Battery Electric Vehicles: What You Need To Know

Battery Electric Vehicles: What You Need To Know

By Randy Lioz, Editor, Car-ED.com | April 2018


Over the years we’ve been taught to evaluate vehicles based on a few well-known metrics. Horsepower and fuel economy are two of the most familiar, with drivers fantasizing about the day when they draw upon the 500 horses under the hood on the way to getting 50 miles per gallon. But it was always a tradeoff, and this combination seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

With our move toward electrification, however, we’re being asked to look at vehicles differently. Indeed, Tesla will sell you a Model S with over 500 hp that gets the equivalent of around 100 mpg. But there are other trade-offs now asked of us, particularly when it comes to refueling. It’s not possible to jump out of a battery electric vehicle (the category of EVs that lacks a “range extender” internal combustion engine) and restore its full range in a matter of a few minutes. But of course there are some positives, too. You can’t have your gas tank refilled overnight while you sleep, and each mile of range for your internal combustion car comes at a much higher price.

With these differences in mind, we’ll lay out what the most important metrics are for evaluating BEVs, and how each one now available in new-car dealers stacks up.

Range: How far can I go on a charge?

Given the “range anxiety” that greeted the initial slate of EV entries, range is probably the primary talking point when comparing electric cars. The first BEVs couldn’t make it past 100 miles before needing to juice up, and there are still some entries out there, like the smart fortwo, Fiat 500e and—surprisingly—the new Honda Clarity Electric (more on that later), that have this limitation.

The heart of the market has moved on, though, with most EVs reaching at least into the low 100s in range, and a new breed of vehicle that gets above 200 miles while keeping the price point reasonable. Chevy’s new Bolt was the opening salvo in this group, with 238 miles, and its starting price allows you to get in for under $30,000 with federal tax incentives. Tesla’s Model 3 offers a similar proposition, but good luck getting your hands on one any time soon.

2018 Nissan LEAF, photo credit: Nissan

Nissan just redesigned the LEAF, and while some were disappointed that its initial configuration doesn’t crest 200 miles, its 151-mile range combined with its sub-$30,000 pricing before tax incentives make it a fantastic deal with plenty of miles to fit the average driver’s lifestyle perfectly. And an e-Plus model of the LEAF is expected to arrive by the end of the year, which will bring a range of around 225 miles, along with more power and quicker charging.

Speed of recharge: How fast can I get more juice?

One of the reasons range has been so important is that recharging a BEV can be a lengthy process. But recharge speeds have been going up, and charging stations using direct current (DC) can allow the electrons to flow faster than the more common alternating current (AC) standard.

While every EV comes with a basic charging cable to lets you juice up from a standard wall outlet, this process takes the better part of a day to fill up your battery. Luckily each of these vehicles is capable of Level 2 charging, which kicks the voltage up to 240V, twice that of the standard Level 1 outlets. Most EV charging happens at this level, since not only do most of the chargers that you see around town use this voltage, but many homes with an EV have chargers like this installed, either with a new circuit, or using the existing washer/dryer connection in their garage.

Hyundai Ioniq Electric charging at a Level 2 charger, photo credit: Hyundia

With this type of charger, vehicles can add up to 30 miles for every hour of charging they do, plenty for overnight charging, but also good for topping off during pit stops for lunch at locations with a charging point. And some vehicles, like Teslas, are starting to offer high-amp L2 charging capabilities, with rates up to 50 miles per hour.

Still, to truly approach the convenience factor of a gas vehicle, DC fast charging is necessary, especially when there’s a longer trip involved. The good news is there are lots of new fast charging stations going up all over the country, and they can pump over 100 miles of range into a vehicle in an hour, with many models getting over 150 miles per charging hour.

Tesla Superchargers, photo credit: Tesla

Tesla leads the way in this technology, with their Supercharger network capable of charging at a rate of up to 340 miles per hour. The caveat is that recharging at that rate for a full hour is unlikely, since these chargers are generally meant to provide an 80% charge in around 40 minutes, and going all the way to full is slower to protect the battery.

