How I Chose Which Plug-In Car To Buy

Concerned about emissions? We all should be. The cars and light trucks on the road today account for about 20 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. When it comes to reducing emissions from driving, switching to a plug-in can make a big difference. Driving on electricity generates zero tailpipe emissions. In most parts of the country, the average greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity used to charge plug-in vehicles are significantly lower than those from extracting, transporting, and burning gasoline for conventional cars, especially given the increasingly dirty oil coming from the Canadian tar sands. Of course, charging using solar power is the cleanest way to go. For those without solar, emissions from electricity use will vary by the grid sources in your area (though most grids are getting cleaner each year). The Union of Concerned Scientists recently came out with a report on the places that are “good, better, and best” for using electricity to charge EVs.

As I reported when I blogged about test-driving the Chevy Volt  last fall, emissions from electricity to charge plug-ins will also depend on city versus highway driving. I recommend you visit the Department of Energy’s calculator, where you can plug in which vehicle you’re considering, where you live, and what your driving patterns are — and it will help you determine estimated emissions.

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Image via Toyota

Where and how will you charge? If you buy an all-electric car, you will probably need to rely on a “level two” charger that you will need to purchase and have installed for $1,000 to $2,500 and that will take 3-8 hours for a full charge. For the Volt and plug-in hybrids, a regular 110 outlet should suffice. If you have your own garage or driveway, this will likely not be difficult.  Most EV drivers charge at home overnight. For condo or apartment dwellers with either no dedicated parking spot or a multi-car garage, finding a way to charge may be possible, but more challenging.

A growing number of people are also charging their EVs at work and at public locations. There are more public chargers on the West Coast, but many public chargers are popping up nationwide.

How much can you afford? Of course, price is a factor for most consumers. However, with a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 and many state tax credits too, most EVs are in the $20,000s and $30,000s, which is affordable for many. Additionally, fueling your car with electricity is about five times cheaper than fueling with gasoline. With much lower anticipated repair costs too (fewer moving parts), EVs are significantly less expensive to fuel and maintain.

So which did I choose? My husband and I usually drive 10 miles or less a day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, carting around ourselves and our two daughters. However, we frequently take weekend trips of 200 miles or more visiting family throughout New England (where there are currently a small number of public chargers). In fact, the majority of our car trips and driving days are local, but the majority of our driving miles are long-distance on the highway. Except for a brief period right now (long story) we are a one car family.  All these factors actually added up to a pretty clear choice for us of the plug-in Prius (the lowest in oil use and emissions, given our lifestyle patterns). For you, the choice may well be another plug-in.

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