Electric Cars: A Shopper’s Cheat Sheet

A research nerd tries to bring some clarity to electric car buyers.

I’ve been thinking about upgrading to an electric car for a while now. And in today’s market, there are plenty of models to choose from.

But having a lot of options makes for a complicated decision! Each model of electric car has its own unique mix of efficiency, charging time, and driving range—and since buying a car is a big decision, I want to find the model that makes the most sense for my family. To add to the confusion, there doesn’t seem to be any single, unified source of information on the many electric car options out there.

So, for my own convenience—and hopefully yours—I pulled together a table with basic stats on the major electric and plug-in hybrid cars…

(Click the table to see a larger version.)

What I took away from this research is that there’s no “perfect” choice among the EVs on the market. They’re all far more efficient in electric mode than gas-only models. That means less money spent on fueling your car, and lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions for each mile driven. But whether you’re willing to pay a premium for a longer range, a faster charge, or a higher top speed seems like a personal choice that I can’t help you out with.

But at least you now have the numbers. Happy comparing!

And now for the notes and caveats:

  • I’ve restricted my search to electric and plug-in hybrid sedans that can carry at least 4 people—which is what my own family needs most days of the week—and to cars that are either on the market right now, or are expected to be offered later this year, in at least some part of the Pacific Northwest. I decided not to include a couple of cars—the Coda and the Toyota RAV4 EV—that are only being sold in California right now. If I’ve missed some cars, let me know in comments and I’ll be happy to update the table!
  • MPGe stands for “miles per gallon equivalent“—which is how the EPA rates the efficiency of electric vehicles.
  • I sorted the models by base MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) minus the maximum US tax credit allowed for that model. But note that you only get the full tax credit if you actually owe that much in federal income tax! Also, I decided not to include the cost of installing an in-home 240V charger in the vehicle price, since people with ready access to a public charging station might not need one.
  • Some of the figures above are estimates, rather than official figures. I did my best, but unfortunately you may need to check the official figures as they’re released.
  • The Honda Fit EV isn’t actually available for sale yet. A limited run will be leased to customers in Oregon and California beginning this summer. I’ve included its MSRP price (with tax credit) for comparison’s sake, but folks who lease a Honda Fit aren’t even allowed to buy it after the lease is over. That means that the price I quote is sort of irrelevant at this point.
  • Retail deliveries for the Tesla Model S are scheduled to begin in June, but it looks like the smaller-battery models won’t be shipped until late 2012. I wasn’t able to find solid data on 120V charging times on the Tesla website, and the 240V charging time estimate can be cut in half if you buy an optional “twin charger” for $1,500. The Tesla website quotes a 300 mile range for its 85 kWh model…but recently announced that its range is 265 miles under EPA’s new test cycle, which makes me suspect that the ranges for the 40 and 60 kWh models may be slightly overstated—thus the asterisk. UPDATE: In the comments section, a reader points out that a previous version of this table likely overstated the range 40 and 60 kWh Tesla Model S—he recommends adjusting downwards, based on the results of recent EPA tests on the 85 kWh model. I’ve kept the MPGe figure from the Tesla website for the 40 kWh model, but we should probably treat the Tesla figures as preliminary until official numbers are released.
  • The MPGe (miles per gallon-equivalent) figures for the Prius Plug-in and Chevy Volt are for electric-mode only. The Volt gets 37 mpg in all-gas mode, and the Prius gets 50 mpg.
  • And as a reminder, the differences in miles-per-gallon equivalent (MPGe) in all-electric mode are actually quite small. As we’ve written a number of times, miles-per-gallon math is actually quite deceptive: differences at the low end of the MPG scale matter much more than do differences at the high end of the scale. So the difference between the top performer (the Honda Fit, at 116 MPGe) and its closest rival (the Mitsubishi MiEV, at 112 MPGe) is actually quite small.

(Sources for the chart include the manufacturers’ websites, Wikipedia, FuelEconomy.gov, and Motor Trend Magazine.)

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  1. VeloBusDriver says:

    You missed one. The Ford C-MAX Energi is due “Fall 2012″.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Yeah, that looks cool!! But I can’t find official specs yet! Ford has hinted that it’ll best both the Prius Plug-In and the Volt in efficiency, but I don’t have any clue about actual rated efficiency, range, charging time or price. I think Ford is being a bit cagey on the details.

