What Do I Drive is a series where the editors and writers of InsideEVs share with readers the cars we personally drive. These are the cars we bought with our own money and drive in our daily lives. As such, we’ve got a lot to say about them.
If we want to curb climate change, electric cars need to be the future. Heck, for millions of people, they’re the present. But not for me. That may be surprising to hear from someone who’s a full-blown nerd for EVs. I mean, the name of the publication I work for says it all.
Sure enough, people often ask me what I drive and can’t compute that I just bought an old-fashioned, gas-drinking 2010 Subaru Forester. As much as I’d love to own an electric or plug-in hybrid car (PHEV), I’m not immune to the two major hurdles that deter tons of other eager EV converts: a lack of affordable options and insufficient charging infrastructure near me.
It sucks. Because I love the idea of relying less on fossil fuels, and who doesn’t enjoy the quiet, smooth driving experience you get in an EV? Plus, I’m a huge sucker for the quirky Chevrolet Volt.
Used EVs Just Aren’t There Yet
When I started shopping for a used car after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area from New York City, I was on the hunt for something relatively modern, reliable and inexpensive. Solid fuel economy would be a bonus, given California’s high gas prices. But I wasn’t willing to shell out thousands extra for exceptional efficiency since I actually don’t drive much at all. I don’t have a commute and all of my daily wants are within walking or biking distance.
I knew ahead of time that my budget—basically “as cheap as possible”—would knock practically all worthwhile EVs out of contention. The thing is since electric cars haven’t really been a thing all that long, the secondhand market for them is woefully immature. My Craigslist searches, capped at $10,000, would return some old Nissan Leafs with pitiful, double-digit ranges.
As a second car, that might serve a lot of households extremely well. But as a primary vehicle that I intended to take on weekend trips or longer journeys every now and then, it just didn’t make sense.
Modern, long-range EVs are fresh enough, and were pricey enough when new, that you can’t get one used on the cheap yet. That’s changing as some older Model 3s start to drop into the sub-$20,000 category. But that’s still out of my budget. The Chevy Bolt is a bright spot in both the new and used markets. Its cheap price of around $20,000 (including a federal tax credit, if you’re eligible) means you can scoop one up secondhand for $15,000 or less. Add on the $4,000 federal tax credit for used electric purchases and a Bolt becomes quite the steal.
That’s if you have a place to conveniently charge, which I do not.
PHEV To The Rescue?
I’d planned for months for my next car to be a plug-in hybrid. These largely underappreciated vehicles offer the fuel-saving benefits of an EV alongside the convenience of a gasoline vehicle. Moreover, you can apply the aforementioned $4,000 credit to used purchases under $25,000, making them potentially easier on the bank account than a conventional hybrid like a Toyota Prius.
In particular, I found myself enamored with the Chevy Volt, our great nation’s first PHEV. If you charge up its battery fully, the 2011-2015 model can travel an EPA-estimated 36 miles on electricity alone. Afterward, a gas engine kicks in to energize the battery, giving you hundreds of miles of easy, breezy hybrid driving. The second-generation model, sold until 2019, can do 53 miles on electrons alone.
I found I could pick up a low-mileage first-generation Volt for $8,000 or $9,000, federal tax credit included. The one thing I couldn’t nail down for the life of me was where I would charge it.
I came up with a few ideas. I could’ve snaked an extension cord out my bedroom window, back to my building’s parking area and topped up that way. But a spot costs $100 per month, negating any of the cost savings of avoiding gas stations. That’s a lot to pay to create fewer CO2 emissions. Back-of-the-napkin math suggests I’d be able to buy some 25 gallons of gas with that outlay, which is more than I’d probably use in a month anyway.
Since I live on the ground floor facing the street, I thought about charging curbside by running a cord over the sidewalk. But the spot directly in front of my building is in a “No Parking Any Time” zone. I might have taken the chance, but the Volt takes 12 hours to charge off of a household outlet. That felt like pushing my luck.
Despite being located in just about the most progressive part of the country when it comes to EVs, Berkeley doesn’t have great public charging infrastructure, at least as far as PHEVs are concerned.
There’s a decent selection of so-called Level 3 fast chargers around, but PHEVs use slower, Level 1 or 2 chargers, which have a different plug design. There aren’t any Level 2 chargers within close vicinity where I could just leave the Volt for a few hours. There are some in paid parking garages and some that charge by the hour, but they’re far away and too expensive to justify. And I wasn’t eager to pay extra for the inconvenience of charging. It’s no wonder why the majority of EV buyers thus far are able to charge at home.
Did I Make The Right Decision?
Hopes dashed, I set out looking for non-plug-in cars. I would have welcomed a regular hybrid, but I found that by and large, they came with higher price tags and more mileage than I was comfortable with. Used car values are still awfully high thanks to weird pandemic-adjacent market conditions, and with California’s expensive gasoline, a decent used Prius that hasn’t been beaten to hell is awfully hard to find. Believe me, I tried.
I paid $7,000 for my Subaru, figuring that the size might be nice for camping out of and that the all-wheel drive could come in handy on the occasional snowy ski trip. I’m not sure I made the best decision, which pains me to say. In the end, I did what a lot of Americans do: Somewhat impulsively bought a vehicle that’s bigger than I’ll likely need and worse for the environment than it absolutely needs to be.
I probably could’ve spent more time scouring for a deal on a hybrid or simply a more efficient gas vehicle. It’s true that I don’t drive much. But I’ve been, shamefully, driving a bit more than I expected. And short, low-speed drives around hilly Berkeley are devastating my fuel economy, wallet and conscience more than I anticipated. I’ve been getting a solid 26 mpg on the highway, but around town, it’s often more like 15-17, which doesn’t feel awesome.
I’m going to see how I feel in a few months and might consider swapping the Subie for something cleaner. Something more befitting of an InsideEVs writer, like a Volt, Prius or Honda Insight.
I’ll leave you with this: Should I just buy a Volt and hope I get easier access to charging sometime soon? Driving one on gas alone should still get me 30-40 mpg, but it requires premium gas, and the whole idea feels a little silly to me. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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