Let’s talk about that other green car. Sure, everyone wants to save the planet, but a lot of drivers need to put saving their wallet first, with “going green” as a nice bonus. Hybrids and EVs promise to save a lot in both departments, but do they actually save people money? Time to bust out your old Ti-84 calculator, because we’re doing the math to show you how to maximize your vehicle savings.
While you already know that slightly used cars are a better deal than new, vehicles depreciate at wildly different rates, so new vehicle prices give us a look at the lifetime cost of ownership. Feel free to skip this section if you’re wisely buying used.
Straight from the manufacturer’s website, a 2018 Nissan Leaf S has an MSRP of $29,990, after a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. If you’re considering a conventional gasoline powered car around the same size, a new 2018 Nissan Sentra starts at $16,990. Even though the Leaf looks more like the subcompact Versa Note, due to internal cabin dimensions, the EV is rather spacious and compares directly with the larger Sentra. On the hybrid side, we’ll compare the best-selling hybrid in the world, a 2018 Toyota Prius One at $23,475, to the best-selling mid-size car, the 2018 Toyota Camry L for a nearly identical $23,495.
So what have we learned about new purchase prices? EVs are still expensive to buy new even after tax credits, but hybrids and gas cars of similar size are exact competitors. Ford proves this with the beautiful Lincoln MKZ, offering a hybrid option for the exact same price as gas. Green winner here: gas or hybrid.
Going into this one, you probably already know fuel costs are where gas engines won’t win. EVs have zero gasoline costs, but that doesn’t mean they are free to drive. Rather than paying at the gas pump, you’ll notice an increased electricity bill. But let’s take a closer look at the actual numbers.
According to AAA, as of this writing, the national average for a gallon of gas is $2.56. A Sentra maxes out on the highway at an EPA estimated 37 mpg, while the bigger Camry has a sleeker profile and can manage 41 mpg. The base Prius dusts them both, earning 50 mpg highway (and 54 in the city). Now, the average American drives 13,476 miles annually according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Crunching those numbers, the Sentra racks up a $932 annual gas bill, the Camry driver pays $841, and the Prius owner just $690 per year. Since we’re using best-case gas mileage, these gas costs are lower than those found on the EPA’s annual fuel cost estimator, but they give us a good measurement for comparison to an efficient EV. With U.S. electricity averaging 12 cents per kWh, Edmunds recently calculated the Leaf to cost $3.48 per 100 miles traveled. Scaling up to average American driver miles, you would pay just $469 per year in “fuel” costs.
This one isn’t even close, with the EV’s annual fuel costs averaging 45% cheaper than even the thrifty Prius. A study by Argonne National Laboratory showed that the average EV owner drives 30% less miles per year than the average to a gas vehicle, making for even more savings. The clear green winner in fuel costs: electric vehicles.
With the last two categories tied, maintenance costs might prove a decisive winner. Maintenance and repairs can’t be ignored, and are a part of the cost of owning any vehicle. EVs are comparatively new to the market, but also simpler in many ways. Does this mean increased or reduced maintenance and repair costs? Let’s have a look.
You would think EVs score an easy win in the service department, by not having oil changes, fuel injectors, cam sensors, and any other internal combustion part that can go wrong or wear out. However, EVs still need service on stuff like cabin air filters and brake pads, but for the most part, the electric motor is maintenance free for the life of the vehicle. AAA put the maintenance figure for EVs at $982 per year, which covers everything from tire rotation to collision repairs. Online financial blog NerdWallet states maintenance, repairs, and tires on a conventional gas powered car averages $99 a month, which is slightly higher than the EV at $1,188 per year.
The experts say EVs beat gas engines by about $200 a year in maintenance, but just to be sure, we called around. According to our local dealership parts department, front brake pads for a Nissan Leaf run $36.50, while the same dealer wants $29.64 for Sentra pads. While our example shows maintenance parts for EVs might be slightly higher, it seems the EV’s savings comes from never having to change the oil, air filter, or spark plugs and other internal combustion service parts.
And the winner is….
Fortune found that buying a new Leaf over a cheaper gas car takes about 50,000 miles to earn the purchase price difference back and start saving money. This means a lightly used (and depreciated) Leaf is a financial winner, as are most EVs. On the other end of the EV price spectrum, the Tesla Model S is expensive but is probably cross-shopped with a BMW 6 Series, giving the Tesla an almost instant money saving cred versus the thirsty Bavarian luxury sedan. If you drive a new EV for 100,000 miles, or buy used, the EV is the clear money saver. Gas versus hybrid delivers an even clearer winner, with the new or used Prius immediately taking the lead on saving green over the similarly priced Camry.