      If you see something, let me know. In the meantime…I’ll be keeping my eye on it!

  2. Billy Bob Thornton says:

    TSLA numbers are all wrong – the 85 kwh TSLA was certified a few weeks ago at 89 MPGe (lowest of the EVs) and 265 mile range on 5-cycle test (what should be quoted). Applying the same mile/kwh (265 miles / 85 kwh = 3.12) to the 60kwh and 40kwh versions would year a range of 187 miles and 125 miles, respectively.

    In terms of time to charge, Ohm’s law is our guide here: standard home outlet is 120V and 10A = 1.2kw/hour. TSLA’s 85kwh battery would take 71 hours (3 days) to charge, 60kwh battery would take 50 hours (2 days) to charge, 40kwh battery would take 33 hours (1.3 days). At the other end of the spectrum, the Leaf (24kwh battery) would take 20 hours.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Thanks for the catch, Billy Bob! I’ll update shortly. But I’ll leave asterisks in the Tesla figures you cite — with a lighter battery pack, the 40kWh model may get a bit more range and/or MPGe.

      The recharging time is all a bit of mess, I agree. I’m not sure what the assumptions are about the amperage of the circuits, for example. The MiEV website, for example, recommends a 15A circuit, and *still* says that it’s 22.5 hours for a full charge of a 16 kWh battery. So I think we’ll need to see how these things test out in the real world. But you’re right, the Leaf website claims 20 hours for a charge — I’m not sure now where I saw the 25 hour figure cited.

  3. Billy Bob Thornton says:

    Use Ohm’s law to apply a standard across all of them – you can get the kwh capaciyt of battery off the manufacturer’s website and use 120V/10A as standard household circuit = 1.2kwh of charge per hour. That would standardize everything. Thanks for pulling this together.

    In terms of TSLA 40kwh/60kwh you definitely need to adjust down to make them comparable to the other cars.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I’ve now adjusted the Tesla range down, and also the MPGe for the 60 kWh. I should probably do something about the MPGe for the 40 kWh, but I don’t know exactly what to do.

      I’ll think about standardizing charging to 1.2 kWh per hour. It seems to me like it doesn’t work for the MiEV, since the MiEV website itself says that still gives 22 hours for a 16 kWH battery, after recommending a 15A circuit. I just don’t know if there’s some sort of technical whizbangery that limits the charging rate after, say, it reaches 80% of capacity.

      But maybe the right thing to do is just to is make a Version 2 of this chart, and just list the battery size rather than the recharging time. (My first thought was to list the times mentioned on the manufacturer websites.

      This stuff all remains a little fuzzy. For example, I cite numbers for the Honda Fit EV, but that could give it an advantage relative to the others since they’re manufacturers’ claims, rather than actual results from the new EPA test cycle.

      Sigh. I wish this stuff were more straightforward!! But I’ll keep plugging away…

  4. Matt the Engineer says:

    Thanks for this! I had no idea there were this many on the market.

    Consider a few reviews after test drives? Though I suppose it would be ironic if this place started feeling like Car & Driver…

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Great idea — but you’re right, it would be very weird to turn our blog into a car review site.

      Probably the most sustainable choice is to drive less, or even give up the car. But for lots of complicated reasons, I don’t think that’s happening for me anytime soon. Oh, well…

  5. Eletruk says:

    Top speed? Really. How important is it really? As long as it can go 70mph, do you really car if the Prius says 112 MPH?

    And what about the Fisker Karma?

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I’ll take a look at the Karma.

      Yeah, I hesitated to include the “top speed” column at all. I collected the numbers for a reason, though: I’ve got an acquaintance with a Zap Xebra 4-seater that can’t reach highway speeds — and as I was starting the research, I wanted to know whether cars could go on the highway. As it turned out, all of the ones I covered could…but I figured I’d add top speed anyway, since they might be relevant to *someone*. (I suppose it’s possible that someone might want a car that could briefly reach >70mph — say, if they’re caught in a cluster of tailgating cars & don’t feel safe not being able to pick up the pace…)

    • Eric de Place says:

      Obviously I agree that no one should be driving a Prius (or any other car) 112 mph on the road, but top speed serves as sort of rough proxy for power.

      Posted speed limits in the NW go as high as 70 mph, which implies that you might want to go even faster in certain passing situations. And there are other legit cases where folks might like to have a decent amount of spare power in the car, such as traveling up a mountain pass in a loaded vehicle.

