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Is this the year to buy an electric car or hybrid? It is for Michael Rowan, who wanted to save money and energy during the pandemic. And it is for a lot of other drivers, too.
Rowan, an IT director from Albuquerque, N.M., recently bought a Chrysler Pacifica PHEV minivan and new solar panels for his home to help power the vehicle.
He says the hybrid car purchase made economic sense, from the tax breaks to improved fuel efficiency.
“We get 45 miles per gallon on our van when we use gas,” he says. “But we rarely use gas. We’ve used two gallons since we started having the ability to run off home electricity.”
As the pandemic has stretched into summer, there’s been a lot of talk about electric cars and hybrids. Tesla’s stock is hot, as my FORBES colleague Camilo Maldonado noted. And the company recently cut the price of its Model 3, Model S, and Model X electric cars by up to $5,000.Recommended For You
For drivers who are often stuck at home and dreaming about being on the open road, it comes down to a choice between an electric car, a hybrid, or buying — or keeping — their current gas-powered automobile. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages that are easily overlooked in an emotionally charged debate about the value of electric vehicles (EVs).
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It’s a big year for electric cars
Electric cars are on the road to a record sales year, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency. EVs, which accounted for 2.6% of global car sales in 2019, saw a 40% increase over the 1.9% share in 2018. General Motors and EVgo recently announced plans to add more than 2,700 new fast charging stations over the next five years, in an effort to accelerate widespread electric vehicle adoption.
Interest in electric cars may be at an all-time high. According to the analytics company SEMRush, there’s been an 18% growth in searches for the term “hybrid” and a 20% spike in “electric vehicle” searches globally during the first six months of this year, compared to 2019.
“We’ve seen a surge in customers purchasing hybrids and EVs,” says Toby Russell, the co-CEO of Shift.com, a peer-to-peer marketplace for buying and selling used cars. “One reason may be increased road trips.A lot of consumers are opting for a driving-based vacation these days rather than hopping on a plane.”
Also, travelers are moving away from mass transit in favor of a personal car during COVID, and are looking for a fuel efficient vehicle for these increased trips, according to Russell.
“A lot of consumers are jumping into hybrid or electric vehicles for different reasons than just gas mileage,” says Zoriy Birenboym, CEO of eAutolease.com. “There are a lot of perks with tax credits and taxes on the vehicles. All these perks equal to thousands of dollars in savings.”
Big incentives encourage electric car and hybrid sales
Mindy Farabee, a retired teacher from Walnut, Calif., bought a Toyota Camry Hybrid LE last week. She and her husband considered several options before deciding on Toyota’s hybrid.
“We are both retired and wanted a reliable car that would last a long time, was comfortable — my husband is 6 feet tall — and economical,” she says. “Also, in the interest of combating climate change, we both feel like we are doing our part to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel.”
The Farabees weren’t necessarily loyal to Toyota, but for them the timing was right.
“There were other cars that we had considered, but they either weren’t available until next year or we didn’t feel they had the reliability of a Toyota,” she says. “One big incentive to purchase now was the 0% financing on new vehicles that Toyota was offering through early August.”
Farabee says she loves her new car.
“We drove less than 200 miles roundtrip and barely moved the gas gauge below 3/4 of a tank,” she told me. “I expect we will be enjoying this car for a long time.”
Benefits of a plug-in hybrid: “Don’t we need to buy gas?”
As someone who covers the travel industry — and consumer complaints — I’ve been an electric car skeptic for years. I’ve seen the studies and commentaries that cast doubt on the environmental benefits of electric cars. And I’ve also had this recurring nightmare of running out of charge in the Arizona desert.
In June, I started driving a Volvo XC90 plug-in hybrid. It seemed like an ideal compromise. We could always find a gas station if the battery went dead. On our first road trip from Spokane, Wash., to Reno, Nev., I didn’t notice much difference in the car’s fuel efficiency. But once I got home and plugged in the Volvo, the needle on my fuel gauge froze at half a tank.
It’s been there ever since.
“Don’t we need to buy gas?” my 13-year-old daughter asked, having noticed the car’s absence of gas station stops lately.
