Is Now The Time To Buy An Electric Car?


Should you buy an electric car? It’s a question that used to be as simple as checking your bank account. But with the Tesla Model 3 starting to appear in driveways, and everyone from Chevy to BMW with an electric car in their lineup, what was once a hippie dream, and then a luxury item, is now, for many people, a distinct possibility. It may not be a simple purchase, but it’s at least plausible.

Still, few people go electric on a whim. There are benefits and drawbacks that may push you behind the wheel, or leave you considering a hybrid instead.

Most people’s concerns about electric cars are three-fold. One, they’re more expensive; two, they don’t go very far; and three, it’s tough to charge them. All are worth addressing, in part because the truth, as always, is more nuanced than the standard answers. Here’s what you should consider before making a decision:

The Cost

Based on sticker prices, your average electric car comes in between $32,000 and $40,000. As you’ve probably heard, however, right now there’s a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric and plug-in vehicles. In theory, the credit will be phased out when 200,000 vehicles that qualify are sold by each manufacturer. This hasn’t really come up yet, though, and renewing or expanding the credit will be a pretty easy sell. It’s a tax cut that bolsters the American economy and helps protect the environment. Who wouldn’t want to renew that?

Of course, states are free to offer their own incentives. In some cases, that makes it financially smarter to buy an electric car. Colorado, for example, almost doubles the tax credit. Depending on where you are, you’ll save quite a bit on the back end.

Finally, there’s the question of gas. On average, Americans spend about $1,400 a year gassing up. The government has a useful tool for comparing costs depending on where you live, but even with low gas prices, putting EVs up against even gas-sippers will save you a few hundred bucks a year on fuel. In other words, if you buy an electric car, and keep it on the road for a decade, you’ll save another few thousand bucks that otherwise would have gone into your tank.

The Range

Your average electric car goes pretty far on its own. Right now, the furthest range for a consumer vehicle is the Chevy Bolt, at 238 miles. But that ignores a fairly simple fact: Most of us don’t drive far that often. The average American puts 37 miles a day on their car. If you clock your mileage, you’ll probably find that day-to-day, an electric vehicle will cover the distance with ease.

As automakers find new efficiencies and design roomier batteries, the range of electric vehicles is growing. The Bolt can’t quite hit the average holiday road trip distance yet, but give it a year or two. The main principle of technology is that as technologies age, their efficiencies go up as their costs go down. A decade from now, the range of electric cars will likely be indistinguishable from even those cars which squeeze every last drop from a tank of gas.

The Charging

Charging, by far, is the stickiest issue. You can, in theory, just plug your car into the wall, but that’s a slow method of juicing up. The best result is to have an electrician professionally install a charging post at your home, allowing you to leave your car plugged in overnight. Tax credits and other incentives exist to defray the cost, but they vary wildly from state to state. On average, the cost of installing a private charger is about $1000, so it’s not the biggest fiscal burden relative to buying a car. While more and more charging stations are popping up across the country, this is probably the biggest barrier at the moment, and it doesn’t help that many experts recommend “topping up” your car wherever you park.

So… Yes or No?

Really, this boils down to three questions: What’s your day-to-day driving like? Can you install or have easy access to a charging station? And what’s the financial picture?

Start with the charging stations. Find ones in your area and scope them out. Are they free? Do you have to pay? What’s the pricing like? Next, run the numbers. What are your state’s tax credits? How does the federal tax credit fit into your budget? How much are you saving on gas? Finally, clock your mileage numbers on a day-to-day, and don’t forget to look at the long trips you make on a regular basis. Are there charging stations along your preferred route? Are they open 24/7? What about at your destination?

If an electric car will meet your needs, then the answer to the above question is yes. But, if not, don’t despair. Take a look at plug-in electric hybrids, which offer many of the same benefits but have a gas engine to extend their range and usually qualify for some, if not the whole boat, of tax credits. Sure, you may still be going to the pump, but if nothing else, you’ll be heading there a lot less.