      If the rated top speed is only 80 mph, I’m not sure I’d be too confident about maintaining speed in that situation, particularly not if also using appliances (like heat or A/C, radio, lights, etc) or while trying to maintain a charge.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I think I’m going to leave the Karma off the chart. But for those who are interested, Wikipedia has the goods:
      $102K base price
      52 MPGe in electric mode (EPA 5-cycle test)
      20 MPG in gas mode
      Electric range: 32 miles
      Total range: 230 miles

      It’s certainly a spiffy-looking car, but it’s well outside the price range for most families. I suppose you could say the same of the Teslas. Still the Fisker Karma feels like it’s in another league in terms of cost vs. performance: a niche luxury sports sedan.

  6. Jay says:

    I’ve had an iMiev for 5 months and 5600 miles and will testify that it reaches 82 mph in short order. The 120 volt EVSE that comes with the car is only good for 8 amps, hence the long time. The charger will pull 16 amps on 120 or 240V if allowed to, so with my SPX portable EVSE, up to about 120 miles per day of use with only 120V charging is quite feasible.

  7. Jay says:

    I’ve had an iMiev for 5 months and 5600 miles and will testify that it reaches 82 mph in short order. The 120 volt EVSE that comes with the car is only good for 8 amps, hence the long time. The charger will pull 16 amps on 120 or 240V if allowed to, so with my SPX portable EVSE, up to about 120 miles per day of use with only 120V charging is quite feasible. Attaining top speed is not dependent on reduced accessory loads, unlike an ICE vehicle. The battery can put out many more Amos than the inverter will take. Top speed will, however, destroy your available range.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      Thanks for the info! I suspect that there are lots of differences between the “official” figures and drivers’ real-world experiences.

      And you’ve got a cool blog, by the way! (http://www.karmanneclectric.blogspot.com/)

  8. Lee says:

    This is a really great comparison chart, thanks for providing it. However tough it is to compare the sometimes apples-to-oranges data manufacturers provide, I’m glad someone is trying. I would love to see reviews as well.

  9. Barry Saxifrage says:

    Great info once again Clark. Thanks.

    One confusing point for me is whether there is any universal standard for the fast charging. As a renter I don’t want to put in an expensive charging station where I’m renting but there are public rapid charging stations around i could use at times. Curious which cars, if any, lock you in to their own rapid charge infrastructure?

    Also just across the border in BC the rebates are smaller ($5k) and the MSRP for all cars are significantly higher. For Leaf, base price after rebate in BC is $33,400…while you chart shows it in USA at $27,700. Sales tax is also much higher. Alas.

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      That’s a great question.

      Some of the models I looked at seem to require you to pay extra to equip the car for rapid chargers. I’ll have to do some more research to figure this out.

      What I find so interesting about all this is that the electric car space feels very fluid. It’s like the early days of motoring, when nobody was sure which design would “win out” — whether cars would run on gasoline, electricity, alcohol, or what. People must have had to plan their trips very carefully, and lots of people must have felt like cars were only for tinkerers and early-adopter types. Personally, I’d love for the electric car market to settle out a bit. That’d work better for people like me who don’t like to think too hard…

      • Lee says:

        Now that Tesla has announced their SuperCharger network and the West Coast Electric Highway runs from Vancouver, BC to the Oregon’s border with California an update with fast charging options is more relevant:

        CHAdeMO is standard on the LEAF, optional on the i-MiEV
        SuperChargers are standard on the Model S with 65 and 80 kWh battery packs.

      • Lee says:

        I’d really like to see the quick charge options added to this list. They make all the difference when it comes to alleviating range anxiety.

  10. Stacey says:

    Here’s a handy document just published by Western Washington Clean Cities called “Welcome to the EVolution”


  11. James says:

    Do you believe it is true the EPA’s MPGe calculation ignores the energy used to provide the electricity?

    • Clark Williams-Derry says:

      I’m no expert, but I believe that it does. The carbon impacts of a car depend crucially on where the electricity comes from. We discussed that issue in this post a few years back. But the numbers may have changed since then.

  12. Danish Albert says:

    Actually it is a good article. I have gone through it. As we all know each and every model of electric car has its own unique mix of efficiency, charging time, and driving range. And also a part this article has missed is the disadvantages of this electric cars. The disadvantage is the electric cars produce pollution as they are made to prevent environment pollution.
    [link redacted]

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