Say what you want about the environmental benefits of driving an electric car, the cold, hard truth is that they tend to be incredibly economical if you live in an urban area. You can drive one all day, charge at night, and barely pay enough in power costs to match one gallon of gas — especially if you go off-peak. If you are willing to pay the up-front costs (usually over $25,000 plus the cost of installing an electric car charger in your garage), an EV is still a good bet for penny-pinchers.
That’s true for urban dwellers at least. I wanted to find out if an EV works for someone like me who uses one in a more suburban or rural setting and track the actual costs when my daily routine involved driving 50 to 60 miles to a neighboring town, running errands that ate up 8 to 10 miles per trip, and I didn’t just scoot around a small downtown area. The results were all pretty surprising.
How I tested
I started by researching EV chargers for my garage. Leviton makes one called the EVB40-PST that costs just under $1,000 (depending on your area). My local power company gives a $500 credit toward install; it costs about $500 to have one installed. Of course, you can charge from a 120-volt wall outlet in your garage, but it will take a good 24 hours or more. To add one of those “fast chargers” that uses 480-volt DC power, you can expect to pay about $28,000 or more.
A fast charger would have been nice but way too expensive. They charge up to 80% in 30 minutes, or about 70 miles per hour of charging. The one I installed charges at about 20 miles per hour. A wall outlet charges at just under 4 miles per hour.
Next, I arranged to test a 2015 Kia Soul EV, which costs $33,700 minus a $7,500 tax credit. Because I live in a remote area, Kia had to bring the car out on a truck. The closest public charger is about 50 miles away from me, but no worries: the Soul EV goes about 93 miles per charge. That's enough for most short road trips.
The Soul EV, like many recent smartphones and tablets I’ve tested, came fully charged. So, on a cool summer day, I headed out with nothing but my laptop (and no wallet). I wanted to do a stress test, and by “stress” I mean my own anxiety. Driving on the highway at 75mph, I felt a slight pang of worry because I knew I would not have enough juice to get home again. I found a public charger at a Nissan dealership and had to feign some interest in buying a car to use it.
Because I needed a full charge to calm my range anxiety, I decided to go to a bookstore for two hours. I walked back to the car and noticed it was only at about 75% power. I walked to a local mall and killed more time. The Soul EV charging influenced my plans, but not in such a detrimental way that I felt cheated. I took pride in knowing I wasn’t paying for any gas. When I came back about an hour later, I had a full charge. It took three hours to add 60 miles.
Next, I drove the Soul EV to run errands for a week. At low speeds, the Soul EV sipped power, dropping only a mile or two in an afternoon when I had driven much farther than that. The car regenerates power when you brake. In Eco mode, when you take your foot off the gas, the Soul EV brakes for you slightly to generate power. One day, I toyed with the idea of going for a longer driver but realized I didn’t have enough time to trickle charge over a wall outlet.
For a few more days, I decided to try and rack up extra utility charges. I drove to town, did errands, then drove all the way home, charged up again during peak hours, and did more errands. My goal was to see if the Kia Soul really did live up to the low-cost electric car promise. I ended up paying about $8 for charging that week, which is still far less than gas.
Kia let me test the car for three weeks, and in that time I drove on two long trips and ran errands that racked up a good 50 miles or more per trip. I recharged about a dozen times.
I really liked the Soul EV, and I’m not necessarily an EV fanboy. I prefer cars that growl like a Dodge Charger and take corners like a BMW M5, but I’m also a techie and appreciate many of the Soul EV perks. For one thing, it’s seriously peppy from 0-10. It’s incredibly fun to drive around town because it just goes; people would crane their neck trying to figure out what it was. On the touchscreen, you can view an EV mode screen that shows how much power you have left, the distance to an EV charger, and even a tree that grows bigger when you drive smarter.
Kia offers an app called the UVO EV that worked perfectly and helped me monitor the car from anywhere. I cranked up the AC using the app, checked the power level, and locked the doors with a tap on my iPhone 6. (Kia also makes an Android version.)
For range anxiety, Kia offers five years of free roadside assistance including towing if you do run out of power. You can use the app or the touchscreen to arrange the tow. I never used it because I planned my routes and erred on the side of having plenty of juice. I can imagine someone who owns the car trying to squeeze out more power each trip.
The total cost to run the Soul EV for the three weeks amounted to $12.46. That’s the cost for home charging, but I also used a public charger and plugged into a wall outlet a few times. Of the $12.46 in household electric usage, I paid $8.23 to charge during peak hours in Minnesota (4PM to 8PM) and $4.21 to charge during off-peak hours. (In some states like California, there are no “peak” and “off-peak” hours for charging.) I drove it 450 miles in the three-week period, which involved urban driving and longer trips. I was impressed with the savings compared to running a gas engine car, which would have cost at least double that amount, but I did wonder about a few things.
My biggest concern: It gets to be a pain to connect up so often. During the week of testing when I drove to town and then drove home to charge again, it felt like I was doing way too much EV babysitting. You have to open the charge port, grab the charging cable, connect up, wait a few hours, then disconnect. Once, I forgot to close the charge door, which is like driving with your fly open. Of course, in an area where there are dozens of car chargers at the mall, the library, the daycare, and the local Starbucks, charging up would not be as annoying.
If your goal is to save the planet, remember that buying a new car (EV or not) doesn’t help that much. It’s actually “greener” to just keep driving a gas car, because when you switch to an EV, someone is still driving your old car and there are environmental costs related to building any EV. It's better to think of it as a cost saver and then, eventually, you will help the environment by using less energy overall.
If you want to save money and have fun driving, the Soul EV makes perfect sense and it's a good pick. The Tesla Model S is a fun luxury car, but it’s not exactly affordable at $69,900. The Nissan Leaf and Honda Fit EV look and drive like budget cars. (The Fit EV accelerates faster from 0-10 that the Soul EV, though.) Overall, I recommend the Kia Soul EV. It’s the perfect car for smartphone lovers.
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