At the end of November, downtown Los Angeles hosted its annual LA Auto Show. Founded in 1907, it’s grown into one of the biggest and most influential auto shows in the country. And this year, one particular message was broadcasted loud and clear: The future is here—and it’s electric.
With sleek new EV offerings from the classics, including Porsche and Hyundai, as well as a whole slew of electric-only startups, saving the planet has never looked sexier. In this version of the future, even Barbie drives an EV.
But the reality of car shopping is often far removed from the glitz and glamour of auto shows. For those looking to purchase their first electric car, there’s a lot to take into consideration beyond what you see on the showroom floor.
Here in Los Angeles, Teslas and Priuses are as ubiquitous as traffic jams and palm trees. This isn’t surprising since California is the state with the most EV charging stations in the U.S.—five times as many as New York, the second-ranking state. But if you live outside of these states or a major city, is buying an EV still a good choice? What features should you look for? And what can you afford?
We caught up with Mark Takahashi, senior reviews editor at car-shopping website Edmunds, at the show to get his top EV buying tips.
What is an EV?
Let’s start with the basics, since the terminology surrounding electric vehicles can be a bit confusing at first. There are hybrids (HEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), but for the purposes of this article, we are focusing on fully electric vehicles (EVs). These are battery-powered vehicles that lack a traditional engine and do not run on fossil fuels.
EVs are known for being quiet, smooth, and fast—and for breeding innovation.
“With the batteries in the floor and these small electric motors, it allows them (EV automakers) to package the car much smarter,” Takahashi says. “So you don’t have a center hump, you have a lot more interior space, and it’s way quieter. And a lot of the EVs also have front trunks for added cargo, since there’s no engine there.”
While switching from a gas-powered car to an electric vehicle will require some adjusting of habits (no more stopping for gas!), most EV owners agree on the benefits: EVs cut your emissions, require less maintenance, and can help save you money.
Does it make sense to buy an EV?
When it comes to broader EV adoption, the biggest hurdles are range and charging station availability. As part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law on November 15, $7.5 billion will be invested in building out a national EV charging network with a goal of 500,000 chargers nationwide. But while charging station access and availability are growing rapidly, there’s still some catching up to do.
If you live in California, buying an electric vehicle is likely a good choice. But according to Takahashi, even those living in states with fewer charging stations can benefit from owning an EV. “If you’re in a rural area, and you’re not driving more than 200 or 300 miles in a day, the best thing to do is buy a charging station for your garage,” he says, pointing out that there are usually state or federal incentives for doing so.
While you can charge an EV at home using a standard 120-volt outlet, this is a slow process—a full charge can take up to 24 hours. Most EV owners will benefit from investing in a Level 2 charger, which can be installed by a qualified electrician. This will reduce charging times significantly, down to about 8 hours from an empty battery—perfect for charging overnight.
An at-home Level 2 charger typically costs between $400 and $800, and there are federal tax credits available to help offset both purchase and installation costs. ChargePoint, which offers one of the most popular at-home chargers on the market, has a helpful resource for finding additional incentives at the state level.
What can you afford?
As electric vehicles enter the mainstream, they’re becoming more affordable. But with a higher price tag than many internal-combustion vehicles, they can still appear prohibitively expensive to some. However, with lower maintenance costs and financial incentives, buying an EV is actually likely to save you money in the long run.
“If you think about it as paying for operating costs up front, rather than paying for gas every week, it starts evening out and breaks even after a couple years, usually,” Takahashi says. “It all depends on the efficiency of the EV and how much you’re paying for electricity.”
Keep in mind that with an electric vehicle, operating and maintenance costs are typically low. You won’t need to worry about oil changes, air filters, spark plugs, or drive belts. Even brake wear is lower than on non-EVs (though not nonexistent) thanks to regenerative braking. Of course, the biggest money-saver is at the pump, since you’ll be eliminating the need to pay for gas entirely.
To further offset the cost of an EV, the federal government is offering tax credits of up to $7,500 for “Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicles including passenger vehicles and light trucks” purchased after December 31, 2009. While some automakers, like Tesla and General Motors, have already used up their allotted credits, many others still offer the incentive.
“Go to a dealer, or call a dealer, to find out what kind of incentives are available,” Takahashi says. “There are also municipal and state incentives that really help things out, especially in California.”
What features do you need?
Do you commute to work? Are you planning a cross-country road trip? Do you own your home and/or have access to a garage with electricity where you live? Do you spend most of your driving hours on the freeway or around town?
These are some of the questions you’ll need to answer before you start shopping for an EV, since they affect when, where, and how often you’ll need to recharge. Other factors affect range as well, including weather and driving style. But how many miles you can go on a single charge is only one part of the equation when it comes to finding the right EV for you.
“A lot of people get hung up on range, they get range anxiety,” Takahashi says. “If they don’t see 300 (miles per charge), then they feel like it’s going to leave them stranded, and that’s just not the case for most people.”
Beyond range, you likely have other specific needs. You might be looking to tow a trailer, go car camping, or fit a large family. If there’s one thing we learned at the LA Auto Show, it’s that the market for larger EVs, like SUVs and pickup trucks, is about to explode. So is the luxury segment, where automakers such as Lucid are launching high-end, high-horsepower electric vehicles, often with wince-inducing price tags. And for outdoor enthusiasts, Rivian is pioneering electric overlanding with add-on features such as slide-out camp kitchens and custom rooftop tents.
The bottom line: Most EVs come with similar features, but it’s worth narrowing it down to your specific needs. Edmunds’ list of the Best Electric Cars of 2021 and 2022 is a good starting point, with vehicles rated in multiple categories based on performance, comfort, technology, value, and more.