Living Electric In 2021 - Challenges, Advantages, and Realities

Ford Escape Hybrid Plug-In

The electric vehicle transition is now well underway. Over the coming decade, the vehicle ownership experience for Americans and citizens of the world is going to change in significant ways. How you fuel up your vehicle, how far you can drive it, how often you can drive it, whether or not it can tow your trailer, and how you pay for the vehicle’s total costs will all shift.

Man speaking in front of people

On January 27, 2020, over one year ago, General Motors President, Mark Reuss, stood at a podium in front of the press and announced that GM’s All-Electric Future Is Now. Like all great marketing taglines, that means whatever you want it to. One thing was clear from the announcement. The old way of doing things is over in the auto industry, at least when it comes to how we power our vehicles.

The Car Talk staff has driven, tested, and evaluated each of the latest electrified models from Tesla, Toyota, General Motors, and Ford over the past few months. What interested us most wasn’t the typical parameters like ride comfort, acceleration, infotainment, and features. Suffice it to say that today’s EVs top the charts in each of those categories. We focused closely on how we as consumers will live with these vehicles, day in and day out.

Model vs. Living ElectricTesla Model Y LR AWDChevy BoltMustang Mach-E ER AWDNissan Leaf (62kWh battery)Toyota RAV4 Prime AWDToyota Prius Prime

(*) Range is EV-only miles and total EV+hybrid-electric range.

Mach E cut away graphic

The Transition From Gasoline

Some parts of living electric are common to all EVs. However, each individual style of EV, brand, and EV model has its own unique advantages and challenges. The newest vehicle to market, the battery-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E line isn’t an exception. In fact, the differences between a conventional vehicle and how the Mustang Mach-E operates are perhaps the most pronounced of the new group of great EVs available today. We will use some of our experiences with the Mustang Mach-E here to highlight certain aspects of living electric.

There are EVs that have both an electric drive system and also a hybrid-electric drivetrain. These are called plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), and some are referred to as extended-range electric vehicles (EREVs). These offer enough electric power to get you to and from your daily commute location but are also able to operate as high-efficiency gasoline hybrids should you wish to take a longer trip without recharging. This category when combined with a crossover body style and all-wheel drive, like the 94 MPGe Toyota RAV4 Prime are a hot new segment that offer many of the same benefits battery-electric vehicles promise, but without the downsides of living “all” electric.

Pros and Cons Battery-Electric Vehicles vs. Conventional Vehicles

  • Driving enjoyment
  • Lower cost for maintenance and repairs
  • Lower cost for energy (fuel)
  • Longer warranty
  • Limited range, particularly in winter
  • Long-range towing is a logistical issue
  • Charging is a constant requirement
  • At-home charger a must

Pros and Cons of Plug-In Hybrid-Electric Vehicles vs. Conventional Vehicles

  • Driving enjoyment
  • Lower cost for maintenance and repairs
  • Lower cost for energy (fuel)
  • Longer warranty
  • Longest total range of all vehicle types
  • No special charger required at home (though it is helpful)
  • EV-only range is limited to normal daily use, not long trips
  • Towing weight is limited
Energy Consumption Chart

Four Big Upsides Of EVs for Owners

There are four reasons you will love owning an electric vehicle (EV), be it a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV), extended range EV (EREV), or a battery-electric vehicle (BEV). The first is the cost of “fuel.” EVs are more efficient when compared to a vehicle of equal size and similar performance with only an internal combustion engine (ICE). For example, the Toyota Prius Prime PHEV earns a 133 MPGe rating. A comparable ICE vehicle like a Toyota Corolla would earn a rating around 33 MPG. That equates to about half the energy costs per mile, or a savings of about $6,500 in energy cost savings over ten years using today’s electricity and gasoline prices. Keep the vehicle for 20 years, and its energy savings can add up to half its new-car price tag.

The next big advantage is driving pleasure. EVs, particularly mid-market priced ones like the battery-electric Tesla Model Y and Mustang Mach-E are a blast to drive. They accelerate better and in a more satisfying way than many ICE-powered cars of similar size. At the approximately $50K price point, both of these vehicles will launch to 60 MPH in under 5 seconds. Both brands have top trims that can do that in around 3.5 seconds. That is faster than all but a small handful of ICE-powered vehicles.

