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How to find and buy a cheap electric car

Updated on September 12, 2014

Where are the EVs?

Most people don't know that there are thousands of electric cars on the road today, and - while some EVs are quite expensive, there are also electric cars that can be both inexpensive to obtain and to operate.

Why tolerate unpredictable gasoline prices? An inexpensive electric car can be a fun project that saves real money - and pays for itself in short order.

Can you really buy an inexpensive electric car?

You might only have to spend a few thousand

We all know about expensive electric cars. Even expensive EVs can pay for themselves through fuel savings (see below.) But there are also EVs that are inexpensive to purchase.

In truth, many of the electric vehicles on the road today were built by hobbyists or small entrepreneurs. In the links section at the bottom, you will find some of these people, and the cars that they sell.

The majority of these cars are converted gasoline cars. An old car with a poor engine but a good body is obtained cheaply. The engine, and all gasoline components are stripped out, and a new electric drivetrain is installed.

You might decide to convert a car you already own - or buy a car which has already been converted. The good news is that an electric car of this type can be obtained for as little as $5000. Prices almost never get as high as $20,000.

Many of these cars will be based on old battery technology, as new tech batteries are protected by patents that make it hard for the small businessmen to deal with. But you will still be able to drive at freeway speeds in cars that accelerate and handle well. Your driving range may be limited to less than 100 miles, or even less than 50 miles. But cars like this are still fine for most commuting and day-to-day driving tasks.

Remember, an electric vehicle can be plugged in anywhere, even into a regular electric wall socket. I charge mine while I'm at work, so I have plenty of juice to run an errand or two on the way home.

Can an electric vehicle save me money?

Apply the fuel savings to your car payment

The typical driver puts about 15,000 miles per year on his car. This works out to 1250 miles per month.

If this driver's car gets 25 miles per gallon, this represents 50 gallons of gasoline. At $4.00/gallon, our typical driver spends about $200 on gasoline every month.

An electric car uses kilowatt-hours (KWH) of electricity instead of gasoline. Typically our EV might get from 3 to 5 miles per KWH. So, for this example, we'll use 4 miles/KWH. In my city, there is a special off-peak electric rate of just 7 cents/KWH (ask your utility about off-peak rates.) But let's use the national average of 11 cents.

Using these numbers, the same 1250 miles per month - that cost our typical driver $200 for gasoline - only costs $34.37 in electricity for our electric car - a savings of $165.63!

If you were buying an electric car, and your car payment was $400, try subtracting the fuel savings from it: it becomes $234.37. This means you can afford a better EV with a bigger car payment!

And how about this: The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf EVs both lease for as little as $200/month. Apply the fuel savings from above, and it's equivalent to leasing a conventional car for just $34.

Definitely not unaffordable!

Maintaining your electric car

It costs very little

Some people think electric vehicles are complicated, and therefore difficult to maintain. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A gasoline engine and its associated components are made up of thousands of parts. Every part represents the possibility of a breakdown. This situation is far different in an electric vehicle. Electric motors have only ONE moving part. There is no maintenance needed on an electric motor. No filters, oil changes, coolant, NOTHING.

You have electric motors all over your house - in your clothes washer/dryer, refrigerator, air conditioner, can opener, blender, and on and on. Appliances do break - but when was the last time the electric motor itself was to blame? There is almost nothing in the technology world more reliable than an electric motor. This is why EVs last a long time, and can have very high resale values.

How about the batteries? Yes, of course some older battery types have a limited life, and need periodic replacement. The oldest battery technology is lead-acid. In a typical EV, a lead-acid battery pack might last for 20 thousand miles. The pack in my old EV, which consists of 16 batteries, costs me about $800 to replace. That works out to about 4 cents per mile. Add to that the typical electricity cost per mile of 2 cents, and our total operating cost is only 6 cents per mile.

Newer battery technology, like Li-Ion, or especially nanotechnology batteries, have a much longer life. Cars with newer versions of these batteries (like the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf) typically warrant the battery pack for at least 100,000 miles, or even more.

Are there other operating costs? The electronic controller in the car is very reliable also - my own EV is 30 years old, and has all the original motor and electronic controller parts. They have never needed repair.

Just like a regular car, you will need periodic brake and suspension work - but if your EV has regenerative braking, which uses the electric motor to brake the car - your brake pads will last much, much longer that they would on a standard auto.

How electric vehicles help with pollution

It doesn't matter what power plants burn

A common criticism of electric vehicles is that they only move pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant. In other words, since power plants still burn dirty fuel, there will still be pollution. This is not a fair criticism.

First, only about a third of the electricity created comes from burning coal in the USA (according to latest 2012 numbers from the US Energy Information Administration), but this is still our major pollution worry. Less than 2% comes from oil.

So why is coal not a worry? First, coal plants are largely baseload. This means they are designed to run all the time at full output, EVs or no EVs. Extra load on the grid is handled by peak load plants, which are not coal. So adding electric vehicles to the grid increases coal pollution very little, while sending petroleum pollution to zero.

