exhaust all over you, you know oil and gas can smell, look and feel disgusting. Saying goodbye to all that could be a big motivator for some.
- Short range. Current battery technology can't yet match the energy stored in a regular old tank of unleaded. That means in the near future, electric cars will have significantly less range than comparable combustion cars.
- High sticker prices. The subcompact Leaf retails at $32,780 before federal tax credits, $25,280 after. In contrast, the slightly bigger Nissan Sentra will cost you around $20,000, loaded. Plug those numbers into the Bankrate auto loan calculator, and you see the difference in monthly car payments with a 10 percent down payment and a 48-month loan term is significant: $537.05 for the Leaf vs. $424.88 for the Sentra.
- No used option. Bankrate readers love their used cars, because they can offer a way out of the galling depreciation new cars experience once they're driven off the lot. Unfortunately, there likely won't be a used inventory of electric cars for years.
- Few independent mechanics. I spoke to a mechanic I know over the weekend, and we got on the topic of upsides and downsides to electric cars. He said one major sticking point of ownership would be finding an independent shop that would work on all-electric vehicles, since the cars are both very different from their combustion counterparts and still quite rare. That will likely mean higher maintenance costs, since dealerships often charge more for the same repair than independent shops.
- Less existing infrastructure. It's not uncommon to see a gas station on every corner, but I haven't yet laid eyes on one public car charger. Even if sales of electric cars take off, there won't be public chargers widely available in most cities for years to come.
- Expensive home chargers. Unless you want to wait eight hours or more to "fill up your tank," you'll want a high-speed charger installed in your home, potentially adding thousands to your electric-car price tag.
- Skimpy safety record. It's still too early for manufacturers and auto safety regulators to see how electric cars react to being subjected to the tremendous forces at work in an auto accident.
- Battery uncertainty. Just like the batteries in your iPod or laptop, the large, expensive batteries in an electric car will inevitably run down and become unable to hold a full charge. The question is, how will they perform in the real world, under real-world weather and traffic conditions, over the many years buyers hope to own their cars?
What do you think? Do the pros outweigh the cons, or vice versa?