How to buy the best electric car - Roadshow

Electric Cars

by Wayne Cunningham February 10, 2017 7:00 AM PST @way4ne

Top picks

Premium: Tesla Model S

With over 300 miles of range, a variant that hits 60 miles per hour in well under three seconds and a lithe, attractive body, not only is the Model S an excellent electric car, it competes well with premium gasoline-powered cars.

Affordable: Chevrolet Bolt

Purpose-built as an electric car, the Chevrolet Bolt goes up to 238 miles on a charge. Its wide availability gives it an edge over electrics sold only in a few states.

The electric car

Despite range inferior to gasoline-powered cars, electric cars work well for the daily-driving lives of a few hundred thousand people in the US. Freedom from gas stations and low running costs are two prime reasons you might want to consider an electric vehicle (EV).

Owning an EV requires changing your range expectations from internal combustion (IC) cars. The Nissan Leaf can go up to 107 miles on a full charge, a much shorter range than the 400 or 500 miles of a typical IC car, but how many trips do you take that are longer than 100 miles? And where you need to fill up an IC car once or twice a week at a gas station, charging an EV at home means its battery, and range meter, will be full every morning.

Many major automakers offer an EV model, but most are not available nationwide. A number of models, such as the Fiat 500e, are only available in just a few states. More aggressive EV makers, such as Tesla, offer nationwide sales.

Segment overview

Automakers can fit an electric drivetrain into any type of vehicle, but this nascent market focuses on passenger cars. The range runs from the Tesla Model X, a roomy crossover SUV, down to the Smart Electric Drive, a tiny, two-seater hatchback. Among the middle ground for size, you will find the Mercedes-Benz B250e and Kia Soul Electric.

With the success of Tesla, a few other startup electric automakers may offer products soon. Look for the Faraday Future FF91 and the Lucid Air to begin production in the next couple of years.

A majority of EVs offer seating for five, with room for cargo, following the typical IC-based passenger-car model.

One important factor to consider is whether the EV was built specifically for an electric drivetrain, or whether it was an IC-intended car that was converted into an EV. The Tesla Model S, for example, was designed as an EV, with the entire chassis built to hold its battery pack and drive motors integrated at the axles. As such, the battery pack doesn't intrude in the cabin, and there is no legacy accommodation for an IC drivetrain.

Compare that with the Ford Focus Electric, where Ford put an electric motor under the hood to drive the front wheels, and placed the battery pack at the rear, where the gasoline tank would normally fit. Because the Focus wasn't initially designed as an EV, the battery pack intrudes on the cargo space.

32 2015 Ford Focus Electric (pictures)

Power versus fuel economy

Driving an EV is a unique experience, as the accelerator feels more directly in control of the output than with a gasoline engine. Where a gasoline engine turns at an ever-changing ratio relative to the speed of the car, an EV's motor typically delivers a direct connection between your foot on the accelerator and the car's response.

That feeling comes from the much greater energy efficiency of an electric drive, which converts over 90 percent of electricity into kinetic energy. Combustion engines only manage to send about 35 percent of fuel energy to the wheels.

This energy efficiency lets Tesla give certain versions of the Model S acceleration from zero to 60 mph in under three seconds. However, where we are conditioned to think of engine horsepower in traditional cars, the battery packs of EVs are more important than their electric motors.

Automakers measure battery capacity in kilowatt-hours, but you don't need to focus on that specification when shopping for an EV. The estimated range and charging times, both directly related to the battery capacity, are all you really need to know.

The Tesla Model S' maximum range of 315 miles has gone unchallenged among current EVs. Tesla achieves that range partly by giving the Model S a huge 100 kilowatt-hour battery pack. The cost of batteries goes a long way to explain Tesla's premium pricing. More typical of EVs is the Kia Soul Electric, its 27 kilowatt-hour battery giving it an EPA-estimated range of 93 miles.

Unfortunately, lengthy charging times exacerbate EVs' limited range. If you plug a Fiat 500e into a standard 110-volt outlet in your garage, it will take 24 hours to fully charge the batteries. However, plug it into a 240-volt charging station at home and it will only take four hours. Charging stations have become relatively cheap and easy to install, plugging into the same 240 volt power source as a clothes dryer. If you buy an EV, you will also want to get a charging station.

You can read more about EV charging options, including DC fast charging, in our guide to charging electric cars.

One bright note, on a mile-per-mile basis, electricity costs substantially less than gasoline, although EVs typically cost more to purchase initially than comparable IC cars, even after federal, state and local incentives are factored in.

13 2016 Tesla Model S 60

Tech and safety

Where dashboard touchscreens and navigation come as options in their IC equivalents, EVs often get more advanced dashboard electronics as standard. The Kia Soul Electric benefits from a navigation system that you would have to option up in a standard Soul model. One feature to look for in EV navigation systems is a listing of public charging stations, so you can plug in while shopping or get an emergency boost if you need a few more miles.

Tech-savvy buyers certainly expect more advanced dashboard electronics in their EVs, but this equipment also enables information displays and controls for the electric drivetrain. Likewise, EVs usually get uniquely designed instrument clusters that show a power usage gauge instead of a traditional tachometer.

One key feature to look for in an EV's dashboard electronics is the option to schedule charging times. The Nissan Leaf lets you plug in the car and set it to begin charging the battery at a specific time, say 1 a.m. to 6 a.m., taking advantage of less expensive off-peak electricity rates.

In addition, many EVs include a telematics service, reporting their charge status over a dedicated data connection. You can access that information through a website or phone app, and even initiate charging remotely.

As with other new cars, expect EVs to offer USB ports connected to the stereo and Bluetooth hands-free phone systems as standard.

Driver assistance features are of limited availability among EVs today, having much to do with the limited number of models. However, not only can the Tesla Model S be had with systems that keep it in its lane and maintain distance from slower traffic ahead, it also proved incredibly durable in crash tests, achieving five-star ratings for every National Highway Safety Transport Agency category.

31 2015 Kia Soul EV+ (pictures)

Top EV picks

The undisputed king of the EV set, and an exceptional car compared with its gasoline-powered competition, is the Tesla Model S. Designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle, the Model S takes advantage of its cabin space, offering seating for five plus two optional third-row child seats. A large tablet-style LCD in the center of the dashboard shows connected features such as music apps, Google Maps and even a browser, while range comes in at 315 miles for the top model, according to EPA testing (Tesla claims over 500 miles in optimal conditions). But at a base price of $70,000 before incentives, the Model S is aimed at well-heeled buyers. As an alternate, the $50,000 Mercedes-Benz B250e uses a Tesla-sourced electric drivetrain and retains premium brand cache, but has limited regional availability.

For a more affordable option, Chevrolet prices its all new Bolt electric hatchback at about $38,000. The Bolt combines decent range with a reasonable price, and nationwide availability, all factors that should make it a hit. Its 238 mile range should serve the daily needs of the vast majority of drivers, especially those who live in extended suburban sprawl. As an alternative, the venerable Nissan Leaf is also widely available, and comes in cheaper at around $31,000. However, its range only reaches 107 miles, so won't serve the needs of as many drivers.

You may get sticker shock looking at the manufacturer prices of EVs, especially compared with equivalent-sized IC cars. However, the federal government offers a tax incentive of up to $7,500, and some states offer their own tax reductions and perks. In California, solo-driven EVs get to use carpool lanes, which can greatly reduce commute times.

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