We did not. Like Rowan and Farabee, we’ve only used a few gallons since June.
“When you drive a plug-in hybrid vehicle, you instantly understand the benefits of electrification,” Jim Nichols, the head of product, technology and brand communications at Volvo Car USA, explained. “Quick acceleration, lower fuel costs and a driving range that can exceed traditionally powered vehicles, make hybrid vehicles an exciting option.”
Hybrids like the XC90 are great for short trips around the city — the kind of driving most people do. On longer journeys, such as our upcoming trip to Arizona, you’ll see about the same fuel efficiency as a gas-powered vehicle. But hybrids are not the same thing as electric vehicles. When we tried putting the Volvo into pure electric mode, the air conditioning quickly ran the battery down in the summer heat. It’s clearly meant to be used with an internal combustion engine.
Switching to a Tesla: “We did the math”
For some drivers, this summer has been a time to buy another kind of electric car. Mihaita Vulpe, who runs an SEO company in Romania, bought a Tesla Model 3, despite some of the challenges of owning an EV in Europe.
“To be honest, we did the math and an EV can save you a lot of money on gas and maintenance,” he says. “It also reduces harmful emissions which leads to less health and ecological damage.”
Vulpe says he expects to have lower maintenance expenses. And Romania is EV friendly, with free charging stations at the mall and supermarket.
“What I don’t like is the amount of time it takes for it to charge,” he says. “There are no official Tesla charging stations in our country yet. Whenever I travel away from a major city, I need to carefully plan every long road trip since not every small town or rural area has a charging station.”
David Kirsch, author of the book The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History, says experts have predicted a breakthrough for EVs since the 1960s.
“The success of Tesla’s Model 3 may have finally broken the dam holding back final demand for EVs,” he says. “Tesla’s stock has been on a tear, quintupling since late 2019. As of mid-2020, the company’s market capitalization exceeds that of the next three most valuable car companies combined. Regardless of its long-term performance, the Tesla narrative has clearly carried the day.”
Is it time to buy an electric car, a hybrid — or to wait?
Because buying a car can be such an emotional purchase, I’ve found it difficult to get clear-headed buying advice. But based on my conversation with experts, here are a few pointers:
When to buy an electric vehicle. If you have the disposable income to buy a new EV, and you live in an area with plenty of charging stations, you might want to consider an electric vehicle — especially during the pandemic. You might find some terrific deals, especially for a used EV.
When to buy a hybrid. If you have the money but live in an area with fewer charging stations or plan longer trips into remote areas, a plug-in hybrid may be more suited to you. (A plug-in hybrid car run entirely on electricity; a hybrid generally doesn’t.) Remember, hybrids perform well under certain driving conditions, but for some trips you’ll still rely on a gas engine.
When to wait. If you don’t have the money for a new car, stick with your old wheels for now. The pandemic has hit almost everyone’s bank account hard, and you may be better off waiting to purchase a new car. Don’t go into debt for a new EV or hybrid.
But should you buy an electric car now?
So is it finally time to buy an electric vehicle? It depends who you ask.
Talk to someone like Charles Agosta, professor of physics at Clark University and self-proclaimed renewable energy enthusiast, and the time is now.
“The electric car is half the price to drive per mile as compared to a gas-powered car,” he says. “An electric car is four times more efficient than a car that runs on gasoline.”
He says the benefits of electric cars have never been more obvious.
“With strategic legislation and investments, we will stop wasting a precious resource, cut a major source of traditional pollution, reduce our carbon footprint, and save money,” he says. “And electric cars are fun to drive.”
George Hoffer, an emeritus professor of transportation economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, says motorists should be cautious about buying an electric car during a pandemic.
Hoffer notes that the benefits of ownership vary by country and state, making it difficult to generalize about the true cost of an electric car or hybrid. He also says it’s important to distinguish between Tesla, the market-leader in electric vehicles, and other manufacturers offering a “one off.”
This may be the summer of the electric vehicle, but Hoffer thinks it’ll be a while before it’s the year of the electric car.
“I think that electric propulsion will get its footing by 2022 or 2023,” he says.