Buying an Electric Car? A Review of Cars Available in US Today

In buying an electric car, your choice is between hybrids and all-electrics.  Hybrids have a gasoline engine, but can also run on battery power alone.  Their typical driving range on electric only is under 40 miles, but the total range is 300 miles or more and fuel efficiency is higher vs. a gas only car.  This article is about your choices today in all-electric vehicles.

There are considerable differences in how various manufacturers are approaching this market which impact you, the buyer.  I compare the lowest trim offerings of 6 companies: Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F), General Motors Company (NYSE: GM), Honda Motor Co., Ltd. (NYSE: HMC), Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. (NASDAQOTH: NSANY) Tesla Motors, Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) and Toyota Motor Corporation (NYSE: TM).

The electric cars are: the Ford Focus Electric, Chevy Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, Nissan Leaf S, Tesla Model S and the Toyota RAV4 EV. Because it has some interesting features, I’ll also take a peek at the BMW i3 which won’t be available in the US until 2014.

Factors considered are: price, driving range, performance, spaciousness, charging time and infrastructure, special initiatives and availability.

NOT ALL ELECTRIC CARS ARE EXPENSIVE

The Chevy Spark EV is the cheapest with a base price of $19,995 after the federal tax credit. Four of the 6 are under $30K. State rebates can further reduce the price.

Ticker Model MSRP Price after Federal Rebate
F Focus Electric $35,200 $27,700
GM Chevy Spark EV $27,495 $19,995
HMC Fit EV $37,415 $29,915
NSANY Leaf S $28,800 $21,300
TM RAV4 EV $49,800 $42,300
TSLA Model S $69,900 $62,400

Tesla maintains a comprehensive database of worldwide rebates. Use the drop-down menus to select your country and/or state.

The federal tax credit consists of two parts: $2,500 minimum for all 4-wheel vehicles with a battery of at least 4 kwh plus $417 for each kwh over 4, up to a maximum battery credit of $5,000. Any vehicle with a battery 16 kwh or larger qualifies for the full $7,500 credit.

Remember, this is a credit against your federal income tax, not a rebate. You will not receive a refund for the amount of any unused credit. So, if you are single or married filing separately, take the standard deduction and have no other credits, your gross income must exceed $59,250 (taxable income over $45,900) to take full advantage of the credit.

Also, the federal tax credit is only available to the original registered owner. It is not transferable even if the original owner didn’t use it.

Finally, the federal tax credit is phased out for each manufacturer once it has produced 200,000 vehicles. While not a concern today, Tesla expects to surpass this figure by the time it introduces its mass market Gen 3 model in 2015.

NOT ALL ELECTRIC CARS HAVE DRIVING RANGES UNDER 100 MILES

You will probably see different figures quoted for the driving ranges of these vehicles. I list only the EPA figures to provide you with an apple to apple comparison.

Ticker Model Battery Size (kwh) EPA Mileage Range Cost to Drive 25 Miles
F Focus Electric 23 76 $0.92
GM Chevy Spark EV 21 82 $0.87
HMC Fit EV 20 82 $0.87
NSANY Leaf S 24 75 $0.87
TM RAV4 EV 42 103 $1.32
TSLA Model S 60 208 $1.05

The Toyota RAV4 EV and the Tesla Model S both have driving ranges over 100 miles.

Though not available until 2014, the BMW i3 will have 3 driving modes—2 will compromise performance for economy, extending the range above 100 miles. An optional 2 cylinder gas engine with a 2.4 gallon gas tank for recharging the battery (not propulsion) should double the range.

High speeds, rapid acceleration and using the heater and air-conditioner all adversely affect range just like in a gas car.  But, unlike an internal combustion engine (ICE) car which uses engine heat to heat the passenger compartment, electric cars use the battery to power the heater. So, expect your range to be about 10% lower in the winter.

