By Rik Paul
After doing three months of research, interviewing leading experts, and driving all 11 electric vehicles that are available in the US, we're convinced that the Kia Soul EV is the best car for most people who want to drive gas-free. Costing about $34,000 (or $26,500 after a federal tax credit), the Soul EV is a comfortable, versatile everyday car that's easy to live with and drives better than most other EVs. Its 93-mile driving range is one of the longest you'll find, which reduces range anxiety. It's stocked with nifty high-tech features that make driving an EV easier. And it has a superlong warranty. Overall, the Soul EV is a great car that will cut both your driving costs and your carbon footprint.
Why you might consider an EV
An all-electric car is for people who want to drive completely gas-free, whether to cut driving costs or be more environmentally friendly. Unlike a hybrid car, an electric car runs completely on electric power and doesn't have a backup gas engine. You can plug the car into any electrical outlet to recharge the battery, although recharge times are definitely longer than filling up at a gas pump (see Ins and outs of plugging in below).
You can save money by driving an EV because electricity is typically cheaper than gasoline; at the national average of 12 cents per kWh, electricity costs the equivalent of $1-per-gallon gas. EVs also require no oil changes or "tune-ups," so you save money on maintenance. And in some areas you can get access to carpool lanes and other driving privileges. From the environmental perspective, an EV uses only about one-third the energy of a similar gas-powered vehicle. And it doesn't produce any tailpipe emissions. Yes, emissions are generated by the power plants that charge an EV, but when broken down per vehicle the emissions are still much less than those from driving a typical gasoline car. EVs are also pleasantly quick and quiet to drive.
Downsides? EVs have a limited range before you need to recharge them—100 miles or less for most models. That's enough for most commutes and around-town runs, but unless you have access to public charging you won't be able to do longer trips. EVs cost more than a conventional car, although a federal tax incentive of $7,500 and various regional incentives help lower the price. Also, EVs aren't sold in all states yet.
Questions you should ask before getting an EV
- How far do you drive in a day? Estimate the average distance you travel in a day so you can choose a model that easily gets you there and back before you need to plug it in.
- Are there places where you can charge when away from home? Public chargers can give you a lot more flexibility in your daily driving.
- Do you have access to another car for longer trips? If you don't, are you okay with renting a car for those treks?
- Do you have a convenient place to plug the car in for recharging (ideally a 240-volt outlet)? If not, how much would it cost to run an electrical line to a good location?
- Does your utility company offer special rates for EVs? If not, can you charge the car during lower-rate, off-peak hours?
- Will you need to drive the EV in freezing temperatures? Cold weather (and running the heater) can reduce an EV's range by up to 40 percent, so add a buffer to your range estimates. If that adjusted range creates a pinch, you might consider a plug-in hybrid, such as the 2016 Chevrolet Volt, which provides a gas engine while still giving you lots of gas-free miles.
- Are you okay with leasing a car? We think it's better to lease an EV rather than buy one. You get the federal tax incentive up front, and leasing provides a hedge against the possibility of the battery pack failing prematurely (a part that might cost you thousands of dollars to replace) and possible rapid depreciation of the car because of how quickly EV technology is advancing.
Ins and outs of plugging in
While you can plug any EV into a normal 110-volt household electrical outlet (called Level 1 in EV speak), a full charge can take a very long time: 16 to 20 hours or more. For most people, it's much more practical to use a 240-volt charger (called Level 2) because it cuts those charging times by half or even more. But setting up your home for Level 2 charging can cost $500 to $1,200, plus installation and any necessary electrical upgrades. Some public charging locations have even-faster Level 3 chargers to give your EV a quick boost when you're on the road.
Among affordable electric cars, the Kia Soul EV offers the best combination of a long range, a reasonable price (especially with the federal tax incentive), and a practical layout. Its 93-mile range is 15 miles more than most EVs, and it offers the best collection of features that are important to EV owners. The Soul is comfortable and space-efficient and it drives nicely, which isn't something you can say about a lot of EVs (the regular Soul is our top pick for subcompact crossover SUVs). And Kia's extra-long five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty keeps the Soul covered longer than most cars; the powertrain, EV system, and battery are covered for 10 years or 100,000 miles. The one notable drawback is that it's available in only 10 states: California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
The best EV—if money doesn't matter
If you can handle its nearly $90,000 price, the Tesla Model S is easily the best overall electric car available, especially with the optional 90-kWh battery. It treats you to a long 200-mile range, luxury-car comfort, blistering acceleration, and sports-car cornering. It's also a high-tech tour de force that makes you feel like you're driving a bona fide car of the future.
An affordable runner-up
The 2016 Nissan Leaf SV, which costs about $35,000 (or about $27,500 after the federal tax credit), provides many of the same benefits as the Kia Soul EV, has an even longer range than the Soul (107 miles), and is sold nationwide. We recommend getting it with Nissan's Quick Charge Package. The Leaf isn't our top pick, though, because it's not quite as roomy, comfortable, or versatile for carrying cargo and passengers as the Soul is.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.