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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Your First Electric Car

Once upon a time, electric cars were little more than urban legends. Today, they’re all around us. What an age we live in! There are choices, but they can be expensive, so it’s important you spend your money carefully, especially because you’ve never done it before.

Advantages of an Electric Vehicle

Electric cars have many advantages. For example, in 15 years, when they are everywhere, selling a used electric car will be easier than unloading a gas car. They also have low fuel costs, less maintenance, instant torque, regenerative braking, and of course, they are environmentally friendly. Disadvantages: range anxiety, recharging takes forever, and they cost more up front than their gas counterparts.

Electric cars can often save owners money over the life of the car. Gas is more expensive than electricity, so until you reach MSRPs around $35K, electric cars save so much money over their lifetimes that the up-front cost balances out. If you’re buying an electric car just to save money, the Tesla Model 3, for example, isn’t the car for you. For the same money you could buy a comparable-in-every-day-use certified used BMW 320i for about $15K, and spend the money you saved on 26,968.5 gallons of regular unleaded, driving 970,866.1 highway miles. The Tesla’s unique selling points are convenience, no carbon dioxide, and the car’s performance, but not saving money.

If mom and dad bought Apple stock in 1989, and you want a long-range electric minivan that can do it all, the only option right now is the Tesla Model X. At $107K, it has the range you need, the space you need, the tech you need. Of course, you have to like Tesla too.

If you just want a car that speaks to you, no guide will help you. Sorry. It’s like falling in love. You might fall in love with a Karma, which is pretty, expensive, and kind of terrible. Remind you of anyone?

That said, you probably don’t want to spend your kids’ college funds on a minivan. Bear in mind that the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric cars was recently eliminated. Many brands websites haven’t been updated regarding that detail. This leaves you with imperfect options that require compromise. You need to ask yourself: How far will you drive it? What do you need to put in it? How should the car feel? What’s your budget? Here are your best options, based on the most common needs.

Electric Vehicles to Travel Long Distances with Cargo

You work on the road, or you spend your weekends at a second home. You need as much range as possible. Even the best range among these cars may still necessitate a pit stop along the way, so it’s important to know where you can charge up on your route, and on any detour you may be forced into.

Leaving aside cars over $81K, here are your best options.

Audi E-Tron

Audi E-Tron

If what you want is an electric car with a 248.5 mile range, lots of dealers who can service it, and zero sacrifices, the Audi E-Tron is it. Until you start it, it’s indistinguishable from any other Audi SUV: luxurious, high tech, spacious, and practical. The Premium Plus model’s MSRP is $74K. That’s the one you should get. The Prestige trim MSRP is $81K, and for that you get heads up display, massaging seats, and the kitchen sink. I say skip it.

At first glance, the E-Tron’s range isn’t all that impressive compared with the Model X, but, as mentioned above, the long-range version of the X starts at $107K before adding options.

Perhaps the best thing about this SUV is that it’s a normal car. It even has physical buttons, and places to rest your arm when you choose to use the controls, so a bump in the road doesn’t turn changing the radio station into setting the air conditioning to Sahara.

All of this is great, but the E-Tron’s coolest party trick is how quickly it charges. In 30 minutes, it charges enough to go 160 miles, while the X only charges enough for 144.5 in the same time. Until solid state batteries become a thing, this is the fastest charging car in the west.

Tesla Model 3 Dual Motor AWD

Tesla Model 3

You care about the environment. You buy the latest iPhone when it comes out, and you like the feeling of being thrown back in your seat. The Tesla Model 3 is the electric car for you. It is prized for its sportiness, spartan touchscreen dash, and Autopilot feature common to most Teslas. There are several trim levels of the 3, but this is the one worth getting.

The Dual Motor AWD version gets 310 miles of range, and costs about $40K. Option these things up and you’re pushing nearly $60K, without taxes added. Even some used 3s are selling for about $70K. There’s no cheap way to get one, but if you don’t care about the price, it’s a fast car with great range, all-touchscreen controls, and room enough for several full-sized humans since there is no drive tunnel. The touchscreen is cool, but it really does control everything. If you like buttons, look to Audi.

The 3 has plenty of storage in its trunk and frunk, making it like a 3-series BMW with 1.5 trunks. It isn’t really “luxurious”, but then, its interior is fine. It looks like a nice Mazda, and isn’t an uncomfortable place to spend time.

One word of warning. It was recently reported that Tesla is so focused on cranking out new cars that they don’t have a lot of spare parts in stock. As a result, if you get into an accident, you may have to wait a year to get your car repaired. Add to this owners’ verified stories of new 3s literally falling apart in the rain, and you might pause. I recommend holding off for a bit, or buying enough rice to fill a swimming pool.

