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Electric Car Buying Guide

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electric vehicles
As of early 2014, there were 16 plug-in cars on the U.S. market, though that number changes all the time and not all models are available in all states. Automakers are very unsure of the market for EVs, so they’re introducing them primarily in California, the state with the best charging infrastructure and most enthusiastic buyers (not to mention the best climate for batteries), plus the nine states (mainly in the Northeast and west coast) that have chosen to follow California’s emission rules. A few models, such as the Fiat 500E and Chevrolet Spark EV, are only sold or leased in California and Oregon.

The EV market is brand-spanking-new in the U.S., so expect rapid change. Hitting the market now are the BMW i3 and i8, plus the Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. Coming soon in 2015 are the Tesla Model X and the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron (a plug-in hybrid). Some current vehicles will disappear, too.

With all that in mind, here are highlights of what's on the market:

Chevy Spark EV. GM’s first all-electric vehicle, the Spark EV is based on its new mini car of the same name. So far, the Spark EV is available only in California and Oregon. Expect less than 100 miles of range. The car’s mileage equivalent (MPGe) is 128 (city) and 109 (highway).

Chevy Volt. The four-passenger Volt is an EV that uses a gas engine to charge the batteries while you drive, if needed. You can drive about 50 miles, before the gas engine engages. Between a charged set of batteries and a full tank of gas, you can drive over 350 miles before needing to stop. If range anxiety is a problem for you but you’d like an EV, the Volt’s your car. Expect 101 MPGe (city) and 93 MPGe (highway).  For more on the Volt, see our Test Drive Notes.

Fiat 500e. The ultra-cute 500e is a California-only car, with a smartly designed interior and many thoughtful features. We loved the pushbutton transmission—reminiscent of Tommy's beloved 1963 Dodge Dart convertible—and the nicely styled graphic displays. The car offers a surprising 111 horsepower, and MPGe ratings of 122 (city) and 108 (highway). We had a mixed experience test driving the first 500e we received, so we're withholding judgment until we get to drive it again, to see if our issue happened to be a fluke.

Ford Focus Electric. This is Ford’s all-electric entry, and it offers 110 MPGe (city) and 99 (highway). There’s a 107-kilowatt electric motor and a 23-kilowatt-hour liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack. That’s average for this class, as is the 76 miles of range. But the liquid cooling is definitely a plus. Ford also sells plug-in hybrid versions of the Fusion and C-Max.

Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive. The B-Class electric is another sporty-feeling EV, reaching 60 mph in 7.9 seconds. The Mercedes is new to the market as an upscale version of the Smart Electric Drive. It includes a Tesla-engineered drivetrain. The B-Class will sell for $41,450 before the federal tax credit. MPGe is 85 (city) and 83 (highway), and 85 miles of range.   

Nissan Leaf. Nissan bet billions on the Leaf, and it’s paying off…slowly. As of this writing, it was the best-selling EV in the U.S., with sales of 2,000 to 3,000 a month. The company has discounted the Leaf and added features for 2014, which has stimulated sales. The car is rated at 126 (city) and 101 (highway) MPGe. The Leaf has a 107-horsepower motor, and an 80 kilowatt AC synchronous electric motor.

Smart Electric Drive. The electric version of the Smart is more fun to drive than the gas model, but there’s only 74 horsepower available (and that for short bursts—47 hp is the usual fare). Expect 122 mpg (city) and 93 (highway). And oh yes, there's a convertible version, too.

Tesla Model S. The buzz car of the decade, a top-rated performer at Consumer Reports and an object of desire for red-blooded Americans everywhere-- especially with the optional 85-kilowatt-hour battery pack, which provides a range of 265 miles under ideal driving conditions. The Model S gets 89 MPGe. Teslas are sold out for the moment, but the 600 a week the company was producing early in 2014 should climb to 1,000 by the end of the year.

Toyota Prius Plug-In. An intriguing variant on America’s most popular hybrid. The first 13 or so miles are electric, and then the gasoline engine starts to drive the car and recharge the batteries, and the Prius Plug-In operates as a conventional hybrid. The Prius Plug-in produces 134 horsepower, and the car delivers 51 mpg (city) and 49 (highway).

Toyota RAV4 EV. The RAV4 EV is available only in California, and may not be offered after 2014. Servicing is somewhat limited. The electric RAV4 is fun to drive, with a 154-horspower motor. Expect fuel economy of 78 MPGe (city) and 74 (highway). The drivetrain in the RAV4 EV is engineered by Tesla.

Wheego LiFe. America’s smallest car company sells a China-sourced two-passenger Smart-type car, available nationally, with an added-in-California drivetrain. By keeping its operations very lean, it’s avoided the fate of similar automaker Coda, who went under with only a few cars sold. There is 60 peak horsepower from the electric motor, and a maximum speed of 65 mph. As for reliably getting parts year from now... who knows? You might be on the phone with Bejing. 

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