But how about when electric cars catch on, and new plants have to be built? Luckily, this is not something we have to worry about for a long time. Since EVs charge mainly at night (off-peak), there is plenty of excess electric capacity available for decades to come.

But even if all the above were not true, electric cars would still produce much less pollution than gas cars, because of the greater efficiency of electric drive (electric motor, about 90% efficient, versus gas engine, 15% efficient in traffic) compared to the poor efficiency of both gasoline production and fuel utilization in automobiles.

There are inefficiencies in powerplant generation too, of course, but these pale in comparison to the inefficiencies of gas and diesel refining. So much energy (including lots of electricity!) is used to refine a gallon of gasoline, you could actually throw away the gas and drive an EV nearly 30 miles on this energy alone.

The proof of all this is right in the fuel prices. Gasoline costs from 12 to 30 cents per mile, depending on the type of vehicle and gas prices. Electric cars drive around for only about 2-4 cents per mile. The difference comes mainly from efficiency. Much greater efficiency = much less fuel cost and also = much less pollution.

Incidentally, hydrogen fuel-cell cars are also electric cars, including batteries, which are needed for acceleration. But they are less efficient than battery-powered cars, because of the extra electricity required to extract the hydrogen, and the wasted energy of transporting hydrogen to service stations. Fuel cell vehicles will always be more expensive than pure electric cars, because they are electric cars with a fuel cell and H2 tank added on.

The Cheap Electric Car Link List - Links to help save you money by driving an electric car

If you have a little more money to spend, look at the cars at the end of the list!

Books and Videos about Electric Cars

Who Killed the Electric Car?
Who Killed the Electric Car?

This engaging DVD tells the story of the electric car mandate on the west coast - how electric cars arrived in the late 1990s, how they were loved, and then how they were pried from the hands of weeping drivers and CRUSHED. This is MUST viewing to understand the EV story today.

Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that will Recharge America
Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that will Recharge America

Where hydrogen fuel-cell cars won't be ready for decades, the technology for plug-in hybrids exists today. Unlike conventional hybrid cars that can't run without gasoline, plug-in hybrids use gasoline or cheaper, cleaner, domestic electricity-or both. Although plug-in hybrids are not yet for sale, demand for them is widespread.

Build Your Own Electric Vehicle
Build Your Own Electric Vehicle

Drivers can enjoy the clean-running convenience and economy of an electric vehicle for as much as it costs to buy a new car. This illustrated guide explains step by step how to build an inexpensive EV from a kit or convert an existing internal combustion engine.

Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History
Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History

Far from being a modern conception, electric cars were among the first vehicles on the road. In the formative days of the automobile, a third of cars were electric, and they challenged internal combustion engine-driven vehicles for primacy. The story of the electric car is a long one, and it is still being written.


Cheap electric car feedback

Would you drive a cheap EV?

Where's my wallet?

Where's my wallet?

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    • anonymous 3 years ago

      If we all drove air cars by MDI (called CAT-clean air technology in 2006)it would scrub the air since the air going out the back is cleaner than the air coming in the front ,the perfect hybrid would be electric and air combination also air cars are made by Tata motors and Peugeot motors as well. Still not allowed in USA

    • anonymous 3 years ago

      Very difficult to find a ev in stock at dealers who make them as oil industry tries to kill them, I love my 2008 Zero air pollution truck (ZAP)does not use gas, can run on pure solar charge for short commutes, fully charged lithium batteries get up to 65 miles on about a $.50 cent charge. On board charger for regular 110 plug in at 80% charge in 20 mins. 2008 models are $1,500-$4000 with low mileage, bed dumps side and tailgate fold-down ,nice interior plus leather seats ,very low maintenance no oil transmission or differential fluids no tuneup plugs points etc. may need to clean solar panels occasionally . I will use daily and 4 hauling. Oil industry is trying to have these destroyed.

    • CarZone USA 3 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      Absolutely, not only it save me money, it also helps the planet.

    • kju385 3 years ago

      Sure, I'm just waiting for the industry to develop a better kind of batteries. There is a lot of room for improvement in performance as well...

    • EzLoanLookUp LM 3 years ago

      Yeah I think its worth driving

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      Yes...still waiting for price decreases....

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      i hope i buy one

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      these cars are so awesome

    • Dave Muse 4 years ago from Dearborn, MI

      @anonymous: I don't see how disclosing all the costs is deceptive - sure,it would be great not to replace lead-acid batteries, but at least it's relatively cheap (about a nickle per mile.) If you're game for the larger upfront cost, you can drive a EV with more modern lithium batteries, which can last the lifetime of the car.

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      Sure I'd buy a cheap EV, but this article is transparently deceptive... first it touts that $200 gasoline is equivalent to $34.37 "so your savings are like, $165, dude." Then several paragraphs down you learn that replacing the batteries (and you *will* have to replace them) costs twice as much as *all the electricity they have ever stored*... i.e. around $68 per $34 of electricity. So in the end, the running cost is roughly half the cost of gasoline. Oh well, at least you don't have to pay for oil changes.

