So you’re in the market for a used alternative powertrain vehicle and starting to seriously think about buying a plug-in. You can opt for a fully electric plug-in battery electric vehicle (a BEV) or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, known as a PHEV, but each has their pros and cons. Before you delve into the world of alternative fuel vehicles, there are some things you should know.
First it’s important to know the plusses and minuses of the different kinds of plug-ins—and there are many to consider. PHEVs or plug-in hybrid EVs combine some rechargeable battery range with some other form of energy—usually gasoline. These are the most common types of plug-in vehicles and are the easiest to find on the used market. You can drive them pretty much anywhere because they get the added benefit of having a conventional fuel system, allowing you to stop at a gas station and fill up when needed without having to charge to extend your driving range.
In addition to being able to drive a plug-in hybrid vehicle like a conventional car, you are very likely to find lots of places that will service these kinds of cars. Between 2000 and 2014 more than 3.5 million plug-in hybrids were sold in the U.S., and that means there’s a big marketplace for shops that repair them. You can rest easy knowing that if something should go wrong with your new-to-you plug-in hybrid vehicle, you’ll be able to find someone to service it.
If you want to get completely off of gasoline, consider plug-in all-electric vehicles (BEVs,) which are available in some markets. These are vehicles that run solely on electricity that is stored in a battery. They have no secondary source of energy, which makes them more "green,” but also makes them more likely to induce what is known as range anxiety. Think about how concerned you get when your phone battery gets low. Now multiply that by ten when your car gets low on charge. An all-electric vehicle may only make sense in certain instances—and road trips are far trickier in them. You will have to plan trips around charging locations—and realize that charging can take anywhere from a few hours to overnight depending on conditions and the voltage that you’re able to hook up to.
You’ll find a lot of these plug-in electric cars on the used market in California as they were mostly originally created so that automakers could comply with the state’s strict zero-emissions rules. Cars like the Chevy Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, Fiat 500e, and the Toyota RAV4 EV are all cars that were made in very low volumes as compliance cars. Because these cars can be tricky to work on, finding a garage that specializes in them is paramount. That means that while you could get a good deal on an all-electric plug-in, you may not be able to get it serviced everywhere. You’ll also have to keep a close eye on the climate you’ll be driving your plug-in electric vehicle in. Extreme cold and heat will cause the battery in your car to lose charge more rapidly. You’ll also have to monitor your heat and air-conditioning use to maximize the distance you can get out of your plug-in electric as those systems are a big drain on batteries and can significantly reduce the distance you’ll be able to travel.
Maintenance on both types of cars is also something to consider. Most plug-in vehicles come with a warranty from the manufacturer that covers the car (and more importantly the battery) for eight to ten years and/or 100,000 miles. The older the car gets the more chance there is that the battery won't hold a charge as well as it used to, and the more likely you’ll have to take on regular maintenance like oil changes (with PHEVs), tires, and brake changes and any other issues that might pop up.
Second, forget the rebates. Sure, if you were buying a new hybrid plug-in you’d get those sweet rebate deals everyone talks about. Want to know how much of a rebate? Well that depends on the car but, they can vary from $2500 to $7500. If you’re looking at buying used—be warned—you won't qualify for the cash back on your taxes; that privilege is only reserved for the first buyer.
Finally—get a grip on the costs of ownership. If you decide to buy a plug-in you’ll need a place to charge it at home as well as at work or wherever you travel to regularly. If you don’t have a dedicated outlet in your garage already, you may need to have an electrician install one—which will add to the out of pocket cost you’ll need to be prepared to pay for your new-to-you vehicle.
Additionally, if you plan to charge your new plug-in at home you should be prepared for a slight increase in your monthly electricity bill. In some places surge pricing can take affect during the months when people are using more electricity, which will make that bill creep up even more. Also, check to be sure that the car you are buying comes with its charger—they can be very expensive to replace if they’ve gone missing and can impact your bottom line. Be sure to factor all of these costs into your overall research when you’re considering purchasing a used plug-in vehicle.
Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.