Plug-In Vehicles—Ready for Prime Time?


Inside this Article

Nissan Leaf
The all-electric Nissan Leaf is one of the few EVs on the market.
Chevrolet Volt
The Chevrolet Volt is a plug-in EV paired with a gasoline engine for extended range.
J1772 standard charging connector
Toyota’s Prius Plug-in uses the J1772 standard for its charging connectors.
Five-pin connector
The J1772 standard specifies a five-pin connector for delivering 120 or 240 VAC to an EV. Pins include AC Line 1 and Line 2, ground, controller pilot, and a proximity detector.
Ford Focus Electric
Ford’s Focus Electric has a maximum range of 76 miles before its batteries need to be recharged.
Toyota Prius Plug-in
The Toyota Prius Plug-in costs about $3,000 more than a comparable Camry, and about $8,000 more than the Prius without plug-in capability.
EPA New-Car Label for Electric Vehicles
The EPA’s new-car label for EVs includes both fuel and environmental information for easier comparisons.
Nissan Leaf
Chevrolet Volt
J1772 standard charging connector
Five-pin connector
Ford Focus Electric
Toyota Prius Plug-in
EPA New-Car Label for Electric Vehicles

Banish the notion of a souped-up golf cart—plug-in electric vehicles are being manufactured that replace the traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) automobile. If you’re looking for an EV, here are answers to the questions you might ask before you buy.

What are the various kinds of electric vehicles?

All commercially manufactured electricity-powered vehicles have an electric motor drive, automatic start/shutoff, and regenerative braking (an energy recovery mechanism that slows a vehicle or object down by converting its kinetic energy into electrical energy, which helps charge the propulsion battery). There are three varieties of electric vehicles.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are powered by an ICE, as well as by electrical energy stored in a battery. The battery is charged through the ICE and regenerative braking. Typically, HEVs are not plugged in to charge (see PHEVs, below). The Toyota Prius is the most common HEV.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are powered only by the battery, which is recharged by plugging the vehicle into an electric power source (and to a small degree, by regenerative braking). Examples are the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are powered, like an HEV, through a combination of an ICE and an electric motor. Unlike an HEV, a PHEV can be plugged into an electric power source to recharge the battery, in addition to recharging it using regenerative braking. There are two types of PHEVs:

  • Extended-range PHEVs, such as the Chevrolet Volt, which has a gasoline engine that spins the electric motor (which propels the vehicle) when the battery reaches a low state of charge.
  • ”Blended” PHEVs, such as the Toyota Prius Plug-in, where the electric motor or gasoline engine can work singly or jointly to power the engine.

This article focuses mainly on EV and PHEVs, as they are the only vehicles that can accept an outside electrical charging source.

What EVs are or will soon be available?

Several models are on sale now and more are coming. maintains up-to-date information on current and prospective EVs. Many new models show a “2012” availability date, which refers not to the model year, but the manufacturers’ best hopes for getting it to market. currently features 31 vehicles, 12 of which are available now; five more are expected before the end of 2012.

What about “range anxiety?”

According to Consumer Reports, 77% of EV drivers suffer from “range anxiety”—the dread of running out of energy before your trip is completed and being stranded. But in reality, 78% of Americans who commute by car drive 40 miles or fewer daily. Most people buy an automobile to meet much more than their average, typical, or normal need. They buy a car based on taking a few long trips each year rather than for everyday use. According to the Federal Highway Administration, the vast majority of automobile trips are one to 10 miles, well within the range of any EV. Only 1% of vehicle trips are in excess of 100 miles.

  • The Chevrolet Volt addresses range anxiety by running exclusively on electricity for the first 35 miles. With its 9.3-gallon fuel tank,  it can travel another 300 miles or so using its gas engine.
  • The Toyota Prius Plug-in travels 11 miles on a fully charged battery, and then can go another 500 miles or so using a combination of its gas engine and electric motor, for a combined 49 mpg. A smaller battery means a more limited all-electric range, but it also means a lower purchase price.
  • The Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric are both all-electric and have a maximum range of about 75 miles.


Comments (4)

Mark Smith W4CHL's picture

The lease options for the Smart Fortwo ED proved so tempting, our 2002 Prius is being replaced by a Fortwo ED. The Fortwo ED isn't for everyone, it is our 2nd EV/Hybrid (the aforementioned OT ELF is the 3rd EV).