30k service price poster

The next big ownership advantage is a lower maintenance and repair cost. EVs of all types, including plug-in hybrids, have eliminated most of the things that commonly break under your hood. There are no starters, no alternators, no conventional transmissions, and no drive belts. If you’ve replaced a timing belt recently, you know the service can approach $1,000. We had our Subaru Forester with just 30,000 miles in for alternator replacement this winter. The dealership’s charge was $1,000. What will you still need to repair? Wheel bearings, struts, CV joints, and anything else below the floor pan our crappy salt-encrusted roads destroy.

Consumer Reports recently concluded a comprehensive study on the repair and maintenance costs of BEVs, PHEVs, and ICE-powered vehicles. The study found that BEV and PHEV vehicle owners pay half what ICE-powered car owners do for repair and maintenance. Interestingly, the PHEVs edged out the BEVs for the best lifetime costs.

Brake image

Brake maintenance, tires, alignment, and related costs remain. These are similar for EVs when compared to ICE vehicles, although you won’t need brake pads and rotors as often, thanks to regenerative braking.

Last, EVs come with longer warranties on the parts that are related to the electric drive. Batteries, in particular, have warranties that can last beyond 100,000 miles. For example, Toyota extends the basic new vehicle warranties for its RAV4 Prime PHEV. Any electric related parts have an added warranty to 96-months or 100,000 miles. Its high-voltage battery is warrantied for 120-months or 150,000 miles. This eliminates the argument that the expensive batteries will someday need to be replaced and negate all the cost savings EVs offer.

Mustang Mach-E Battery

Your Mileage Will (Definitely) Vary

Let’s examine the estimated total driving range of electric vehicles. The EPA sets this number, and it is ridiculously optimistic for every EV sold today. Unlike real-world gasoline vehicle MPG and range ratings, which we find match the EPA’s Combined Estimate almost exactly in the ICE vehicles we test, the EPA range of EVs is wildly high.

The Mach-E is a perfect example. When we charged our Mustang Mach-E ER AWD Premium test vehicle to 100% battery capacity, it offered an estimated driving range of between 197 and 204 miles based on the recent vehicle use history. The EPA-estimated range is 270 miles. That’s a 25% range reduction before the vehicle has even been unplugged from the charger. We cleared the driving history, and the 100% charge reverted to 236 miles. Still not the 270 the EPA estimate claims.

Mustang Mach-E during winter

Head out on a crisp fall, spring, or winter morning, and you will find that the estimated range miles from that point go away faster than the actual driven miles. For example, we set out on a 30 F morning with 204 miles shown on the range estimator. We drove (gently) for 14 miles and watched as 19 miles dropped from the range estimator. Do the math, and that is another 25% reduction in usable range. This was in the Ford’s Whisper drive mode setting, the least sporty one.

You may feel this is a criticism of the Mustang Mach-E specifically, but it is not. In our testing of other brands of EVs from the Jaguar I-PACE to the Nissan Leaf, we observed a similar range situation. And it’s not just us. In 2019, AAA conducted a comprehensive study of winter EV range titled, “Icy Temperatures Cut Electric Vehicle Range Nearly in Half,” which found that the Tesla Model S has a 38% real-world range reduction in winter. The study, which analyzed the BMW i3, Chevy Bolt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S, concluded, “HVAC use results in significant reductions of driving range and equivalent fuel economy.” How significant? The group average range reduction in cold weather driving was 41%.

A recent TFL Cars review of the Mustang Mach-E, but of a different trim, also noted the same significant range deviations from EPA estimates.

Chevrolet Bolt charging

Following our test of the Mustang Mach-E, Chevrolet delivered us a new 2021 Chevy Bolt. We charged to full during a period with temperatures in the 20 F range and the vehicle displayed a 191 mile range when fully charged. Far from the 259 the EPA estimates.

