In the market for a more efficient, emissions-free car? Electric vehicles can offer pollution-free driving at half the fuel costs of a typical gas-engine car. Here’s how to find an all-electric rig that suits your needs.
While hybrid-electric gasoline vehicles get better fuel economy than their standard gasoline counterparts, they still produce tailpipe emissions and keep you tied to the pump. All-electric vehicles (EVs) offer a cleaner transportation option with no tailpipe emissions. And, if their batteries are recharged with renewable energy (RE), you can drive pollution-free.
EVs can also offer some economic savings. Depending on the drive system, they use about 0.17 to 0.4 kilowatt-hours (KWH) per mile. Multiply this by your local electricity rate to get the cost per mile. At $0.10 per KWH, an EV will cost $0.02 to $0.04 per mile for fuel. At $2.50 per gallon of gas and 25 mpg, that same vehicle using a gas-engine will cost you $0.10 per mile for fuel.
A typical EV can travel about 50 miles on a charge, and high-range EVs can go more than 100 miles. Recharging an EV while you’re at work during the day can extend its daily commute range by 50 percent or more. In the worst cases, a very heavy EV, or one used in severe conditions, might only achieve 20 miles on a charge. But for many people, even that is enough to get to work or run errands.
“Driving an EV is as simple as turning the key and going down the road. There’s no start-up, no warm-up, no fumes, no gas stations, and no engine noise to contend with,” says EV owner Kevin Johnson, who commutes to and from work each day in his 1984 converted Volkswagen “Voltsrabbit.”
Despite these benefits, there’s a catch: All the major auto manufacturers crushed their electric vehicle programs—and physically crushed a slew of EVs—in the late ‘90s. If you’re not game for converting a gasoline-engine car to an EV, that leaves one option—buying a used EV.
EVs generally don’t show up on your local used car lot, so you will have to search a little harder. The Internet is the place to look. Used EVs regularly appear on sites like eBay and craigslist. A few dedicated EV sales Web sites exist, and EV club and forum Web sites often list EVs for sale (see Access).
Before you buy, check out the Web site galleries of EV clubs and EV owners’ groups that give details about their vehicles. Scanning some of these can help you clarify what type of vehicle would best suit your needs, and also give you an idea of the brands and models of components that are most common.
EV clubs and forums serve another useful function by allowing you to tap sources of expertise. Get to know some experienced EV owners—they tend to be very willing to help newcomers. Explain what your driving needs are and which cars seem interesting to you, and solicit their feedback. Finding and chatting with local EV owners—and scoping out their cars—can be an invaluable exercise for finding your own EV too.
Used EVs produced by the mainstream auto manufacturers—General Motors, Honda, Ford, and Toyota—are at one end of the EV spectrum. The only factory cars you’re likely to find are Chevy S10s, Ford Rangers, and Toyota RAV4s, and possibly Th!nk Citys. These were the only models actually sold—not just leased—and only a few are in circulation. These models were manufactured during the mid-’90s through 2003, when the California zero emissions vehicle mandate was overturned due to heavy lobbying from auto manufacturers.
While these are reliable and well-made vehicles, beware of some pitfalls. Besides the RAV4 EV, which is still supported by Toyota, factory-built EVs and their parts and pieces are “orphans.” The vehicles are no longer in production, and neither are their various model-specific components. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own for finding a defunct twin vehicle you can harvest parts from.
In addition to the EV, you’ll need its charging station too. Unfortunately, General Motors (GM) and Toyota used stand-alone, “paddle” chargers that were not on board the vehicle. Many of these chargers were originally installed in parking lots and businesses, but with the death of GM’s EV program, have fallen into disrepair, been disconnected from power, or removed. The Ford Ranger had an onboard charger, but used a specialized connector called the Avcon instead of a standard plug. This situation can be resolved with an adaptor to allow use of normal electrical receptacles.
If you find one of these vehicles that interests you, see if you can locate an owner’s group Internet forum for that EV model. Survey what kind of problems other owners have faced, and how they solved them. Some cars have dedicated enthusiasts who serve as a very useful support network.
Factory-built EVs are highly valued by the people who own them—and people who want them. Even models not in working condition can fetch a few thousand dollars. Vehicles in good working order can command prices between $30,000 and $40,000—or more.
Several small companies produced electric vehicles from the 1970s through the early 2000s, usually in response to fossil-fuel distribution and supply issues. Some vehicles, like the CitiCar, Comuta-Car, and Tropica, were built from scratch as EVs. Others, like the Lectric Leopard or the Solectria Force, were factory conversions, where new gas-engine models were commercially converted on an assembly line and retitled as new cars “manufactured” by the company that converted them. The Leopard and Force were formerly the Renault LeCar and the Geo Metro, respectively. Because they are no longer in production, like the factory built-from-scratch models, these vehicles are orphans. Some can be dependable cars, but a little background research is necessary before you buy.
The Lectric Leopard, built in 1979 and 1980, should be singled out, as there are quite a few of them still around. They can make a decent, basic-level conversion, as long as you reconfigure the rear battery pack. The batteries in this design were inadequately secured, and could be lethally dangerous even in low-speed collisions.
During the same gasoline crisis period, Jet Industries performed several hundred conversions of Ford Escorts and Couriers. These were well done for their time, and can easily be upgraded with newer controllers and chargers to make decent modern vehicles. An electric Escort or Courier in good running condition might sell for $5,000 to $10,000.