NOT ALL ELECTRIC CARS HAVE WIMPY PERFORMANCE

The Tesla Model S is in a class by itself, compromising nothing in performance vs. most ICE cars.  I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla and when I floored it going uphill in a 45

Model Top Electric Speed (mph) Seconds to Go from 0-60 mph Horsepower Engine Torque (lb. ft.)
Focus Electric 84 9.7 140 184
Chevy Spark EV 90 7.6 130 400
Fit EV 90 8.4 123 189
Leaf S 90 10.2 107 187
RAV4 EV 100 6.8 154 218
Model S 125 5.4 302 317

zone, it hit 60 before I knew it.  Thankfully, there were no cops around.

About the Chevy Spark EV, Consumer Reports said: “this is no glorified golf cart.” Chevy notes that the Spark EV has more torque than a Ferrari 458 Italia—400 vs. 398. While this is a peppy little car, the Ferrari’s 570 HP engine gets it to 60 mph in a mere 3.0 seconds.

The accelerations of the Ford Focus EV and the Nissan Leaf S are glacial. Yet, the Chevy Spark EV costs $7,700 less than the Focus after Ford cut the price $4,000. Small wonder only 1,050 Focus Electrics were sold in the US this year through July.

Nissan appreciates the need for speed and offers various performance packages in Japan.  No word on when they will available in the US.

SPACIOUSNESS—SOME ELECTRIC CARS ARE ROOMIER THAN YOU’D EXPECT

All of these cars are surprisingly roomy. Cargo space can be another matter. The first figure is with the rear seats up and the second, with them down. This does not apply to the RAV4 EV.

Ticker Model Passenger Space (cu. ft.) Total Cargo Space (cu. ft.)
F Focus Electric 90.7 14.5/33.9
GM Chevy Spark EV 86.3 11.4/23.6
HMC Fit EV 89.3 12.0/49.0
NSANY Leaf 92.4 25.4/31.4
TM RAV4 EV 108.2 36.5
TSLA Model S 94.0 31.6/63.4

The cavernous cargo space of the Tesla is helped by the additional 5.3 cu. ft. of room under the hood.

CHARGING TIMES ARE STILL TOO SLOW FOR MOST LONG TRIPS

A major issue with electric cars is charging time. There are 3 types of charging: Level 1 (120 VAC, 15-20 amps), Level 2 (240 VAC, 30-40 amps) and DC Fast Charging (500 volts). Charging times in the table below are for a full charge.

Ticker Model Charging Time (hrs) @240 volts Cost to Drive 25 Miles
F Focus Electric 4.0 $0.92
GM Chevy Spark EV 7.0 $0.87
HMC Fit EV 4.0 $0.87
NSANY Leaf S 7.3 $0.87
TM RAV4 EV 6.0 $1.32
TSLA Model S 10.0 $1.05

Charging time for the Leaf S can be reduced to 4 hours using an optional 6.6 kwh charger.

Still, reliance on 240-volt chargers is only practical at home, work or overnight at a hotel with all-electric cars.

What’s needed is DC fast charging, which can deliver an 80% charge in 30 minutes. More about this later.

The last column shows the cost to drive 25 miles because the average national fuel efficiency is 25 mpg. Costs assume electricity is $0.12/kwh. The average price of regular gas today is $3.61. So if you get 25 mpg, that last column looks pretty sweet.

OPTIONS FOR HOME CHARGING

Since charging times at 120 volts can be more than double those at 240 volts, most electric car owners should plan on having a 240 volt charging system at home. If you have an electric dryer, you already have access to a 240 volt source. Tesla sells adapters for $45 to allow its cars to be charged from dryer outlets.

Although Tesla recommends using a dedicated 80-amp charging system which cuts the charging time shown above in half, a Tesla owner I interviewed found no need for this unless you might be called away unexpectedly at night, like a physician.

But, if you want one, both Tesla and Nissan have partnered with other companies to facilitate installation of their recommended home charging systems. Nissan even offers a solar-powered system.  Plus, there is a federal tax credit of up to $1,000 available until the end of this year to help defray the cost.

