Should You Buy an Electric Car?

Last Updated Mar 23, 2010 9:45 PM EDT

Here come the electric cars. And just in time. In a recent Consumer Reports survey, one-fourth of car owners said they're likely to consider a plug-in electric car the next time they shop for a new vehicle. That could be soon. Two models from established auto companies are coming in late 2010: The all-electric Nissan Leaf will start taking reservations next month and begin delivering the cars in December. General Motors' Chevrolet Volt, which will run on plug-in power and have a range-extending gasoline-powered generator, goes on sale in November.


Next up: Ford's electric version of its Focus targeted for sale in late 2011. Chrysler plans to sell an electric car here in 2012 based on the Fiat 500EV from its parent company. And BMW is running a pilot program, leasing electrified versions of its Mini called the Mini E.
Here are four key questions to consider before driving down Electric Avenue:
Do you live in the right place? Nissan will sell the Leaf this year only in states and cities installing public charging stations. Specifically: the state of Oregon, Seattle, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga. Full national distribution may take another two years.

Chevy Volt will be introduced in Michigan, California, and Washington D.C. before going nationwide.
How far will you drive on one trip? The Leaf will travel 100 miles before needing recharging, Nissan says. The Chevy Volt has a range of 40 miles on a battery charge, and then the gasoline-powered generator kicks in for re-charging, which could extend the range to about 200 miles.

Where can you charge it? Nissan says it will help early buyers with local permits and other arrangements for home charging stations. (Electrics will plug into normal home outlets but 220-volt charging stations cut charging time in half -- to eight hours). Builder KB Home already is offering to install chargers in new custom-built houses. Electrics are likely to attract more buyers once they can be charged at the office. In the Consumer Reports survey, 63% said they'd be more likely to buy an electric car if they had charging stations at work.
How much will you pay? The Volt's $40,000 price may be a little steep, though the Leaf will cost $25,000 or so. Federal tax credits of $7,500 for the cars and and $2,000 for installing home charging stations will help defray costs. Some states have additional tax breaks for residents buying electric cars. But federal and state budget woes may limit the life of these incentives.

If you're intrigued about electric cars, but not sure about buying one, you could try renting next year. Hertz will start offering the Nissan Leaf in 2011, which could let you see if you get a charge out of it.

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    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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