What’s it really like to buy an electric vehicle?

Barbara Weber
January 24, 2023
Attendees at the 2021 LA Auto Show check out the Hyundai IONIQ 5. (Photo: David Ganske of DG+Design)

One of the most noteworthy statistics I took away from a recent webinar from the Zero Emission Transportation Association, was that 90% of electric car owners say once they’ve gone electric, they’ll never go back to a gas-powered vehicle. But what does it take to get someone to that point of purchase? To make the leap into first-time EV ownership? And how can EV car manufacturers ensure that a trip into the unknown is a positive one?

I sat down with two different individuals who have recently bought an EV for the first time to learn more about what the experience was really like. One, who works in tech and is a resident of Virginia, recently purchased a Tesla Model 3; an experience that was easier than she anticipated. The other, a teacher in Oregon, navigated the nuanced nature of EV incentives, timing, and availability to (finally) secure a Chevy Bolt.

Here’s what they had to say.

What prompted the need for a new car? And did you know you wanted an EV?

Tesla: I drive a lot with my work commute and felt like I was getting my older car (a used 2008 Lexus) serviced all the time. I knew my next car needed to be electric because I never wanted to go to the gas station again and a charging station was recently installed at my apartment complex and only costs $20 a month. 

Chevy Bolt: First, we realized that the solar panels on our home were overproducing compared to what we’re using (by 1200 kWh!). In Oregon, this extra power essentially just goes back to the grid and is of no benefit to us. We also knew we were getting closer to needing a new car and for us it was a big financial motivation to go electric because we could apply what we overproduce through our solar panels to power our vehicle. Between that, gas prices going through the roof, and multiple state and federal bills being passed to incentivize EV ownership, it was a no brainer. It also helped that our house was built with a plug-in station for an EV. Last, but certainly not least, I’m a science teacher and it's exciting to think we could be cutting down on our emissions with this decision.

What do you value in a car? In any large purchase?

Tesla: I want to feel good about it. I want to feel like I made the right decision and get reinforcements for that through my experience with the car.

Chevy Bolt: The value I’m getting. I don’t need named brands. I want a quality car at a reasonable price.

What was the biggest obstacle in purchasing your new EV?

Tesla: Purchasing the vehicle was more of a long term investment for me versus an immediate need to fill so I had the benefit of time to go through the motions.  Once I knew which vehicle I wanted, I needed to figure out whether to lease one or buy one, and in the case of the latter, how exactly that works. I found researching it online was not as easy as I (and I think most Americans) want everything to be. Ultimately when I decided to buy, picking a lender was the biggest obstacle, as interest rates were not favorable.

Chevy Bolt:  There were multiple challenges. For one, availability was a big issue. We had initially put a deposit down on a Nissan Leaf and after four months were told we couldn’t get the car as there weren’t any available. Then there was navigating the complexities of the various rebates and pricing structures. The price of the same car can change considerably depending on the state you’re buying it in.

In Oregon, where we’re residents, many dealers were raising the price upwards of $8,000 over MSRP because they knew many people would be using rebates. Luckily, the majority of sales people were honest about this, which prompted us to start looking outside of Oregon where dealers would be less inclined to raise the prices. It was a numbers game to figure out the best place to buy a car from and we had to do a lot of math. Between the laws continuously changing (and being variable by state) and rebates expiring or being maxed out, there was a lot to sort through. We eventually went with a dealer in Idaho who helped us find a car (the Chevy Bolt) that was both available and for sale at MSRP. By the time we bought our car, we had worked with multiple sales people and dealers across four states.

Where did you research your car options? Where do you get most of your information?

Tesla:  What got me really excited about purchasing an EV was attending the LA Auto Show earlier this year. They featured a lot of EVs and within one day I was able to explore multiple company’s offerings all in one place, from concept cars to ones that had been in the market for years. By the end of the show, I had narrowed down my top choices as the Hyundai Ioniq 5 and the Tesla Model 3. 

Following the LA Auto Show, I spent several months deciding between the two, as both were in the same price range and I wasn’t in a rush. Ultimately what it came down to was availability. I had seen the Hyundai Ioniq 5 at the show but there wasn’t an option to test drive it there, nor could I find it anywhere in my area. I ended up visiting a Tesla showroom near my apartment in Virginia and a helpful salesperson walked me through my options. 

Chevy Bolt: We started our search on a website called TrueCar where you can search based on pricing, whether it’s new or used,  and EV or ICE (internal combustion engine). We were able to narrow down our top choices as the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Bolt, as they were the right size and price point for us. Through TrueCar we were connected with various dealers and I appreciated that everyone seemed to be really responsive, especially since it’s hard to track down an EV that’s actually available. 

After working with different dealers, we started going through Costco, whose dealers were great and helped us figure out how much we would pay in different states, could get us solid answers about when a car would actually be available, and verified that the salesmen we were working with were actually real people. 

What questions or concerns did you have about going electric? 

Tesla: Before my building installed a charging station, I was hesitant about getting an EV because I didn’t want to have to worry about the convenience of charging. That said, my sister and brother-in-law have had a Tesla for years and have never had a problem finding a charger in the two states they’ve lived in, so seeing the ease in that transition for them was helpful for me.

Chevy Bolt: Living in Bend, Oregon, my first thought was how it was going to do in the cold and snow. We will put snow tires on it but you don’t really see these cars doing very well in the snow. Additionally, I was concerned about the battery life and how it would hold up in the cold. I’ve heard from multiple owners of EVs that the trick is to let the battery run down and not plug it in every day. 

There are a lot of other unknowns, like how much it will cost me to “fill up” when I’m not charging at my house. I’m used to thinking about dollars per gallon and how many miles I go and have no idea what that will equate to in kWh. Also, I know there is an app out there that will help me as a new EV owner, but I haven’t looked into it yet.

