Plugging In: My EV Shopping Experience
With California’s 2035 goal to ban sales of new fossil-fuel vehicles just over the horizon, and now the UK’s more ambitious plan that would see an end to sales of “petrol-fueled” vehicles by 2030, one thing is clear: we had all better get familiar with zero-emission vehicles, and sooner than we might expect. Indeed, the '67-Corvette-driving President Elect is already signaling his interest in policies and incentives that would expand the nation's charging infrastructure and encourage more people to buy EVs.
In theory, I’m all for this alternatively-fueled future, but up until this past weekend, I had zero experience driving zero-emission vehicles. Nor had I seriously considered what owning such a vehicle would entail for me, financially and practically. If I were in the market for, say, an electric vehicle right now (EVs being the most prevalent and viable kind of zero-emission passenger vehicle currently available), what am I looking at in terms of initial costs and benefits (of the vehicle, charging setup, and rebates/tax incentives)? Longer term, how would the cost-of-ownership of such a vehicle compare with the cost to own my FR-S? And, of course, how would I experience owning and driving an EV?
I realize the answers to these questions will likely change before 2035; nevertheless, in order to explore what the future of car ownership might entail, I have begun addressing them by going through the motions of researching, test driving, and considering the costs were I to own, drive, and insure an electric vehicle here in California. To focus my efforts and keep this research as realistic as possible, I’ve set the following parameters:
Since the 2035 goal would only allow the sales of zero-emission vehicles, I am only considering electric vehicles (as opposed to hybrids).
I am researching vehicles that could serve as my one-and-only rather than as just a grocery-getter. That translates to 4+ passenger cars with at least a 200-mile range.
To keep it realistic, I’m researching cars generally within my budget. As much as I’d love to test drive a Taycan or Polestar 2, I’m (sadly) limiting my behind-the wheel research to cars I can theoretically afford.
I’m also looking at EVs that I would actually be interested in driving, which means no SUVs or huge sedans.
OK--with those parameters set, I should be able to find plenty of good potential cars out there, right?
Well, not exactly. Though there are other EVs that I’m genuinely intrigued by (I’m looking at you, MINI Electric), only three in current production come close to meeting my criteria: the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, the Chevy Bolt, and Tesla’s Model 3 sedan (Standard Plus edition). The rest are S-yuck-Vs, short-range, too expensive, or not yet available. And to be honest, none of the three contenders fully captures my imagination or attention (unless I look at the sticker price, that is. $37K for a Chevy economy hatchback?!).
Despite my lack of enthusiasm for these cars, I scheduled test drives for the Chevy and Tesla, then drove them back-to-back along similar routes. In total, I spent about 45 minutes behind the wheel of each car. Here are my impressions:
The 2020 Chevy Bolt
As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I like hatchbacks a lot, so the Bolt has been on my radar since it first became available in 2017. Otherwise, it seems like an uninspiring electric car with impressive range and everyday practicality. Up close, the Bolt looks like what it is in every way but sticker price: an economy car. The hatch is a good feature, of course, and the cabin is comfortable enough.
On the road, I immediately appreciated the Bolt’s smooth, always-accessible torque; however, though it delivered adequate power, the Chevy did feel unexpectedly heavy to me, especially around corners. I know EVs, laden as they are with batteries, weigh more than their gasoline-powered counterparts, but after years driving Golfs and Fits and other smaller cars, I found the sensation of driving a small car that feels more like a mid-size sedan a little disorienting. And perhaps I was imagining things, but I perceived the center of gravity to be higher than expected, too. Pulling back into the dealer lot, I glanced at my parked FR-S with newfound appreciation and relief.
The 2020 Tesla Model 3
Compared with the Bolt, the Model 3 seemed gargantuan in proportions and interior space. The trunk is huge, the cabin spacious, and the “frunk” capacious. I expected the car to drive like a large mid-size sedan--that is, not in an engaging way.
I was largely mistaken. Despite outweighing the Bolt by about 100 pounds, the Model 3 was far and away the more nimble, more capable performer on the road. It was also thrillingly fast, even in this “base,” two-wheel-drive trim. As I drove back to the lot, I envisioned long road trips and somewhat fun detours through canyons in this car.
Driving Tests: The Verdict
Of the two cars, the Model 3 is much more impressive than the Bolt. I’d have to research more before making a final decision (including reliability and service), but, given the choice, the Tesla wins on driveability and usability by a fossil-fuel-free mile.
I wouldn’t have predicted preferring the Tesla to the Bolt, and I do wish there were more options available within my budget and set parameters, but at least the Model 3 seems like a viable everyday driver.
On paper, the Bolt and Model 3 (in base form) are comparable in price. Neither, unfortunately, qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit any longer, but they do each qualify for a $2000 California rebate. So, aside from other local tax incentives and rebates for installing a charger, I’d be looking at adjusted base prices of $34,620 (Bolt) and $35,990 (Model 3). Speaking of chargers, I’d realistically have to install one at my house. A friend of mine (whose family has a Bolt and an Ioniq--they went all in) spent about $1,000 to purchase and install a charger in his garage.
At these prices, both cars are within my theoretical budget, but they’re still quite expensive out-the-door. And this is consistent with other EVs available today. Though the price gap between EVs and gasoline-powered cars is narrowing, EV sticker prices are still much higher than their petrol-powered counterparts on average.
Cost of Ownership
The most compelling economic argument for choosing to buy an EV is cost of ownership. Especially in California, a gallon of gasoline costs a lot more than a kW hour of electricity. EVs, with fewer parts to worry about, also require less maintenance than gasoline-powered cars. I’ll look into this issue in more depth in my next article, but from what I’ve learned thus far, the differences in cost of ownership over time isn’t clear cut.
Since I installed solar panels at my house a few years ago, I can assume that charging a car at home would cost me very little. But what happens if I move to a new place next year (which is entirely possible) and that home doesn’t have solar? What if my new home doesn’t have a dedicated parking (and therefore charging) space? Without satisfying answers to these questions, I can’t possibly project my costs to own one of these EVs over time. Nor can I make an informed decision on whether owning an EV would be a practical choice in the first place.
If I can’t count on having a nearby hitching post to which I can tether the upcoming Mustang Mach-E, then maybe I'm better off with gasoline-powered horses for now.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.