DC fast charging is sometimes included, and sometimes a more costly option, depending on the model. There are a few that don’t even offer the technology, but these—the Fiat 500e and smart fortwo—are shorter-range entries.

While most vehicles draw current from DC fast chargers at around 50 kW, Nissan’s LEAF e-Plus version, debuting later this year, is expected to offer 100-kW charging, so its charging speed may be significantly faster than any vehicles out there, with the possible exception of Tesla.

Charger Type: Where can I plug in?

A Chevy Bolt being connected to a CCS fast charger, photo credit: GM

Speaking of DC fast charging in the Leaf, one area in which it’s unique from most other EVs is the DC charging standard it uses. While the connector for Level 1 or 2 charging is a standardized one, there are 3 competing standards for fast charging. The LEAF and the Kia Soul EV use one called CHAdeMO, which has been more common in Asia, and requires a completely separate port on the vehicle. The Combined Charging Standard (aka CCS or SAE Combo) just adds on to the Level 1 and 2 port, requiring less space.

While most fast chargers now have both cords available, this is not always the case, so it would be wise to check on the availability of each standard in your area to inform your vehicle selection. You can find this information at PlugShare.

Tesla operates in its own space when it comes to chargers, and only Tesla vehicles can use its Supercharger network, but the company sells adapters to use other chargers—which are also required for Level 1 or 2 charging with other standards.

MPGe: How do I compare efficiency?

The EPA mileage label for an EV, image credit: EPA

Clearly miles per gallon of fuel doesn’t apply to electric vehicles, but the EPA decided to develop a standard that would allow EV drivers to compare their efficiency with that of fossil fuel vehicles. So they developed MPGe, which means “miles per gallon equivalent” for EVs. It takes into account the energy used in producing the electricity that powers them, so you can get a reasonably close comparison, and the results are impressive.

The average EV gets over 110 MPGe, with the Hyundai Ioniq Electric yielding an industry-best 136 MPGe. Unsurprisingly, Tesla’s Model X crossover, the largest and most powerful EV on the market, gets the lowest MPGe, but even it has versions that get pretty close to 100 MPGe. Not even the most efficient hybrids on the market can get near this mark.

Power: Who can I beat in a drag race?

Just like internal combustion engines, electric motors have a wide range of power ratings. Electrics are generally rated in kilowatts, but for the sake of relatability the auto industry has taken to converting these numbers into the familiar horsepower ratings that we know and love.

Tesla Model S, image credit: Tesla

Tesla is again the outlier, with horsepower ratings of up to 680 on both the Model S and X. Tesla’s marketing emphasizes their status as the quickest 4-door and crossover on the planet, and it trumped its own Insane Mode with an update that included a Ludicrous Mode that brought 0-60 mph times below 3 seconds.

The other EV entries are more concerned with efficiency, as demonstrated by their higher MPGe ratings, but even with power numbers mostly well below 200 these cars can be fairly quick. Compared with engines that must spool up to a certain rev range to develop their power and torque, electric motors have all of their twisting force starting from 0 rpm. That translates to urgent acceleration off the line, which can make them just as fun to drive as more powerful gas vehicles. Realistically, though, most EVs are not about 0-60 acceleration, tuned instead to maximize their efficiency.

Pricing: What kind of deal can I get?

Honda Clarity Electric, photo credit: Honda

EVs are generally more expensive than their gasoline equivalents, with premiums of several thousand dollars, so they tend to rely heavily on the promise of state and federal tax credits to make them cost competitive. Manufacturers have also been heavily subsidizing lease deals to show payments that are in line with gas vehicles. In fact, Honda will only let you lease the new Clarity EV, but at $199/mo. with $899 due at signing it seems to be a great deal.

