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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

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