Chevrolet Bolt

Chevrolet Bolt

If you aren’t made of money, the Bolt is a great option, possibly the best electric car on the market today. It’s made by General Motors, which means that if something breaks, there are replacement parts. Unlike the Model 3, there aren’t horror stories about bumpers falling off in the rain. It has a range of 238 miles, which is better than the base Model 3, and 56.6 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats down. It’s even a nice place to sit, with a modern interior, Apple Carplay and Android Auto standard.

MSRP is about $36K, but optioned up certified used Bolts sell for $18K on Autotrader with 24K miles on the clock. At this price point, the Bolt is the ultimate bargain. Many were once fleet vehicles for short trips, or executive leases, so they were well maintained.

The Bolt is also small enough that it makes a great city car, but with its range, I think it’s a worthy all around car, unless you have more than 3 passengers.

Electric Vehicles to Get Around a City

You need to get around a city, either as part of your job or to run personal errands. The biggest challenge you will face, as with all city cars, is finding parking. You’ll need something smallish, but with some storage. The second big challenge will be charging. We’ll assume you have a solution.

If all you need a car for is getting around a city, you don’t need much range, which increases your options. You could get one of the longer-range cars if you need the storage, but more likely you don’t. If you need your electric car to transport objects about the size of groceries, you have several ways to go.

Volkswagen e-Golf

Volkswagen e-Golf

The e-Golf is made by the same people who make the 911, the E-Tron, and Dieselgate: Volkswagen. Even “the people’s car” is considered upmarket when compared with the likes of Nissan, which is why I would not recommend the comparable Nissan Leaf.

The e-Golf’s base MSRP is just a little over $30K, a tick higher than the Leaf, but since the e-Golf’s range is a pitiful 134 miles, e-Golfs don’t sell well. This means if you stumble upon a dealer with one in stock, after you sweep away the cobwebs you might be able to take it off the dealer’s hands for a song. Certified used low mileage optioned up e-Golfs listed on Autotrader go for about $15K, so if you can’t negotiate the price you want on the new e-Golf, the used ones can be obtained rather painlessly.

Considering that the Leaf’s range is about 150 miles, you may well wonder why the e-Golf is better. For a start, VW didn’t reinvent the wheel. VW took the best hatchback of all time and made it electric. As a result, the e-Golf has better interior materials, ergonomics, space (trust me, I’m over six feet tall), 52.7 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats down, 22.8 with them up (which is more than a regular Golf), and you feel like you’re driving a regular car, not some Prius hairshirt.

With the e-Golf, all you sacrifice is range, which you were going to do with most cars in this segment anyway. With an e-Golf, you’re getting a Golf with extra storage, that accelerates quickly, costs little to maintain, and behaves just like any other regular Golf in every way that matters when you drive less than 100 miles a day. The Leaf on the other hand, is a tiny car, with a cheap interior, and 30 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats down, which isn’t enough room for all your regrets.

BMW i3

BMW i3

For a slightly more upmarket look, you could go for the BMW i3 with a 153 mile range. i3s (plural of i3, not to be confused with the i3S: the more expensive version) can even be obtained with an optional “range extender” gas engine. The important thing here is that they are not hybrids. Hybrids have a gas drivetrain and an electric drivetrain. The i3 only has an electric drivetrain. It uses the range extender to charge the battery, but the range extender does not drive the wheels. The car will even limit your top speed while in this mode, so do not rely on it.

A base BMW i3 costs about $48K. Realistically optioned up, it’s a $60K car. For this you get a small, comfortable, carbon fiber, rear wheel drive BMW, made out of sustainable materials. What you also get is not a whole lot of storage, and the instant disappearance of stacks of money. Why? A used i3 with about 22K miles on the clock will go for about $20K, which means these things lose value faster than an old iPhone dock.

The market for BMWs is people who want a status symbol, and the ultimate status symbol is having a new BMW. If all you want is a good electric car, then used i3s are great bargains, at more than half off.

You will have to sacrifice storage. The frunk fits a six pack, or your charging cable, but not both. Party foul. The rear storage area is hiked up to make room for the car’s works, so the only way to get the full 36.9 cubic feet of storage is to fold both rear seats. Otherwise, storage space drops to a pathetic 15.1 cubic feet. Basically, you can fit friends or golf clubs in the car, but not both.

Conclusion

In the end, any car is a compromise. If you don’t want to regret your purchase, know what you will realistically need the car to do, decide if you care more about high performance or saving money, and know your budget. Once you have that information, you can choose the right electric car for the job, and take your first steps into the future without regrets.