Interesting the article omitted the Smart Fortwo ED. It's worth a test drive with the incentives (at least until end of Jan 2014) offering a $149/mo for 2-3 yr lease. Interesting that $80 of that is the "Battery Assurance Plan" - time will tell if that is a good idea!

As a "world car" certainly the Fortwo ED has promise as a light weight car for 2 + some storage.

Mark Smith W4CHL's picture

Many of us are still excited about Lightweight EVs (LEVs) such as the Organic Transit ELF from North Carolina, the Bluevelo models from Canada, and the Tripod from Oregon. We believe these are more than just niche vehicles and are making a real change in attitudes among people who would otherwise never dream of riding a bicycle, even an electric bike, in potentially inclement weather!

These LEVs are 10x (or more) energy efficient, and in the case of the ELF and the Tripod, VERY visible in urban or suburban traffic.

We believe that a focus on direct replacement of a bloated vehicle with another bloated vehicle is a stop gap. Rethinking our urban and suburban roadways so that they are friendlier to the far more efficient LEVs and just plain bicycles needs to be mentioned in every article that reviews PHEVs. Yes, my family's "other" vehicle is one of the 1st year Prius models.

jozegovich's picture

As a 2012 Nissan Leaf owner with 13 months of operation, I would like to provide some feedback to your thoughtful article.
These factors should be measured before your purchase:
- As the battery ages, the range will decrease. How much depends on many factors, such as do you charge to 100% or 80% (80% better), less frequent charges (more frequent better), and temperature (West coast better, Arizona, in particular for high temp, and of course extreme cold temps (sub freezing temps). After an initial loss of about 10% after the first year, the loss is not as dramatic. The range loss can can add up to 30% by the end of its life.
Note: I have not seen a noticeable loss after 13 months of operation in the state of TN.
I suggest you calculate your range to/from work, allow for a lunch drive, and an after work drive (shopping). My calculation was 42 miles. I then went to the Nissan dealership to test drive that range, using a mix of city and interstate (75 MPH) driving. My results left me with a 37 mile range on my indicator (4 bars left out of 12).
- More frequent charges are healthier for the battery. Best to not have more than three bars of charge. The life of the battery will decease when near empty and fully charging.
- Use the 80% charge to increase the life by several years. The owners manual does not recommend more than one Fast Charge per day (too much, too fast)
Important note: I average 4.8 M/kWh(160 MPGe) summer/ 4.3 M/kWh (134 MPGe) winter. I used 34.02 kWh per gallon of gasoline in my calculations.

- A comparison of the Leaf to the Versa, is not a fair comparison. While the look of the body is similar, that is about it. The Leaf drives and handles like a premium car, ie Altima. The interior space of the Leaf, is far more than the Versa. However, the interior is smaller than the Altima in leg room and hip room.
I would suggest the comparison be more towards the Altima 2.5 SV, fully loaded at $25,000. A comparison to an economy car is not appropriate, as the Leaf is designed as a premium car, with all the bells and whistles. So the difference, after the incentives in my state, TN, is about $2,000. $4,000. in a state which offers no cash incentive. Not even close to $16,000. stated Test drive the Versa, then the Leaf, and you will see.

- Your article states a "maximum" range of 75 miles for the Leaf. This is not correct. Nissan touts 100 miles "average", and a "maximum" of 138 miles assuming all the best conditions; 38 MPH, temperature 70F, road condition level, no air conditioning or heat, and minimal accessories. The EPA provides a 75 mile "average" economy. This would be more accurate when using the AC or heat, and driving at interstate speeds. I see the 75 miles in range when using the interstate and AC for my commute. When I take the 40 MPH roads, my range increases significantly, due to less drag and more regenerative energy. As one would expect, my commute time increases by 5-10 minutes.

BTW, Nissan offers two years of free towing if you run out of juice, to help reduce range anxiety. They also provide two years of "Carwings" Satellite service where you can see details of your car's efficiency and use, and remote controls.
I have a Prius, in case of operating long distances. Guess how many times, in the last year, I have used the Prius to go to a location outside the range of the Leaf? A whopping "0" times!


Michael Welch's picture

Hi Joe. Thanks so much for giving us your personal experience with your Leaf, and for the corrections. Michael - Home Power

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