"Buy the biggest battery you can afford!"
That might be the hot tip from your Uncle Joe, the car expert. And you'll get similar advice from online reviews and sales staff trying to upsell you to increasingly longer-range electric cars and SUVs.
But surprise ... paying more for longer range doesn't always make for a faster road trip.
The bottom line: Some of the lowest-priced EVs might have less range, but those with fast charging times are still great choices.
Hard to believe? Let me share a few examples of popular road trips and the EVs that are ready for these trips. I'll also offer three simple guidelines to help you find the EV for your lifestyle.
Warning: This article has nothing to do with horsepower, luxury status or interior styling. Instead you'll find advice on affordability and convenience. I'm an environmental engineer with no interest in brands, but every interest in the planet's future for you and me.
A simple comparison
The long-range EV with the lowest list price was a shock to me: it's a Tesla. The base version of the Tesla Model 3 is available now for $35,000 (phone or in-store orders only), and it has a 220-mile range. The cost gets lower after government incentives and gas savings, which you can estimate for your state with this handy eGallon calculator.
What can you expect from the base Tesla on the classic road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas? To get a quick answer, use a charging website, like A Better Routeplanner, to estimate the time for pit stops to recharge. The Tesla road trip turns out to be a piece of cake with estimated charging stops in about the time of two coffee breaks.
Pit stops to recharge in the most affordable electric vehicles can be similar to typical rest stops in a gasoline vehicle. Here's a comparison of the lowest cost long-range electric vehicles that are on sale now for $35-40k and become much cheaper after incentives. The trip from L.A. to Vegas is around four to seven hours behind the wheel of a gas car. Add in a couple of rest stops, and the gas-powered trip comes to about the same time as the EV trip, including estimated stops for recharging along the way. (Photo: Elliott Campbell)
Now for comparison, let's look at a somewhat higher priced EV with longer range: the Chevy Bolt with the DC fast charging option. This Chevy costs $2,000 more than the base Tesla but offers a bigger battery that has 39 more miles of range.
These two EVs are similar in many ways: both fit a bike with the seats folded down, both have 100,000 mile battery warranties, and both have the same federal incentive. (Other EVs have even bigger incentives worth looking at, too).
How does the Chevy compare to the Tesla? Does the Chevy's longer range mean less time stopping to recharge? That's what Uncle Joe thought.
In fact, the Chevy requires more time for charging stops than the base Tesla. The trip is easy in both cars, and for many people, the Chevy is the perfect EV.
But how could the Tesla have a shorter range and still get you to Vegas in no time? It has everything to do with charging speed.
Charging super fast
Tesla makes more than just EVs. The cost of a Tesla includes access to a widespread network of Supercharger stations. This access is a key advantage.
Other EVs can charge at non-Tesla DC stations. But some of these stations aren't as fast as Superchargers. So charging stations help explain why even Tesla's base model breezes through the Vegas trip.
A glimpse into the future
Non-Tesla stations are upgrading to a national network for extremely fast charging. Soon they could rival the Superchargers.
To get a glimpse into the future, let's look at a route that already offers fast, non-Tesla stations. For example, consider the trip from Philadelphia to Boston. In this case, most long-range EVs have about the same trip time.
In this example, recharging pit stops are on a route where the national network of non-Tesla DC stations have already been rolled out. Driving a gas vehicle from Philly to Boston takes around five to seven hours without rest stops. As with the example above, adding a few rest stops to the gas car trip will bring it in line with the EV trip with stops for recharging. (Photo: Elliott Campbell)
The limited value of ultra-long range
High-end luxury EVs are pushing even bigger batteries with even longer range. Premium models from Tesla, BMW and Porsche offer more than 300 miles of range.
On the Vegas trip example, the premium version of the Model 3 needs one pit stop in the time it takes to have one coffee break. Recall that the base Model 3 required two coffee breaks on the way to Vegas. So the upsell has some value.
But ask yourself if the added value is really worth the cost. Is Vegas with one coffee break instead of two worth thousands of dollars to you?
This is an important question, especially for many people who only take a few road trips each year. And if you already enjoy a pit stop every couple hours for comfort and safety, then the more affordable, long-range EVs might already hit your sweet spot.
For longer road trips the timing becomes more important, but for shorter road trips the value of ultra-long range fades. For example, the estimated charging time on the popular San Francisco-to-Lake-Tahoe trip requires at most a single 15-minute charging stop for the lower-cost EVs.
The big value of shorter range
Most EV reviews focus on long-range models, but there are other types of EVs that are worth a look, too. Short-range EVs and plug-in hybrids will take you anywhere between 20 and 100 miles on a single charge, and at a far lower cost.
For example, the Kia Niro comes as a plug-in hybrid with 26 miles of all-electric range at $10,000 less than the Niro's long-range EV version. Those are serious savings. If your driving is mostly local commuting, then the plug-in hybrid could be the perfect EV for you.
Even if you also want to go 100% electric for trips longer than 26 miles, there's still a lot of value in shorter-range EVs. For two-driver households, sharing one plug-in hybrid and one long-range EV might be all you need to say goodbye to gas.
A second solution is a subscription I'm developing with WeGo. Unlike leasing and owning, which lock you into a single vehicle, WeGo helps drivers swap out for a long-range EV just on the days they need to take a road trip. The result is greater affordability, less battery waste and a more equitable approach to driving electric.
A specific day
The charging times in this article are estimates from charging websites, but they're for average conditions rather than a specific day's conditions. The trip time for a specific day could be different — like hitting a crowded charging station or driving into a long, steady headwind.
For specific conditions on a road trip, it's helpful to have some flexibility in your schedule and an on-board routing tool that automatically navigates you to charging stations.
Some vehicles offer this on-board routing tool as a standard feature, which streamlines your planning. You just get in the EV, tell it your final destination, and it will guide you to charging stations to match the day's conditions.
Which EV is best?
Given the surprising result for the Vegas trip, its best to have a few simple guidelines in mind when you're on the hunt for your next vehicle.
Tip #1: Think 'trip time,' not range. Don't assume that longer range is better. Instead, the one big thing to know is trip time (see tip #2), which depends on range, charging speed, your route, and your preference for pit stops. Beware of your uncle's advice, pushing you into the longest range vehicles.
Tip #2: Do your trip time recon. Use a charging website like A Better Routeplanner to look up a few specific road trips you might take with a few specific EVs you're considering. These websites are easy to use and will help you know what to expect in terms of recharging pit stops.
Tip #3: Swap to get more for your money. Long-range EVs are affordable now, thanks to dropping battery costs and generous subsidies. But you can get even more for your money by swapping short-range and long-range EVs. This can be done in a two-car household or through emerging subscriptions like WeGo.
The big picture
With all this fretting about charging time and range, it's important to keep the big picture in mind: you will never go to a gas station again.
Take a step back and think about an entire year without gas station stops and oil changes. With an EV many people discover that their daily commute can be recharged by just plugging into a normal wall socket when they get home. Others charge at work. When they come back to their EV, it's ready to go and they never have to set foot in a charging station.
With this big picture in mind, the benefits of going electric get better and better.
Elliott Campbell is an associate professor in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz.