An Electric Vehicle Buyer's Guide: Low-cost options are hitting the road

It used to be that electric vehicles were prohibitively expensive for most people. Not anymore.

By Jim Motavalli

April 6, 2016

Drivers have never had more choices when buying a green (or greenish) car, and that's both a blessing and a curse. Yes, there are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery-electric vehicles, but the options can be overwhelming. Which one to purchase? 

Here's a guide to some of the more affordable plug-in models, new and used, with a cap at $30,000 after federal tax credits. If you live in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts, state rebates on plug-in vehicles bring down the cost further. Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids still carry a premium, but prices have fallen dramatically owing to better battery technology, government subsidies, and market competition. 

Keep in mind that some appealing battery-electric cars, such as the Fiat 500e and the Kia Soul EV, are options—but only if you live in the right states. The 500e is offered in California and Oregon, and the Soul EV in California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Georgia, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Hawaii. 

(Non) Smokin' deal

EV Nissan Car

 If you're committed to breaking free from the gas pump but are afraid of breaking your bank account, you're finally in luck. Some EV owners have decided to move on from their first purchase, meaning that (in some places, at least) there's a robust market for used plug-ins. Your best bet is the Nissan Leaf, which you can find online for less than $10,000.

The Leaf is fun to drive. It's almost too quiet—you can't hear the electric motor, or even the nifty sound designed to warn pedestrians. The onboard interface is awesome. One caveat: It's worth paying a bit extra for a car equipped with 480-volt fast-charging capability—your vehicle will "fill up" in 30 minutes. 

Plug-in commuter


VW Golf Car

Volkswagen's diesel scandal tarnished its image, but the German manufacturer can feel good about the e-Golf, which has taken the battery-car world by storm thanks to its excellent handling, nicely turned-out cabin, quietness, and range. "I love the way it accelerates," says Connecticut owner Scott Thompson. "And I can really rip into corners."

The 24.2 kilowatt-hour battery is under the seats, so there's no sacrifice of cabin or trunk space compared with standard Golfs. The e-Golf's range is 83 miles, and the car is rated at 116 MPGe by the EPA. The MSRP is $29,815 for the bare-bones 2016 SE model, but you only pay $22,315 after the $7,500 federal income tax credit. 

Family hauler


Ford EV

Ford made a bold move with its crossover C-Max, which is available only as a hybrid and a plug-in hybrid. The 2016 hybrid has a $25,045 base price and a roomy interior for five people plus luggage. It also has a 500-mile cruising range, which means you'll pass a lot of gas stations.

Upgrade to the Energi plug-in hybrid and the MSRP zooms to $28,638 after the federal tax credit, but you get 19 miles of all-electric, emission-free travel. One significant drawback—the cargo area behind the second row of seats shrinks to 19.2 cubic feet (from 24.5) to fit the 7.6 kilowatt-hour battery pack.

Sporty car


 I'd suggest a Tesla Model S, but it would have to be very used to sneak in under $30,000. May I recommend, instead, a gently handled BMW i3 EV (which I've seen listed for $27,000)? How does seven seconds to 60 mph sound? The i3's styling takes some getting used to, and I'm dubious about the gimmicky back doors, but with a 125-kilowatt (170 horsepower) electric motor, this car is a joy to drive.

The Euro-flavored cabin is a nice place to be, and the sound system only loses points for the absence of AM radio. Range is a mere 81 miles, but if you buy the range-extender model, with a small gas engine, it jumps to 150 miles.

Plug-in hybrid sedan 

EV Hyundai Car

 I could extol the virtues of the 2015 Prius Plug-in, which offers 13 miles of electric-only range, but you might want to hold out for the longer-range 2017 model. If you're in the market for a greenish car, you'll check out the Prius anyway. 

May I then suggest that you also kick the tires on a 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Limited? The highly regarded plug-in hybrid version has 27 miles of electric range and sells for just under $30,000 after the federal tax credit. It's a very roomy, near-luxury sedan with every convenience and safety feature.