What to Know Before Buying an Electric Car: Five Questions to Consider

Thinking about an EV? These five questions will help you figure out if an electric car is right for you.

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Electric vehicles (EVs) are still a niche technology in terms of sales, but they’re constantly creeping closer to the mainstream. Since the 2011 Nissan Leaf introduced the modern version, electric cars have changed a lot — and for the better. The newest models are more capable and more compelling vehicles that may far better suit the needs of American car buyers. One version of the 2022 Lucid Air offers more than 500 miles of rated range. Ford will start selling the all-electric 2023 F-150 Lightning pickup truck in 2022, which almost 200,000 people have reserved. And the majority of the cars unveiled at the 2021 Los Angeles auto show were electric.

While you can’t escape the buzz about EVs, it’s a lot harder to actually find an EV on the road. The average U.S. household only buys a new car about every six years. Most Americans likely haven’t driven an EV and may not even know anyone who owns one. (If they do, odds are it’s a Tesla.)

Still, car companies are charging ahead. The country’s largest automaker, General Motors, has said it “aspires” to sell only EVs for light-duty cars and trucks by 2035. California and other states are also planning to ban the sale of new vehicles with combustion engines that same year.

With electric vehicles coming on strong and mass adoption looking like it’s only a matter of time, it’s worth asking if your next new car could, or should, be electric. We’ve put together five questions to get you up to speed on what to know before buying an electric car.

How Will You Charge?

If you’re like four out of five new-car buyers, you have a dedicated off-street spot to park your car. That’s key to the most common type of EV charging, which happens at home and overnight. Ideally you will charge your EV from a 240-volt circuit, which is known as Level 2 charging. You may already have a 240-volt circuit for a dryer, heater, or welder in your garage. If you don’t, an electrician can install one at a cost that could range from a few hundred dollars up to a couple thousand dollars, depending on the particulars of your home. Alternatively, drivers who cover less than 30 miles a day might consider charging on a standard 120-volt plug, but this is slower and a full charge will often take more than 24 hours.

The idea of charging at home can be hard for car shoppers to imagine. None of us have gas pumps in our garages, so inexperienced EV shoppers often assume they will have to drive somewhere to charge, similar to using a gas station but different. Years of data suggest that 80% or more of EV miles come from charging at home or at work. Instead of gas cars, think of an EV like a cellphone: plug it in when you arrive home at the end of the day and the next morning your battery should be fully charged.

Charging is more difficult if you live in a townhouse, condo, apartment, rental house, or a house with curbside parking. Until more multifamily dwellings or workplaces offer EV charging in common parking areas, you may prefer to hold off. It’ll come in time, but it’s typically easier to charge an EV when you have your own home with a driveway or garage.

High-speed “fast charging” is different; it’s used mainly for road trips. Here, Tesla has an advantage with its sprawling easy-to-use and reliable Supercharger network. Enter a trip into the navigation system and the car will route you via charging stations; it even tells you how long to stay so you don’t waste time. Other makers are trying to put together the same experience using multiple charging networks operated by third-party companies. It works, but by and large, it’s not yet as smooth, seamless, or convenient as the Tesla network.

What’s Your Longest Drive?

Many new EVs now have ranges of 200 miles or more, and certain models of the current long-distance champ, the 2022 Lucid Air, offer a whopping 520-mile range. However, your real-world range may fall below the EPA estimate based on your speed, driving style, or weather. If you routinely cover 200 miles or more, you should research exactly what that drive will look like in the EVs you’re considering. The trip-planning tool A Better Route Planner can plot a route and charging stops tailored to a vehicle that you select. The infrastructure is evolving fast, so the same trip could be more suitable next year if it looks too inconvenient right now. Driving distance is one of the most important things to know before buying an electric car, and not just because of the vehicle’s range — it’s also related to the weather.

What’s the Weather Like Where You Live?

The batteries in electric cars can be like humans: happiest at 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, EVs automatically condition their batteries to keep them cool in hot weather and warm them up when it’s cold. But because EVs carry so little energy — often less than the amount of energy in three gallons of gasoline — fending off the elements has more of an effect on range than it does in a gas-powered vehicle. In very cold weather, range may drop by 10% to 40% if you use climate control to keep the cabin comfortable.

One workaround is to precondition an EV while it is plugged in and before setting out. This uses grid power to warm the battery and the cabin. Most EVs let you do this via a phone app, or owners can pre-set the car to do so every day at a set time. Another option is to buy a car with more range than you need, knowing that its range will fall as temperatures swing to the extremes.

How Long Do You Plan to Keep Your EV?

The longevity of an EV battery is understandably a major concern among shoppers. Since EVs entered the market in low numbers just ten years ago in 2011, we don’t have a lot of long-term data on battery durability; though early data for Teslas suggest modest loss of battery range after 100,000 miles. Buyers can also take comfort knowing that all carmakers guarantee their batteries against catastrophic failure for 100,000 miles or more. Some automakers even protect owners in the event of minor battery degradation. Toyota says it will warrant the battery of its upcoming bZ4X electric SUV to retain 90% of capacity over ten years.

Still, cars have gotten far more reliable in recent decades. The average car on U.S. roads is now 12 years old at the time of this writing — longevity our parents or grandparents couldn’t have dreamt of in their new cars. So some drivers may buy a new car and, with proper maintenance, keep it for 20 years. Is that advisable for an EV? We don’t know yet. Anyone buying a new EV in 2021 with plans to keep it for decades is signing up for the unknown.

Do You Qualify for a Tax Credit?

EVs may look expensive next to comparable gas vehicles, but a tax credit may close that gap by several thousand dollars. At the time this story was written, every battery-electric vehicle sold in the U.S. except those made by Tesla and General Motors qualified for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit. Consult your tax advisor to work out whether your circumstances allow you to take the full credit of $7,500. There are also various state, local, and even corporate incentives to buy or lease an EV — all important things to know before buying an electric car.

However, the national tax incentive situation could change, depending on what happens in Congress. Several changes to the EV tax credit were proposed in 2021. They include making the credit (which currently can’t be realized until you file your annual income taxes) into a “purchase rebate,” also known as “cash on the hood,” that cuts the actual purchase cost. In addition, EVs from General Motors and Tesla may again become eligible for the full benefit. There may be further changes applying to specific vehicles, depending on where they’re assembled and other factors; so stay tuned.

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John Voelcker
John Voelcker is a reporter and analyst covering electric vehicles, auto technology, and energy policy. He has written or edited more than 12,000 articles on low- and zero-emission vehicles and the energy ecosystem around them. His work has appeared in print, online, and radio outlets, and he is frequently quoted as a subject-matter expert. He splits his time between the Catskill Mountains and New York City, and still one day hopes to become an international man of mystery.