This isn’t an averaging issue. Were there large numbers of EV owners reporting similarly better than EPA-Estimated ranges it would be big news. It just isn’t the case. It can be below 30 F in American above the Mason-Dixon line on any given day from September to April. EV owners living where it is cold a good part of the year need to think hard about how they will manage range.

Toyota RAV4 Prime in snow
Toyota RAV4 Prime Image Courtesy of Johan Sivlér

Towing Electric - Are PHEVs the Answer?

As the new vehicle launches shift away from the small car designs like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt to crossovers like the Mustang Mach-E, Tesla Model Y and the Toyota RAV4 Prime, as well EV pickup trucks, towing will be an interesting topic for the minority of owners who count on their vehicle to tow. If one wishes to tow a train fifty feet, battery-electric vehicles are perfect. However, in the real world of towing, there are some challenges with battery-electric vehicles.

Anyone who tows knows that energy consumption, and thus range, drops by a quarter to as much as a half of a vehicle’s normal capability. Couple that with the optimistic estimated ranges battery-electric vehicles demonstrate and the math gets unkind. Particularly in winter.

Start halving your halves, and BEV towing range can be under 100 miles pretty quickly. That range is not going to get the snowmobiles to the trailhead and back. Charging along the route is also a near impossibility. Tesla Superchargers and public chargers are not configured in their lots to allow for a trailer to be coupled when charging. So, is the plan to park and then uncouple, charge, and recouple the trailer? That sure sounds like a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Here plug-in hybrids like the RAV4 Prime with its 2,500-pound trailer rating shine. When the limited EV range is depleted, continue on using the gasoline-hybrid powertrain. When the 600-mile EPA-estimated combined range is used up, simply pull into any gas station and fill up. And you can top off the snowmobiles as well. While this example is a stretch for many vehicle owners, it does highlight how much more flexible PHEVs are by comparison to BEVs when it comes to towing.

Bolt in garage

How Owners Actually Charge EVs vs. Public Charger Headlines

The growing public electric vehicle charger infrastructure gets a lot of press. However, the vast majority of plug-in vehicle owners don’t use them. Rather, most EV owners charge at home nearly all the time. This has been widely reported in the past, but we wanted a reality check. Car Talk polled EV owners in three large EV clubs. While not scientifically meaningful, the club respondents tend to be advocates and fans of EVs. We asked owners to check a box if they charged more than 90% at home, and then listed other lower percentages from which one could choose. To our surprise, the lower percentages were almost vacant of votes, and club members added a category called “I always/only charge at home.” Here are the results of our informal polling:

Clearly, charging at home is the most realistic plan for most EV owners today. Given that fact, it is important to consider how that charging will be done.

Kia Niro EV charging

At-Home Charging Basics

Owners of a battery-electric vehicle like the new Mustang Mach-E are going to need to charge primarily at home. That means buying a wall charger and having it professionally installed. EV chargers need a high-amperage breaker in the panel and a dedicated 240 V line run to the charger. Be sure to budget at least $500 for that work, assuming you don’t need a costly panel upgrade to handle the added breaker locations and increased load, or need to excavate to get the line to the garage. Most municipalities require a building permit for adding an outlet. It is not a DIY project.

The actual charger device’s cost is often offset by local utility incentives or promotions by manufacturers. Let’s also have some perspective. The energy savings are in the thousands per year with EVs like the Mach-E by comparison to conventional ICE vehicles with similar capabilities. The up-front investment in a charger is worth the cost.

Nissan Leaf Mobile charger

EVs come with a 120 volt AC mobile charger stashed in their trunk you can plug in anywhere using a common 120 V outlet, but the Mustang Mach-E owner’s manual cautions, “Do not plug the mobile charger into any form of extension cord.” Using a 120 volt charger like this adds about 2 to 4 miles of driving range per hour of charge time. It can take days to charge an empty BEV back to full this way. Ford includes a 240 volt charger adapter that can offer faster charging. However, it was incompatible with the existing 240 volt service in our garage. Obviously, you need that high-amp wall charger, and you need to use it every time you park for the evening.

