An electric car for (almost) any budget

Stephanie Vozza

When Pioneer introduced the first plasma screen 15 years ago, the 50-inch TV went for $15,000. Today, a similar TV costs less than 10 percent of the original amount.

While there’s a long way to go, electric cars are following a similar path. The National Automobile Dealers Association reports that the average price of a new car sold in the U.S. is about $30,000. Many of the electric cars shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit were in line with what the average consumer is willing to spend, after you factor in tax credits you get for buying one. The federal government offers up to $7,500 off your tax bill for the purchase of a qualifying electric vehicle; some states, such as California, add to the savings with additional tax credits of as much as $2,500.

If you’ve been thinking about an electric car, it might be time to start kicking the tires: Tax incentives will begin to phase out once 200,000 electric cars are on the road.

Here’s a look at five electric cars at five price points.

2013 Nissan Leaf S - $

Nissan announced during the Detroit auto show that it was knocking 18 percent off the price of the Leaf S, giving the car a new suggested retail price of $28,800. Add in available tax incentives, and residents of some states might drive one off the lot for less than $19,000.

“Now, customers won’t have to pay a premium for owning a green car that’s really fun to drive, and that’s exciting,” says Billy Hayes, global vice president of Leaf sales at Nissan.

Nissan also gave the Leaf a performance overhaul for 2013, reducing its charge time from eight to four hours and increasing its miles-per-charge from 99 to 115.

2014 Chevy Spark EV - $$

The Chevy Spark EV, which will be released in the summer of 2013, is one of the most affordable U.S.-produced electric cars. Folks at Chevrolet say prices for the Spark EV should start around $25,000 after federal tax incentives. A gas-powered version of the same car starts at less than $13,000.

The subcompact (smaller than compact) Spark is expected to get about 80 miles to a full charge, and an optional fast-charging system will get your battery to 80 percent in 20 minutes. The Spark is a good electric option to consider if your daily round-trip commute fits within this mileage.

2013 Ford Focus Electric - $$$

With about 110 miles to a charge, the Ford Focus Electric offers a little more peace of mind when you’re running errands all day. The car also has received National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highest safety rating. Previously available at just 67 dealerships in select locations, Ford has announced that 900 dealers soon will be able to sell the Focus Electric.

The starting price for the 2013 Ford Focus Electric is $39,200 before tax incentives. More expensive than the Spark and the Leaf S, it comes with more standard features, such as HD radio and the MyFord Touch infotainment system. Factor in the tax credits, and the price comes down to the low $30,000s.

2014 Cadillac ELR - $$$$

While this car is a hybrid, the Cadillac ELR two-door compact coupe was the most-talked-about electric car at the Detroit auto show, where it made its worldwide debut. Using technology from its cousin, the Chevy Volt, Cadillac is the first luxury brand to incorporate an electric drive system. The Cadillac’s battery will carry you about 35 miles – considerably less than the other electric cars. But depending on your commute, you might not need to dip into the gas tank.

The Cadillac ELR will be available during the first quarter of 2014. The car is expected to start around $60,000.

Tesla Model X - $$$$$

Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, says his company’s goal is simple: “Rid the world of its addiction to fossil fuel.” At a price capped at about $100,000, the company’s Model X might rid you of your savings, too, but you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

First, there’s style; the Model X prototype caused a stir at the auto show, with its “falcon wing” doors for rear passengers, opening upwards (think DeLorean cars). Then there’s interior space; the Model X is a crossover SUV and seats seven. It has performance; the Model X accelerates from 0 to 60 miles per hour in under five seconds, making it faster than the Porsche 911 Carrera.

And it has range; its super powerful dual-battery engine will take you about 160 miles on a charge.

The Tesla Model X is scheduled to start production in 2014. The company is taking reservations; you can hold your spot in line for $5,000.

Should you take the plunge?

As with many new products, early models tend to have the most “bugs.” Electric cars are relatively new and track records haven’t yet been established. Tesla’s S Model recently made headlines when a New York Times reporter had to be towed because of a battery problem. The Nissan Leaf also got bad reviews when extreme temperatures in the Southwest during the summer of 2012 affected the cars’ recharging capacity. So, kick the tires, consider the incentives and decide whether you’re ready to charge ahead into (somewhat) uncharted territory.

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