An event like an oil crisis will always bring out some unsavory characters to exploit it, and EVs in this category were vulnerable. Some companies were very good at getting publicity and selling stock, but turned out mediocre cars with no standardization or documentation. In some cases, their vehicles were just warmed-over conversions actually done by someone else. If you’re considering a car in this category, be sure to solicit opinions from electric vehicle club or forum members first, as they can warn you about some of these operations with bad reputations.
The most common electric vehicles you will find are gas-engine vehicles converted by individuals using kits. Two levels of conversion kits exist—universal kits and custom kits. Universal kits, which contain all the essential drive-system components but rely on the builder to create custom parts like battery racks or boxes, are most common. A vehicle built with a universal kit probably has decent-quality components, but buyers should pay particular attention to inspect the quality of workmanship on the wiring and battery containment.
Custom kits, which include the entire drive system, plus battery racks and boxes, are designed for specific vehicle models. If you find a vehicle built with one of these kits, you can be assured that the design has some track record, and the companies are still in business to offer support if needed. Canadian Electric Vehicles supplies custom kits to convert Chevy S10 trucks, Geo Metros, and Dodge Neons. My company, Electro Automotive, provides kits to convert Volkswagen Rabbits into “Voltsrabbits” and Porsche 914 models into “Voltsporsches.”
These vehicles will range in price from a few hundred dollars for those in non-operating condition to $10,000 or more for ones in good running condition.
As a class of owner-built EVs in which components are typically mixed and matched, these vehicles have the most potential for problems and are difficult for EV newbies to adequately assess. You’ll need to educate yourself about the EV’s specific components to gauge their quality, or have an experienced EV advisor help you look them over.
Orphan or low-quality components may be mixed in with good ones. These vehicles may have an older- model speed controller or charger that was OK in its day, and it’s not that difficult or costly to upgrade to a newer model. But upgrading an older motor will also mean getting a new adaptor to mate to the transmission. If the motor was an aircraft starter or generator, the vehicle would almost certainly need a major overhaul, including motor, adaptor, controller, and probably charger and other components, as these aircraft motors ran on lower voltage than is commonly used today. It would be easier to do a conversion from scratch than to upgrade one of these cars.
Beyond that, some simple advice will help cull custom EVs most prone to problems. First, avoid EVs powered by forklift motors, or aircraft starters or generators. These are inappropriate, and will only bring you grief. They will suck a lot of amps, which reduces range and stresses components, and they will not be compatible with most mainstream conversion components. Other obsolete technologies include speed control by series–parallel switching of the batteries, or SCR speed controllers, neither of which are very efficient.
Although orphan components are fine as long as they are working, be aware that if they fail, there’s no support for them. This is most critical with controllers, chargers, and DC–DC converters. Avoid homebuilt controllers and chargers, which are usually invitations to trouble. Even if you find a well-built controller from a skilled and knowledgeable person, ask yourself whether she or he will be around to help you troubleshoot it if you have problems—or whether anyone else will be able to diagnose the creation.
Used EVs span a wide range of prices—from basic owner-built conversions that cost a few thousand dollars to a mint-condition factory EV that may fetch tens of thousands. An EV’s price generally reflects the running condition and aesthetics of the vehicle, its performance capabilities and pedigree (if it is a well-known and valued model, or uses well-known and valued components), and what the owner thinks it’s worth.
You can probably get a sense of a factory car’s value by doing a little Internet research. At any given time, you will probably find a few of each model for sale somewhere, and you can also get an idea of reasonable prices from owner’s groups. To get a rough idea if a homebuilt conversion is “worth” the price, check out the current prices for a similar collection of components, and a similar donor car with a dead gas engine. Although installation labor is typically valued at $5,000, the previous owner has also benefited from several years’ use of the vehicle, so those two items probably cancel each other out when figuring the value.
Buying a used EV takes more effort than buying an ordinary used car. Even if it seems like a great deal, don’t feel pressured to grab the first EV you find, unless you know what to look for and it passes muster. Take the time to learn about the components, so you can make an informed choice to enjoy plenty of years of performance from your new-to-you EV.
Shari Prange, Electro Automotive • 831-429-1989 • www.electroauto.com • Custom & universal kits, components
Randy Holmquist, Canadian Electric Vehicles • 250-954-2230 • www.canev.com • Custom kits, components
Roderick Wilde, EV Parts • 360-385-7082 • www.evparts.com • Custom kits & components
Used EVs for Sale:
Craigslist • www.craigslist.com • Listings of vehicles for sale
eBay • www.motors.ebay.com • Listings of vehicles for sale
Electric Auto Association (EAA) • www.eaaev.org • EV enthusiasts’ club with chapters across the United States and Canada; Web links to EV sale sites
EV Finder • www.evfinder.com • Listings of vehicles for sale
EV Tradin’ Post • www.austinev.org/evtradinpost • Listings of vehicles and components for sale
Online Discussion Lists:
Solectria Discussion Group • www.groups.yahoo.com/group/solectria_ev
RAV4 EV Owners Discussion Group • www.five.pairlist.net/mailman/listinfo/rav4-ev
Electric Vehicle Discussion List • www.madkatz.com/ev/evlist.html