Ford offers a 240 volt fast home charging system that plugs into a 240 volt outlet and can be removed if you move.

Finally, if you can live with a charge rate of 5 miles of driving range per hour of charge time, your 110 volt outlet will do fine at home.  This would work if you drive under 60 miles per day and have at least 12 hours to charge up.

INFRASTRUCTURE FOR CHARGING ON THE GO IS IMPROVING

Although there are over 6,300 public charging stations in the US, most are 240 volt stations.  If your employer offers charging, it effectively doubles your range.

All of the cars mentioned come with navigation systems to help you locate charging stations and get you there, except the Nissan Leaf S. Nissan cut the price of the Leaf by $6,400 and one of the sacrifices was the nav system. So, if you buy the base model Leaf S, you will need a smartphone with a data package for directions.

Understanding that 240 volt charge times are too long when travelling, the two industry leaders in terms of the number of electric cars sold in the US, Nissan and Tesla, are both building fast charging stations.

Nissan is installing over 100 fast charging stations at its dealerships. Tesla expects to have Superchargers in most metropolitan areas this Fall and cover 98% of the US population and parts of Canada in 2015. Charging is free.

Tesla is also courting hosts for its supercharging stations like malls and restaurants.  It builds the station and pays all operating and maintenance costs. The host provides 200-600 sq. ft. of space for the charging spots. About half will be reserved for Tesla owners and the rest will be available to everyone.

Finally, if you can’t wait 30 minutes, Tesla offers a battery swap program. In the demonstration, Tesla swapped batteries in 90 seconds, less time than it took to gas up an ICE car. Cost is expected to be $60-80, which is inline with the cost of a fill-up.

Thirty minutes for a free charge isn’t bad when you consider the time spent waiting if you are the third or fourth car in line at a gas station and you still have to pay for the gas.

SOME SPECIAL INITIATIVES

Honda

Honda offers the most interesting option to get people into its 2014 Fit EV. It is not selling the cars, but leasing them for 3 years at $259/month. Total due at signing: $259 plus tax and title.

The hardware for the home charging system is included and yours to keep at the end of the lease. Honda pays for all maintenance and even includes collision coverage and pays for any repairs. You only have to pay for liability insurance.

For now, it is only allowing one car per family.

Tesla

Concerned about resale value? Tesla has a financing option that allows you to sell your Model S back to it after 3 years and receive the same resale percentage available for the highest premium sedan produced in volume.

BMW

To address the need some may feel to also own an ICE vehicle for trips, BMW will loan i3 buyers a SUV to use for a weekend or even longer.

ELECTRIC CARS ARE NOT AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE

Electric cars may be looking pretty good about now. Here is the bad news. Not all of them are available nationwide.

Ticker Model Current Availability
F Focus Electric Nationwide at dealers with charging stations
GM Chevy Spark EV CA and OR only
HMC Fit EV CA, OR, NY, NJ, CT, MA, MD and RI.
NSANY Leaf S Nationwide
TM RAV4 EV CA only
TSLA Model S Nationwide with difficulty—see text for more

The Chevy Spark EV is only being sold in California and Oregon.

Honda’s unique lease program is only available in 8 states.

There are rumors that Toyota may stop selling the RAV4 EV and just buy the emission credits it needs in California from Tesla.

And those interested in buying a Tesla Model S will find problems in Colorado, Texas and Virginia.  North Carolina and New York are not very friendly either. In fact, 48 states have laws forbidding or limiting direct car sales. While these laws were intended to protect dealers from having to compete with company stores, they are being used to challenge Tesla’s direct sales model even though it never had dealers.

BOTTOM LINE

Electric cars are increasingly affordable. Some have driving ranges greater than 100 miles.  You don’t have to sacrifice performance or passenger room to own one.  The build out of fast charging stations is shortening the time to recharge and Tesla even offers a battery swap program that will get you on your way in 90 seconds, less time than it takes to gas up.

DISCLOSURE

I own shares of Ford and Tesla.