What to know before you buy an electric vehicle

This guide will help you understand the trickiest aspects of EV ownership: charging and range.

Electric cars have long remained objects of fantasy, tantalizingly just out of reach for drivers who imagine the joy of whooshing silently around town, powered by electrons that were hopefully produced by renewable means.

But the coming flood of practical EVs with acceptable driving range, from mainstream manufacturers and boasting price tags that regular drivers can realistically afford, means that more people will finally be making the switch from combustion engines. For example, the Hyundai Kona Electric boasts a 248-mile estimated range and has a $37,390 base price before the available $7,500 federal tax rebate. The bigger, sportier Ford Mustang Mach-E base model starts at $42,895 before the tax rebate and has a 230-mile range with its standard battery.

Customers who decide to buy these new EVs are in for some surprises. Electric vehicles require many adjustments that go much deeper than not visiting gas stations, and if these newcomers are going to be satisfied with their cars, they need to go into EV ownership with their eyes open.

Driving an EV requires many adjustments—to your home, to your workplace, to your driving habits. Treating an EV like a quiet gas car is a recipe for disappointment and potentially, for stranding. Here’s what to know, and how to plan.

Not all plugs are created equal

While the Society of Automotive Engineers—the same people who assign the SAE grades for motor oil—has set standards for automotive power plugs, not everyone is in agreement.

Broadly, charging options break down into three categories: Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. The third is better known as “DC fast charging.”

  1. Level 1: This is the charger that comes with the car that owners can plug into any 120-volt alternating current wall outlet. These provide nearly infinite charging opportunities, but require seemingly infinite charging times.
  2. Level 2: This is a 240-volt AC charger and represents most of the currently installed public charging infrastructure. It is also the type of dedicated home charger that EV owners install at home, if possible. This is much faster than Level 1 charging, but still slow enough that it is more practical to consider it as an overnight or all-day service that is best used at home or while at work. Drivers traveling on a long-distance drive would find Level 2 impractically slow for en-route recharges.
  3. Level 3: Though the term is rarely employed, DC fast charging is Level 3 EV charging. Tesla’s Superchargers are one form of DC fast charging. The latest Supercharger Version 3 can charge compatible Tesla models at 250 kWh, compared to the original chargers’ maximum of 120 kWh. The company charges customers $0.28 per kWh, according to its website.

DC fast chargers on networks such as Electrify America, which was started by Volkswagen and is now supported by Ford, are 150 kW or 350 kW, so they can really pour in the power.

Non-Tesla DC fast chargers employ SAE Combined Charging System (CCS) plugs. If a car lacks the on-board circuitry and power plug to accommodate them, as is the case with most older EVs, it can’t benefit from the faster charging times of DC fast chargers.

Also, Japanese companies have employed an alternative fast-charging specification, called CHADEMO. The Nissan Leaf continues to feature a CHADEMO charging port, so these cars cannot connect to SAE DC fast chargers without an adapter. And likewise, the rest of the CCS DC fast charging-capable EV fleet cannot charge at Nissan dealers’ CHADEMO charging stations. As with other DC fast-charging specifications, CHADEMO chargers began at about 150 kWh and have risen to 350 kWh for the newest units.

Finally, Tesla uses a proprietary plug connector shared by no other cars, so if you drive a Tesla, get an adapter so that you can charge your car from other kinds of charging stations. If you don’t drive a Tesla, understand that Tesla Supercharger stations may as well not exist for your purposes. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Move along.

Taking it home

Most EV charging is done at home or at work, using installed Level 2 chargers. This is the most cost-effective solution, because DC fast charging can be expensive. A half-hour of DC fast charging the Mach-E at an Electrify America charger added 51 kWh of electricity, the equivalent of 1.4 gallons of gasoline, at a cost of $21.93. That’s the same as $15.66 per gallon!

Charging at home is cheaper than gasoline, and many utilities will give you a lower rate on your power if you get a home charger installed, making it even more attractive. You’ll want to shop around to choose the best combination of price and charging power. The closer you can get to 50 amps, which is pretty much the maximum for home chargers, the better.

According to charger manufacturer ChargePoint, drivers can expect their home charger to add about 37 miles of driving range per hour it is plugged in. This is about nine times faster than using the car’s Level-1 120-volt wall plug connection.

Electric vehicles are not appliances

We’ve come to expect that we plug electric devices into a socket and they just work. That’s not the case with EVs. An EV charger isn’t a dumb electric plug, blindly pushing electrons down the wire. It is more like a USB socket, with both communication and power capabilities.

The power portion is pretty straightforward, but the communication, as with human languages, can run into some challenges with dialect, even when they speak the same language. This is why a Tesla with an adapter and connected to a non-Tesla charging station may charge far slower than both the charger and the car are capable of doing.

Even cars that are certified compatible with charging networks can have charging times that are much slower than advertised. And freezing temperatures can dramatically slow charging times.

PopSci’s winter tests with the Ford Mustang Mach-E and the Audi e-tron produced charging levels of 28 kW and 47 kW, respectively, on a Level-3 150-kW charger on the Electrify America network. On a different, 350-kW charger, they recharged at 150 kW, as advertised.

So, while the Porsche Taycan is currently the only available EV that can exploit the 350 kW DC fast chargers’ top speed, maybe that extra capacity provides some cushion so they can hit those fast charging speeds in less-than-ideal conditions.

A range of ranges

How often your EV needs charging will depend on its use. Vehicle makers and the EPA provide highway driving range estimates that, while achievable, require driving at speeds few of us actually maintain. Around-town driving range seems to be less variable, and the shorter drives are more often broken up by recharging opportunities.

But when you want to get the 258 miles of driving range promised for the Hyundai Kona EV, for example, it will require religious use of the car’s cruise control system with the speed set to 55 mph. Driving faster than that, as most highway traffic does, greatly diminishes the range, forcing more frequent stops at fast chargers on long trips, and introducing more opportunities for chargers to be occupied or for them to charge at slower-than-anticipated rates.

Winter trips will also shorten driving range. The headlights, cabin heat, seat heaters, and defrosters all drain power and shorten driving range. Be sure to have a hat and gloves handy to put on when the remaining driving range gets short and you turn off the climate control to prolong the drive.

These tips are really just the beginning. The point here is to send prospective EV drivers into the experience with their eyes open. EVs are very different from gas cars and require some adjustments from their drivers. But their fans have found that once they’ve adapted to the new way of using their vehicle that the differences are just that—differences—and not necessarily shortcomings.

Dan Carney
Dan Carney

Dan Carney has been riding motorcycles and driving cars since before it was technically legal for him to do so. Along the way he has picked up automotive journalism awards from the International Motor Press Association and Washington Automotive Press Association for his work, and he wrote books about two significant sports cars, the Honda S2000 and Dodge Viper. He has been a PopSci contributor since 1998.