The Coast News Group
Consumer Reports

Is an electric car right for you?

You’ll soon be hearing a lot of buzz — and a dose of sales hype — about a new wave of electric cars that will begin humming down our roads.
The first cars to come from major automakers will be the much-publicized Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, each expected to go on sale in selected areas by the end of this year. Models from Ford, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota and other companies will follow.
Consumer Reports’ auto experts have driven prototypes and preproduction models of most of the forthcoming electric cars and have found them to be very quiet, quite quick, and viable alternatives to conventional cars. Electric vehicles (EVs) allow drivers to commute moderate distances using no gasoline and producing no tailpipe emissions. They can reduce overall driving costs for some people. And EVs can be charged by simply plugging them into a household wall outlet, although the time it takes to recharge depends on the vehicle and the electrical circuit.
But those cars require basic changes in driving habits and often some hefty household electrical work. Before you consider plugging in, you should weigh all factors — cost, convenience and environmental impact — and fully understand the pros and cons of EVs.
What is an EV?
Plug-in electric cars represent the next step beyond hybrids for consumers who want to cut their gasoline consumption. A full-hybrid car continuously switches between a gasoline engine and an electric motor to power the car, and the gas engine recharges the battery while the car is driven. By contrast, an EV can go much father using only electric power, but it needs to be plugged in to fully recharge.
There are three main types of plug-in models:
— Dedicated EVs. The Nissan Leaf is an example of a pure battery-electric car that runs solely on its electric motor and has no gasoline engine. On a full charge, the Leaf can go up to 100 miles before it needs recharging.
— Extended-range EVs. That is how GM classifies the Volt. The car runs only on its electric motor and can go up to 40 miles on electric power. After the battery’s charge drops to a certain level, a small gasoline engine kicks in to provide enough additional electrical power to let the car continue driving. That extends the Volt’s overall range to more than 300 miles before it needs to stop for a fill-up or recharge.
— Plug-in hybrids. They are essentially conventional gas/electric hybrid cars with a larger battery that allows them to operate on electric power more of the time, although they can’t go gas-free for long stretches. While Toyota is field-testing plug-in Priuses for commercial use, no plug-in hybrids are expected for retail customers until 2012.
Questions to consider
— How far do you drive? If you will be using the car only for running local errands or you have a relatively short commute, say 20 to 30 miles each way, a dedicated electric car with a 100-mile range, such as the Leaf, would probably fit your needs. With an extended-range EV, distance is not a factor if you don’t mind using gasoline.
— Will an EV save you money? Depending on your electricity rates, driving an EV can be less expensive than filling up at the pump. Electricity costs an average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour in the United States. At about 3 miles per kWh (the rough efficiency engineers estimate for most of today’s EVs), that’s about 4 cents a mile. With gas costing about $2.80 a gallon, a car such as the Toyota Corolla, which gets very good fuel economy of 30 mpg, would cost about 9 cents a mile for fuel.
— How will you charge your car? A standard 100-volt outlet might work for charging the Volt, but you could be hard-pressed to charge a dedicated EV overnight. You’ll also need a charger, which currently costs between $700 and $1,200.