    • HouseBuyersOfAmerica 4 years ago

      Electric cars is a great Eco-friendly alternative of fuel car.

    • RestlessKnights 4 years ago

      Yes. We have rather cheap electricity in my country, so it makes a lot of sense. It'll probably be fairly common in a few years time.

    • inesiut 4 years ago

      YES :)

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      yes why not

    • Mr3man7 4 years ago

      Great lens! I sure would :-)

    • racko09 4 years ago

      Of course i would :D

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      yes yes yes

    • BarrettCoffen 4 years ago

      Of course!

    • steph-naylor 5 years ago

      I just dropped by to say 'super lens' Thankyou!!

    • CapnFatz 5 years ago

      I drove an EV in China for ten days AND we just built an All Electric Bus. We're closer than you think. The problem of the EV vehicle range is a relatively small one IF you live in a family with more than two vehicles and IF you properly manage the use of those vehicles.

    You're off your rocker!

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      • socialcx1 4 years ago

        Yes I certainly would like to drive one

      • anonymous 4 years ago


      • tweeky lm 5 years ago

        the sounds like a plan

      • curtmaxwall 5 years ago

        I'd loved too, but as an auto Enthusiast i thinks this technology is still in development phase and needs to improve a lots to gain momentum in mainstream market..

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        Wait, gasoline does not have to cost at least 12 cents per gallon, that would mean that you can't get better than 48 miles per gallon (with $4 per gallon at least), but both me and several of my friends have cars that get over 60, 70, and even 85 miles per gallon, and cars with over 150 mpg's have been around since the sixties. If your going to compare cars then you can't just compare the "hobbyist" electric vehicles (as you describe them) with mass produced gasoline vehicles. I've personally seen at least 13 gasoline powered vehicles with over 200 miles per gallon and own one with over 115 mpg on a good day (I'm a diy auto engineer), so you have to take hobbyist gasoline cars into account to if you share info on hobbyist electric vehicles. Electric vehicle technology just hasn't advanced enough yet to come anywhere near the current potential of gasoline. Yes, that will eventually change in the future, but right now we need to focus on the realism of our ideas.

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        i absolutely cannot wait to get one!

      • neuromancer lm 5 years ago

        Electric cars are expensive only because batteries are expensive. I would love to have electric car, but I will wait at least to 2015 when these cars should be much cheaper and batteries will have better capacity(I hope).

      • fuelfixeruk 5 years ago

        Is there such a thing as a cheap electric car?.. seriously the manufactures need to make that stuff in more volume or it will never hit the mainstream

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        Yes ,I love it, ism sick of diesel,fossil fuels

      • freecarguy 5 years ago

        There is no need to transport hydrogen, if you have water use solar panels to split it and you're done. You can also store solar and wind energy in hydrogen. Fueling with hydrogen takes as long as it takes to fuel with gas. Charging a battery the size that runs a car takes hours!

        As I said, for in-town driving EVs might work, but why strict myself?

      • freecarguy 5 years ago

        I don't think it's the time yet. As DJ says, the infrastructure is not ready yet, and I would only drive one within the city only if I don't pay for the electricity. With the deregulation of electricity coming soon (already in place in some areas) I don't think it would be an economic idea. A better green option would be a hydrogen cell car. The infrastructure can be built easily, it fuels the way gas does (I don't need to plug the car and look for a hotel to spend the night until it's full as with EVs), and this gives it a longer range.

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        I did compare, apeweek. The comment was for the writer who is obviously skewing his things. I would love to buy an electric car when they make it reasonable.

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        The savings are inflated. Gas is not $4/ gal in most places these days.

        And compare buying an economy car that gets 40 mpg and costs $15k with buying a Volt or a Leaf. With the gas savings they are still much more expensive, you may have to have something installed in your house/garage to charge them, and they don't have enough range to do even some long commutes, and there's not much infrastructure for charging on the road.

        I think the guy that wrote this was paid somehow by the EV manufacturers.

        It's just ridiculous.

      • benny77 5 years ago

        HMMM there must be a reason why this hasn't caught on in a wider range? If they save so much money, lower emissions, and are easy to maintain...why isn't everyone driving one? Definitely sounds interesting and YES I would give one a try but...I'm left wondering what is left out?

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        yes of course! i would love to. With that i'm not going to spent too much for gas which causes pollution....

      • umarshehzad lm 5 years ago

        Well buying an electric car is seems easy but maintaining one may cause few problems..

      • FerrariLoco 5 years ago

        Maybe in 5 ten years once the technology has advanced a little further.

      • autofanatic 5 years ago

        Seems like battery technology is the limiting factor here. Having to replace a load of led acid batteries every 18-24 months is not my idea of fun.

      • desa999 lm 5 years ago

        As the quality improves I'd be tempted, but at the moment they don't seem to have the range in distance that I would like.

      • Joan Hall 5 years ago from Los Angeles

        I'm in the category of people who buy cars that are $2000 or so. So I'll have to wait a while longer.

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