I get this question a lot. But there isn’t really a single answer. As with gas cars (and toasters) the real question to ask is, “what’s the best electric car for me?” People have varied needs and tastes, and the car (or toaster) that works best for me might not fit your lifestyle at all. This applies even more to electric cars than to most other consumer goods. There are a few questions you should first ask yourself to narrow the set of cars you are considering.
1. How much can you spend a month for your car? Budget seems obvious, but you should also keep in mind the savings in fuel and maintenance relative to a gas car, plus tax credits and rebates that you may qualify for. When you take these into account, you might be able to afford more EV than you initially thought. There are also some great deals on used EVs. Check out our page on used EVs to learn more about that.
2. How far do you generally drive each day? You’ll want to make sure that your EV can comfortably accommodate your typical daily drive. The average American commutes about 30 miles to work, round trip, which is well within the range of every EV. If you are looking at plug-in hybrids, be sure the electric range covers your daily drive, otherwise you’ll end up annoyed that you are doing most of your driving on gas.
3. Will there be another car in your household? This question is really important. In a two car household with one EV and one gas (or plug-in hybrid) car, the EV can be used for trips around town and the other car can go on road trips. In this case, the range of the EV is much less critical, because you’ll be using it mostly for short trips. For example, my Nissan LEAF has a range of 85 miles, but because we generally drive it 25-35 miles a day, it wouldn’t matter (at least on a day-to-day basis) if the range were 500 miles, we’d still be driving it 25-35 miles. If range doesn’t matter, a used EV can be a great option too.
4. What is your charging situation? Big question. Will you be able to charge at home? Will you be able to charge at work? Is there public charging very near your home or work or Mom’s house or someplace else that you spend a lot of time? With a battery electric car, you want to be sure you have very consistent access to charging—someplace. With a plug-in hybrid, you have a bit more flexibility, but you want to have some idea of where you will charge to maximize your electric miles. Many EVs come standard with their own charging station finders, and you should check out PlugShare and other useful apps to find stations.
If you live in a condominium or apartment without existing chargers or access to an electrical outlet, also known as “multiple unit dwellings” or “MUDs,” things can get more complicated, but not insurmountable. See our 2016 webinar and related documents on how “MUD” EV drivers can work with building management to get charging installed.
My Nissan LEAF has a range of 85 miles, but because we generally drive it 25-35 miles a day, it wouldn’t matter (at least on a day-to-day basis) if the range were 500 miles, we’d still be driving it 25-35 miles. If range doesn’t matter, a used EV can be a great option too.
5. How often do you go on long trips? If you have never driven across the country, then you probably don’t need to buy a car that accommodates cross-country trips, just in case. But if you really drive to Vegas from LA, Chicago to St. Louis, or Philadelphia to Boston regularly, then you need to think about that. Do you need a car that accommodates those trips or are you comfortable renting a car or making some other arrangement? For all-electric drivers, some creative car dealers have offered five or six free gasoline car rentals with EV leases, making this concern moot. For plug-in hybrid drivers or longer range BEVs, this also may be alleviated with a little trip planning.
6. How much capacity do you need? Do you need a back seat that holds 2 or 3 or zero? (There are some great EVs with tiny back seats, which works for some people, but not for others.) How much cargo space do you realistically need? If you’re okay with a single seat, you might want to consider an electric motorcycle.
7. What cars are available in your area? Some parts of the country have a limited selection of electric cars. You might also want to consider neighboring states. Phoenix has a limited selection of vehicles, but if you are willing to travel to Los Angeles, you will have a lot more options. Tesla is banned from selling its cars in Connecticut, but they do a brisk business in New York.
Once you have given these questions some serious thought, you will likely be left with a short list of options that fit your needs. Then, go take some fun test drives and find the car that best fits your taste and preferences.
If you’re looking to purchase or lease a car in the later summer, early fall, don’t forget to check out National Drive Electric Week, held every September. These fun community events, led by EV owners themselves, offer no-pressure educational experiences and allow consumers to check out electric cars without feeling sales pressure.