Nissan LEAF / Chevrolet Volt

Nissan LEAF / Chevrolet Volt

The buzz in 2011 is about all the new electric cars on the road, led by the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan LEAF.

But because these are new products to the U.S. market, we asked Nick Chambers, who has written about next-generation automobiles for the New York Times, Popular Mechanics and others, to cut through the hype and offer some practical tips for consumers interested in buying an electric car.

He came up with these nine things you should know about electric cars before making a purchase.

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1. There Are Two Kinds of Electric Cars

Turbocharger? What's that? In this new world of plug-ins there are really only two types: all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

All-electric cars are solely powered by large batteries charged from the grid; when they run out of juice they can't move anymore. The Nissan LEAF (above left) is an example of an all-electric car.

Plug-in hybrids have a shorter all-electric driving range using a smaller battery pack. After the battery pack is drained, they can either revert to being a normal fuel-fed hybrid, or they can use fuel to run a generator and recharge the batteries on the fly. The Chevy Volt (above right) is an example of a plug-in hybrid.

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2. There Are Lucrative Federal and State Incentives to Buy Them

Although the sticker prices for electric cars tend to be higher than similarly-sized and -equipped conventional cars, federal and state governments think they are worth subsidizing and have offered some seriously chunky incentives for you to buy one.

All U.S. taxpayers are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit — but only if you have a one-year tax liability that exceeds that amount. If you don't have that much tax liability, don't fret, you can lease the car from the manufacturer and use the entire $7,500 to pay down the lease right off the bat. As a result, Nissan and Chevy — the two electric vehicle manufacturers first out of the gate with mass-market offerings — both have relatively affordable $350 per month lease deals. The federal tax credit will remain in effect for a given EV (electric vehicle) manufacturer until it sells more than 200,000 EVs.

In addition to the federal incentives, many states have sweetened the kitty with their own. For example California has a $5,000 credit, Oregon has a $1,500 one and the State of Washington waves its usual 6.5% sales tax charge. Some states also provide special parking and carpool lane privileges. Nissan's LEAF website has a handy tool to help you figure out what incentives are available where you live.

3. There Are Three Ways to Charge Them

Click to enlarge pictureChargepoint charging station (© Perry Stern)

Chargepoint charging station

Although the engineers will tell you this is a complicated point of discussion, what it really boils down to is that electric car manufacturers in the U.S. can provide three "levels" of charging support for their vehicles.

Level 1 charging happens off of a standard three-prong household outlet. Every electric car comes with a cable that supports this type of charging, but it's slow — only adding about 5 miles of driving range for every hour of charging.

Level 2 charging uses special wall- or pedestal-mounted equipment unique to electric cars. Even so, it is essentially like charging from a standard household dryer outlet. Level 2 charging is faster than Level 1, adding about 15-30 miles of driving range per hour of charging, depending on the vehicle.

DC fast charging uses industrially-rated, gas pump-sized stations to dump electrons into your car's battery like a firehose. Only some cars support this type of charging, and it's usually an option that costs extra. DC fast charging can add about 80 miles of driving range in a half hour of charging.

4. It's Easy To Install a Home Charging Station, But It Costs Extra (Don't Worry, There Are Incentives)

Although every electric car comes with support for Level 1 charging, most people will want to install their own Level 2 charging station at home so that they can fill up their car's battery overnight — but it's by no means a free endeavor.

Level 2 home charging stations will cost between $1,500 and $2,500 to install, depending on the manufacturer and the equipment chosen. If you have special circumstances, such as a long wiring run, the costs can be considerably more. Sounds like a lot, no? The federal government, again, has a pocketful of cash it's ready to dole out, providing a tax credit of 30% of the cost of purchase and installation, up to $1,000.

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5. Public Charging Stations Are Coming, But The Rollout Will Be Slow and Sporadic

So you've got your spiffy new electric car, and you coughed up the dough for your own home charging station. If you're like 80% of Americans, that's likely good enough for most of your driving needs — you'll get to the work and back, and have enough to run typical errands. But what about if you want the same freedom that a gas tank and a filling station ever few miles offers? That's where public charging comes in, providing you the ability to extend your electric car's all-electric range substantially. (The Wattstation, at left, is an example of a public Level 2 charger.)

There is currently a huge push from the EV Project — a $250 million joint federal-private program — to install nearly 15,000 public Level 2 charging stations in a handful of early deployment regions around the United States over the course of 2011. This includes areas of Oregon, California, Washington, Tennessee, Texas, Arizona and Washington, D.C. If you live in one of those regions you will have a relatively robust public charging infrastructure quickly. If you don't, you may have to wait a while unless your community is charging ahead without federal support.