Plug-In Car Shopping Made Easy, Part 2

Six Things You’ll Need to Know About PEVs

[Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes]

Information can make a world of difference when you are car shopping, and when you’re shopping for a plug-in vehicle it’s not just nice to have a bit of knowledge about the cars and the things that are unique to cars with rechargeable batteries, it is critical.

Once you’ve settled on a model or two to test drive, your dealership visit will be smoother if you take time beforehand to read these tips:

 

1: Find the incentives

The federal government provides a tax credit based on a plug-in vehicle’s battery capacity. Present credits run from around $3,000 for plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) with small batteries up to $7,500 for most battery-electric cars (BEVs) and a few PHEVs. (It can be up to $8,000 for fuel-cell electric cars, but we’re ignoring them in this article because so far they are few in number and are available only in a handful of California locations.)

Remember – a tax credit is not a cash rebate: You’ll need a $7,500 federal income tax obligation in the year in which you buy the car in order to get the full $7,500 for an EV, for instance. If your tax bill is less than the credit on the car you’re buying, you only get enough of the credit to zero out your income tax for the year; the government won’t send you a check for the difference and you can’t carry it over to the next year.

If you lease, the federal tax credit goes to the leasing company that owns the car (often the manufacturer’s in-house finance arm), but is usually applied to reduce lease payments.

State and local incentives vary widely, ranging from things as simple as free parking or reduced electricity rates to cash rebates and tax credits. A particularly valuable incentive in crowded urban areas is solo occupancy access to a state’s car-pool lanes – but not all state with HOV lanes offer this perk. In fact, not all states and cities offer incentives. And those that are out there change often.

One of the best sources for state and local incentives is a listing available on the Nasional Council of State Legislatures’ website. Plug In America’s incentives map also keeps track of state and federal inducements.

Going in armed with incentives info will help you determine how much car you can afford and means you won’t be frustrated by a salesperson who doesn’t know.

 

2: Know your charging needs

Home charging stations come in two levels – 120-volt, or regular household current, known as “Level 1” charging, and 240-volt -same as used for electric clothes dryers and ovens – or “Level 2” charging.

Level 2 charging is much faster, and these days you can buy an EV charging station on-line and simply plug it in to a dedicated 240-volt circuit if you don’t want to go the expense of having a hard-wired installation. (See our article on charging devices.) Level 1 charging rarely delivers more than 5 miles of range per hour of charging, while Level 2 – depending on the capacity of the car’s charger and the charging station to which it is connected – typically provide enough juice for 10 to 25 miles of range per hour. Tesla, which supplies more on-board charging capacity and much larger battery packs than most other EV makers, says its Model S or Model X EVs can gain up to 31 miles of range per hour charged.

If you are planning to buy or lease an EV, you will almost certainly want to have access to a Level 2 system. Most EV users have a charging station installed at home, in the garage, or, for a few lucky apartment dwellers, in their assigned parking space. You might also be able to benefit from charging stations at your place of employment.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association maintains a fairly up-to-date charging station showroom that also lists station suppliers and commercial charging networks.

 

3: Remember, Range is Relative

A caveat before you decide on a charging strategy: Despite manufacturers’ advertised all-electric range claims, PEV batteries are far more susceptible to driving style than are gas tanks. That means big differences in real-world range, depending on how fast you drive, how hard you brake, how many people are usually in the car with you, how much stuff you haul around, the kind of terrain you typically drive in, even the weather.

An EV rated at 100 miles of range may deliver only 70 or 80 miles if you are tearing down the freeway at 80 mph. Range will fall even more in extreme cold and heat. And it takes a lot of energy to haul a car up a steep hill – far more than you’ll recover from regenerative braking on the way down. Conversely, if you do most of your driving in slow, stop-and go city traffic on level terrain in a mild climate, you might find that 100 miles of rated range translating to 105 or 110 miles in the real world.

 

4: It’s Kilowatts, Now, Not Gallons

While window stickers still show fuel efficiency for plug-in vehicles in “miles-per-gallon equivalent,” or MPGe, PEV drivers typically measure in miles per kilowatt hour (kWh), as that’s the basic unit of measurement on home electricity bills and it is how the capacity of a plug-in vehicle’s battery is measured.

All you really need to know is that one gallon of gas contains the energy equivalent of 33.7 kilowatt-hours of electricity. A 26 kWh EV battery carries about as much energy as a car with a 0.75-gallon gas tank. And if that EV gets 100 miles of range on the equivalent of three-quarters of a gallon, that’s like a gasoline car getting 130 miles per gallon.

Plug-in hybrids use a blended system – some electricity and some gasoline – so their fuel economy is usually calculated in miles per gallon. But most plug-in-hybrid drivers are conversant in kilowatt, too. After all, they like to squeeze out as much all-electric travel as they can.

 

 5: Understand On-the-Road Charging

One oft-repeated complaint from PEV shoppers is that dealerships aren’t well-versed in the on-road charging system. That’s understandable – it’s like expecting a car salesperson to be able to tell you where all the gas stations are.

Charging stations are much harder to find that gas stations – although that’s changing in a few regions. Fortunately, there’s lots of help at hand.

Every plug-in vehicle sold comes with a standard or optional navigation system that automatically locates nearby charging stations and routes you to them.

Additionally, there are several regional and national networks, including Aerovironment’s EV Solutions, the ChargePoint network , Car Charging Solutions’ Blink Network and the EVgo network, that provide on-line and mobile phone access to their charger locations.

The group-sourced Plugshare app lists commercial and private charging stations in the U.S. Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Europe.

 

6: Make Good Use of Your Test Drive

You might even want to take several test drives spread over a period of several days to experience the car in different traffic, road and terrain conditions.

Walk around the car and make note of the location of the charging port. You’ll need to be able to locate your home charging system so the charging cord will reach it when the car is parked.

When running in all-electric mode, plug-in hybrids and BEVs (which are all-electric all the time) don’t have engine rumble to mask other sounds. Keep the windows up and the radio and climate control system off for part of your drive to experience the levels of road and wind noise you’ll be hearing if you make the purchase.

On the mechanical side of things, make sure you are comfortable with the regenerative braking system. Some drivers find it difficult to get used to the transition between regeneration – in which the electric motor acts as a generator and slows the car while doing so –and the mechanical braking system.

And because PHEVs transition between all-electric and internal-combustion power, you’ll want to pay attention to the shifts during your drive. Some models are so smooth you can’t really tell, others shuttle between electric and gas operation with an annoying jolt.

 

Now Have Fun

And there you have it. Arm yourself with these basic bits of information and you’ll be able to enjoy your PEV shopping without worrying whether the dealership you’ll be visiting is up to speed on the world of plug-in vehicles.

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