How did you first become aware of the car you ultimately chose?

Tesla: The first time I became aware of Tesla overall was when the Model S first came out in a small batch. A friend from college bought one and was an early adopter.

Chevy Bolt:  We had initially opted to buy the Nissan Leaf after talking with multiple friends who own one, but once it became obvious availability was going to be an issue, we started looking for other EVs at similar price points. We learned about the Chevy Bolt through TrueCar and various dealers we worked with through that, and then asked friends who owned one how they liked theirs.

Did you ask for advice from anyone?

Tesla: Yes. My ultimate decision to buy when I did was based on a conversation with my brother-in-law David. He helped me realize the timing was right for many reasons, including 1) the price of a Tesla isn’t going down in any kind of substantial way anytime soon. 2) because I don’t qualify for the EV tax credit there was no reason to wait. 3) This is probably the highest offer I’ll get for a used car based on the market. 4) gas prices are still high. AND 5) The sooner I buy, the more I'll enjoy my commute to work more and sitting in DC traffic. It’s nice having a modern vehicle.

Chevy Bolt: Yes, we have friends who have both the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt, all of whom speak highly of both cars.

What was the most important criteria for your decision-making process?

Tesla:   In addition to availability (or lack thereof), size was important to me. I’m used to a compact car and I liked that the Tesla felt a bit smaller than the Ioniq 5. I didn’t need an SUV.

Other important criteria for me revolved around leasing and buying. The Tesla salesman in the showroom explained the resale value of an EV compared to an ICE car and this is what prompted me to purchase the car versus lease it. While interest rates had me initially concerned about purchasing it, he explained how a used Tesla Model 3 hasn’t depreciated in value much at all and they are tough to find. I knew that demand was likely to stay high so should I decide to sell my car in the future, it would be an easy thing to do. 

Another big selling point for me was the service component. When I was initially debating between leasing versus buying, I thought leasing would save me money on service. After speaking with the Tesla representative, I learned that very little service (if any) is needed on a Tesla and there is no need for oil changes or emissions checks.

Chevy Bolt: Value, price, and availability. It also needed to have a longer range as we road trip as a family often. It’s not a name brand like Tesla, but the Chevy Bolt was a good deal and fits the criteria we needed. I think there are a lot of manufacturers out there now who are making good EV options. 

Were there any deal breakers?

Tesla: The fact that I couldn’t even find a Hyundai Ioniq to test drive kind of sealed the deal. That, and I’m not sure when one would have been available. Also, I like that the Tesla is sportier.

Chevy Bolt:  Yes, the prices. After a dealer in Spokane, WA, wanted to charge us $10,000 more for the Nissan Leaf, we decided the Bolt was a very similar car and a better option. Brand isn’t as important to us as price. 

Have you received any sort of compensation/benefits for your purchase of an EV?

Tesla: No, I don’t qualify.

Chevy Bolt: Yes, we took advantage of all of the benefits we could, including the federal Bi-partisan Infrastructure Act ($3,000), Oregon Clean Air Act  ($2,500), a Costco rebate ($1,000), and a teacher discount ($500). And even though we bought the car in Idaho, we were able to show that we’re Oregon residents and avoid sales tax (as Oregon doesn’t have sales tax).

Did anything surprise you about the process (or the car itself)?

Tesla: During the process of buying it, it surprised me that, while the Tesla representatives knew a lot about Teslas, they didn’t seem to know a lot about cars in general. They also didn’t know anything about the tax credit. That said, I was happily surprised by how quickly I was able to secure a car. After I made a down payment, I was told the estimated delivery would be mid-January, but two weeks later the exact car I ordered was available. Beyond the initial trip to the dealer, everything happened on their app, which was a very different experience and had its pros and cons. For instance, Tesla actually bought back my old car and gave me a great deal on it and the whole process was done through their app. The downside of the app was that after the sale was made, I felt like I had to do a lot of work to get assistance from an actual human, which threw me off.

After I bought it, I was surprised that I have to be connected to Wifi in order to install software updates. I live in an apartment complex and can’t connect to Wifi in my car so I still haven’t figured out how to install things like a critical brake light update. You can pay Tesla to have Wifi in your car but I am trying to avoid having to pay them for everything. Speaking of which, I was really surprised that the car didn’t come with a charging cable (apparently they used to). A few days after buying my car, I pulled into the charging station in my complex and realized it did not provide a cable for charging, nor was one provided with my car. I ended up ordering one from Tesla for $250, that took a week to get to be delivered. The Tesla representatives didn’t advise me the car doesn’t come with a charging cable and their customer service leaves something to be desired.

Chevy Bolt: The difficulty in finding an available car in the first place. It really surprised me that we were able to pay a deposit and then not have the car ever become available. That said, it’s worth noting that what shocked me the most was that we were able to sell our old truck (a Honda Ridgeline with terrible gas mileage) for $5,000 more than we originally paid for it.

Would you go through the process again?

Tesla: Yes. I feel good about my purchase. I just wish it would have come with a charging cable.

Chevy Bolt: Yes. But…hopefully not for a long time.

Between the multitude of hybrid and electric vehicle incentives (in addition to the federal tax credits) and its quickly growing marketplace (a record $19.1 billion was announced in Q3 of 2022 for US EV manufacturing), EVs are sure to give traditional ICE vehicles a run for their money in 2023. While 2022 saw the unveiling of dozens of new EV options from major automakers such as Ford, General Motors, and Mercedes, it is projected that by 2025, there could be 74 different EV models offered in North America alone. From middle market SUVs and pickup trucks, to sedans and  high-end sports cars, there will be something for everyone.


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