Honda spokesperson Natalie Kumaratne explained the Clarity strategy, telling us that although the EV version has modest range, it’s plenty for most drivers, and it helps keep the price down despite the car’s highly premium execution and roomy interior. For drivers who need more range they offer a plug-in hybrid version and even a hydrogen-powered model, so Honda-lovers’ bases are covered.

Fiat has been particularly aggressive in the lease deal game, with monthly payments for the 500e advertised as low as $49 at some points. But make sure you read the fine print, since not all lessees will qualify for these deals, which may also require a hefty down payment. Many EVs fall into the $200-300/mo. range, though, which can make great sense financially for a lot of drivers.

What else should I consider?

There are definitely other features that set EVs apart from one another. Tesla justifies its lofty prices by loading up its vehicles with fancy tech, like retracting door handles and giant touchscreens. The brand also was unafraid to embrace the full EV experience, questioning why the ritual of “starting” the car should remain—you just get into a Tesla and put it in drive—and introducing its owners to the idea of 1-pedal driving, which means the car brakes when you take your foot off the accelerator.

Other brands have started to take pieces of this design ethos, particularly the latter feature. Several other EVs allow its drivers to choose between traditional pedal behavior and the new setup, and some even offer a spectrum in between.

Sum it up!

Kia Soul EV, photo credit: Kia

Competition among BEVs has really begun to heat up, with new entries hitting the market each year. Range, efficiency and charging times will continue to improve, along with an increasing variety of body styles available.

The chart below is our best approximation of the most important competitive aspects of EVs, but manufacturers have been inconsistent in their publishing of these specs, so the info here is subject to change.

If you’re like most Americans, the EV market has gotten to the point where it can fit your lifestyle quite well. We’re happy to be able to help you find the battery electric vehicle that fits your needs and budget the most perfectly.

 Metric

BMW i3

Chevrolet Bolt

Ford Focus Electric

Honda Clarity Electric

Hyundai Ioniq Electric

Range (mi)

114 238 115 89 124

MPGe

112-118 119 107 114 136

Recharge Speed (kW/mph)

L2: 7.4/28

DC: 50/130*

L2: 7.2/26

DC: 50/180*

L2: 6.6/22

DC: 50/150*

L2: 6.6/30

DC: 50/142*

L2: 6.6/28

DC: 50/198

DC Fast Chg.

Std. Opt. Opt. Std. Std.

DC Format

SAE Combo SAE Combo SAE Combo SAE Combo SAE Combo

Power (hp)

170-184 200 143 161 118

Starting Price

$45,445 $37,495 $29,995 $199/mo. ($899 das) $30,385

 Metric

Kia Soul EV

Fiat 500e

Nissan LEAF

Smart Electric Drive

Volkswagen e-Golf

Range (mi)

111 84 151 58 125

MPGe

108 112 112 102-108 119

Recharge Speed (kW/mph)

L2: 6.6/21

DC: 50/152*

L2: 6.6/22 L2: 6.6/11-22

DC: 50/180*

L2: 7.2/23 L2: 7.2/24

DC: 50/100*

DC Fast Chg.

Std. N/A Opt. N/A Opt.

DC Format

CHAdeMO N/A CHAdeMO N/A SAE Combo

Power (hp)

109 111 147 80 134

Starting Price

$33,145 $32,795 $30,875 $24,550 $31,345

 Metric

Tesla Model 3

Tesla Model S

Tesla Model X

Range (mi)

220-310 315 237

MPGe

130 98-103 85-93

Recharge Speed (kW/mph)

L2: 30 – 37

DC: 60 – 72 /260 – 340*

L2: 32 – 52**

DC: 60 – 72 /340*

L2: 32 – 52**

DC: 60 – 72 /340*

DC Fast Chg.

Std. Std. Std.

DC Format

Tesla Tesla Tesla

Power (hp)

258-271 518-680 518-680

Starting Price

$35,000 $69,200 $80,700

*Most manufacturers quote DC fast charging speed in terms of miles added per half hour, but not all. To keep this comparison consistent we’ve listed all charging rates in miles per hour.

**For “High Amperage Charger” option