Charger Plug

One important note. Many stories on this subject say something to the effect of “You can plug your EV into a 240 V dryer outlet.” Setting aside the fact that many dryer outlets are on stories above the first floor and others in basements, this is still untrue. The chances you have a dryer located in your garage are low. The chances it was designed to accommodate the amperages an EV charger pulls are near zero, and it’s old three-wire/three-prong wiring and outlet design are incompatible with your EV charger.

Mustang Mach-E charging

Charging On the Road

Unlike Tesla, Ford does not have its own high-speed charger network. Instead, Ford has partnered with the larger public EV charging companies to offer two years of “no-cost” charging at many public charging locations. However, money is not the real issue.

We drove to the closest charger to our home, a ChargePoint location in a retail outlet that offered zero-cost charging. We connected our test Mustang Mach-E and went for a 24-minute walk. In that time, we added back 7 miles of range. So, a quick stop on a road trip is not going to add back any meaningful range.

Many, but not all, EVS are equipped to be plugged into what are termed DC fast-chargers. DC fast-chargers offer a much higher rate of charge, but they are rare. Ford says that a Mach-E driver can add about 60 miles of range in a 15-minute stop. We used Google Maps to locate all of the DC fast charger locations in the Boston Metro area and found 15. There are roughly 300,000 vehicles registered in Greater Boston. And there is another issue related to DC fast charging. The owner’s manual cautions, “We recommend limiting the amount of DC charges, and ending DC charges at 80% state of charge as charging between 80 and 100% can incur high charging costs due to the time to completion. Frequent use of DC charging could result in reducing your battery’s efficiency and lifespan.” So, frequent DC fast charging to 100% battery capacity is not a possibility for the Mustang Mach-E.

RAV4 charging
Toyota RAV4 Prime Charging Image Courtesy of Kate Silbaugh

PHEVs have two odd strengths when it comes to charging. Since they carry a smaller battery, the power needed and time to charge the battery are lower and shorter than with BEVs’ larger batteries. A Toyota RAV4 Prime can charge from empty to full in 12 hours on 120 V power using a common household outlet. So, if you plug it in when you put it away after work, it will be full in the morning for the next commute. Also, PHEVs operate as hybrid-electric vehicles for extremely long ranges. Six hundred or more miles for both Toyota models. So if a charger isn’t available when on a road trip, it is no big deal.

There are many anecdotal stories about happy BEV owners who have kicked gas to the curb and live electric without a home charger. These owners are rare, and the infrastructure challenge may get worse as EVs are adopted in greater numbers. Adding EV chargers to more than a handful of spaces in apartment parking garages or condo parking lots is not likely to ever be a reality. Adding one for every residential parking space seems far-fetched.

Comparison of EV Types Relative to One AnotherBattery Electric Vehicles (BEVs)Plug-in Hybrid-Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)

Living Electric Conclusion

For homeowners with a dedicated parking spot or garage, EVs are a practical and modern way to reduce one’s carbon and pollution footprint. EVs offer a better driving experience, lower cost of ownership than traditional ICE vehicles, and fewer repair hassles.

However, those who live in a communal residential situation like an apartment or condominium need to carefully plan how they will manage their vehicle’s charging needs. If the vehicle owner lives where winter driving is a part of life, the challenges grow.

Plug-in hybrids offer a practical solution to many of today’s infrastructure and battery design limitations. Kia, Hyundai, Ford, and Mitsubishi will join Toyota in offering new crossover PHEVs this year. Owners who plan to tow, who don’t have an at-home charging solution, and who often take extended trips may find these EVs a good solution to their needs.

In the coming decade, every automotive manufacturer will improve their EVs, and shortcomings will continue to fall away. Battery designs will improve, costs may come down, and the public charging infrastructure will continue to improve. We look forward to this story aging badly and many living electric challenges becoming things of the past.

FAQ

What is the best electric car for 2021?

Among the top-selling EVs for 2021 are the Tesla Model 3, Prius Prime, Chevy Bolt, and Tesla Model Y. One to check out is all-new Toyota RAV4 Prime.

Are electric cars worth it?

Yes. EVs have great value, particularly those that can be combined with federal income tax incentives and local state rebates.

