Understanding Plug-In Electric and Hybrid Cars

I spent last week in a new BMW i8 gas/electric hybrid. Ive tested many hybrids over the years and a good number of all-electric vehicles as well. The setup of this BMW was quite different (see this weeks Despreporno Car Review) and it dawned on me that listeners may not understand the differences in the different types of electrics and hybrids.

Find A Knowledgeable Seller

First, understand that just because a dealership sells electrics or hybrids is no guarantee that whom you speak to really understands the vehicles. Generally, there is at least one expert in every dealership who specializes in electric and hybrid vehicles, so ask for that person. I have one dealer/partner, Classic Chevy in Grapevine, TX that dedicated one large building to hybrids and electrics and it has a dedicated staff to help with these. They call it Electric Avenue.

The Difference Between Hybrids and Electrics

It is important you understand the huge difference between an all-electric vehicle and a hybrid before you go shopping for one. All-electric vehicles have no contingency plan except battery power. When you have depleted your battery power, you are walking or riding a bike until it is recharged. If you take a vacation in an all-electric vehicle, you have to plan your trip around charging stations and you are likely to be inconvenienced.

A hybrid has endless range, meaning once the battery power is used, it begins to run on a gasoline driver engine that is designed to charge the battery pack back to maximum power and the cycle continues seamlessly. Some hybrids are also plug-ins if you want to charge your batteries sooner than using the gas engine.

Range Varies Greatly

If you want an all-electric, be careful with range limits to avoid what we call range anxiety, the fear of being stranded by a lack of battery power. I have experienced it and it is not fun. Some cars only have 10 miles of range, while others have between 200 and up to 300. This is where doing your research is imperative. Some people think the more expensive the car, the more range you get. For instance, the $36,000 Chevy Bolt has 238 miles of range. The $152,000 BMW i8 I just had would only go 15 miles on battery before the gas engine kicked in.

Factor weather into the equation, too. Extreme heat or cold will deplete battery power quicker. A person who drives mostly highway miles will run out of power sooner than a person driving mostly in the city.

Look At Incentives

Many hybrid and electric cars have a federal tax credit of $3600 to $7500. Understand this is a tax credit, not a rebate. You must account for the credit in the same tax year you purchase the vehicle. Unless you owe taxes of more than the tax credit amount, it will do you no good. If you plan to lease, the tax credit goes to the lease company since it is the actual owner of the car.

Some states also offer incentives directly to buyers of these cars. It might be a break on your electricity bill, the right to drive in the HOV lane, etc. Not all states do this, however, so be sure to check. Here is a website that will tell you about your particular states incentives:

Check The Kilowatt-Hour Rating

Kilowatt-hours are not unlike looking at horsepower ratings in a gas-powered car. The official abbreviation for kilowatt-hour youll see when doing research is kWh. The kWh measurement is essentially the same as youll see on your home electricity bill.

A typical electric car today has about 24 kilowatt-hours of range, which will carry you 80 miles or so. Some Tesla models carry a rating of 100 kilowatt-hours, which will take you 335 miles. Like gas engine horsepower ratings, in an electric car, the larger the kWh rating, the longer you can drive on just battery power.

Battery Chargers Can Vary Greatly

Most electric cars will charge from a standard 110-volt outlet, either outside or inside a building. Just know that it will take longer to charge from a standard outlet. Most automakers offer optional, more powerful and faster chargers that run on 240-volt power. Using 110-volt charging will give you roughly 50 miles of range after charging for 8 hours. The more powerful charger will get you roughly 20 miles of range for each hour of charging. The optional 240-volt charger usually costs around $750.

If you have an all-electric or plug-in hybrid, pay attention to free chargers. Youll find these at many restaurants, malls, grocery stores, etc. These businesses offer free charging while you visit their business. Many of these are Level 3 240-volt chargers.

If you choose a car with a factory navigation system, the car will show you the nearest charging station and even direct you there. Some automakers supply smartphone apps that will do the same thing.

In Conclusion

Plug-in cars are not for everyone and sales are still fairly low. Part of that is low gas prices, but part of it is also skepticism about this fairly new automobile segment. In the first seven months of 2017, 104,863 plug-in vehicles were sold out of a total of 9,867,000, so that is just over one percent.

I often liken new technology like this to the first cell phones that came out. They did not work very well, were somewhat clumsy, and they were expensive. Electric cars will come down in price as more are available and the range of the batteries continue to improve, like in the new Chevy Bolt and some of the Tesla models being produced.

For me, a plug-in hybrid is the most attractive. If you can stay within the battery range, youll never visit another gas station, but if you need to head out on a trip, you can.

Photo Credit: BMW
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