What is meant by electric vehicles?

An electric vehicle is one which has a plug and can operate at least part of the time using only electricity.

How do you charge an electric car at a charging station?

You first open the charge door. Next, you use an app or card from the charger’s brand to initiate the charging. Then, simply plug in the charging handle.

How much does an electric charging station cost?

Charging models vary from brand and location. Generally, you pay by the kWh. Charging on the road is usually more expensive per mile than charging at home.

Are charging stations for cars free?

In many cases charging on the road is free of charge, but not always. Many brands include charging and some municipalities and businesses sponsor free chargers.

Can you plug an electric car into a regular outlet?

Yes. All EVs come with a mobile charger that can be plugged into a common 120 V outlet. However, almost all brands warn against using an extension cord. Charge rates from common outlets range from 2 miles per hour on the charger to 4.

What is the range of an electric car?

Range varies by brand and trim. Most new EVs have a range of between 200 and 300 miles. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have EV ranges from 11 to 42 miles and can then operate for hundreds of miles as hybrids.

What is the longest range for an electric car?

Ranges offered by Tesla in 2021 now approach 400 miles. Ford has an EV with ranges over 300 miles. The Toyota RAV4 Prime has an all-electric range of 42 miles and a total range of 600 miles.

Glossary of Terms Helpful For This Story:

  • ICE = Internal combustion engine. Generally meaning a vehicle that only has this type of conventional powertrain.
  • EV = Electric vehicle. Any type of vehicle with a plug. Includes PHEVs, EREVs and BEVs.
  • BEV = Battery electric vehicle. In other words, battery-only. Like a Chevy Bolt or Tesla Model Y.
  • PHEV = Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle. A vehicle which can operate for a limited number of miles using only its electric drive, but which also has a hybrid-electric powertrain that can then take over. The Prius Prime and RAV4 Prime, as well as the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Honda Clarity are good examples.
  • EREV = A term past its expiration date. It means extended-range electric vehicle. The original Chevy Volt and some versions of the BMW i3 were examples of EREVs. They have an on-board gas engine that can charge the electric high voltage battery. Similar in most ways to a PHEV. The line between the two has always been fuzzy.
  • HEV = Hybrid-electric vehicle. We shy away from the term HEV. Instead, we just say hybrid. The Toyota Prius is the classic example. However, there are over 25 HEVs on sale in America today from multiple brands. These vehicles in their modern form now average 50 MPG.
  • Supercharger = A high-speed Tesla-brand charging station. Only available to Tesla owners.
  • Charger = Used in this story, we refer to “chargers” as the external to the vehicle device that supplies input power.
  • DC Fast Charger = A special, higher-speed charger that some EVs can use. Limited in their distribution.
  • MPGe = An EPA term that means “miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent.” This is a unit of measure that helps when comparing the efficiency of a PHEV to an ICE vehicle or BEV. You will find that the MPGe of a vehicle and its cost of energy per mile or per year correlate rather well. Some PHEVs have higher MPGe ratings than some BEVs.
  • HV Battery = “High Voltage Battery” aka “traction battery” aka “Hybrid Battery.” EVs have a large capacity battery that stores the energy used to propel the vehicle. It operates at a higher voltage than the traditional 12 volt batteries we all are familiar with. By contrast, the 12 volt battery is used to run accessories. Nearly all EVs have a 12 volt battery and almost none use it to start the vehicle anymore.
  • Regenerative Braking = The ability an EV has to recapture energy and then store it in the high-voltage battery for use. The regenerative braking force can also be used to slow the vehicle. This alone is perhaps the most important way that all EVs and hybrids are more efficient than ICE vehicles.

Todays Car-o-Scope

What the stars say about your car for 3/8/2021
When the need arises, stop to ask directions. It will pay unforeseen dividends with a new significant other.
Select your sign
  1. Aries
  2. Taurus
  3. Gemini
  4. Cancer
  5. Leo
  6. Virgo
  7. Libra
  8. Scorpio
  9. Sagittarius
  10. Capricorn
  11. Aquarius
  12. Pisces