Can a $33,000 Electric Car Be Cheaper To Own Than A $20,000 Honda Civic?

When asked whether electric cars stickering in the 30s are more expensive to own than a conventional $20,500 gasoline vehicle, people whose kneejerk response would be “yes” may be in for a surprise.

According to a peer-reviewed analysis by Drive Electric Car New England, the cost difference between a $20,500 Honda Civic versus a $30,680 all-electric Nissan Leaf and $33,220 extended-range electric Chevy Volt may see the plug-ins coming out ahead.

The plug-in advocacy headed by Mark Renburke, who drives a 2012 Volt, analyzed the three cars because they are best-selling examples of internal combustion engine (ICE), battery electric vehicle (BEV) and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) type vehicles.

Green bars in chart represent lowest cost, Yellow are runner-up, and Orange are third place.

Green bars in chart represent lowest cost, yellow are the runner-up, and orange are for third place. Chart baseline starts at $27,000.

As one who practices what he advocates, Renburke has worked this decade educating the public about the ins and outs of plug-in electrified vehicles (PEVs) and finds people are often still getting up to speed on whether plug-in cars make sense.

Two case examples are actually made. One is assuming five years of ownership with 15,000 miles per year, and the other assumes 160,000 miles which at 15,000 miles per year equals 10.67 years ownership. The average as of 2014 for how long people hold onto cars was 11.4 years, and the DECNE’s Total Net Consumer Cost (TNCC) study is a bit different from other cost to own analyses.

Renburke shared the DECNE analysis with the MA ZEV outreach committee, Union of Concerned Scientists staff, and a contact at Argonne National Lab. To date he has had no negative feedback.

Renburke shared the DECNE analysis with the MA ZEV outreach committee, Union of Concerned Scientists staff, and a contact at Argonne National Lab. To date he has had no negative feedback. Chart baseline starts at $34,000.

Since the analysis is based on national-level assumptions – gas at $2.26/gallon; electricity at 12.9 cents/kWh – and base vehicle price, DECNE does qualify individuals will need to fine tune the numbers to determine how potential choices stack up.

The good news is today’s generation plug-ins not only emit less or nothing at the tailpipe – and electrical powerplant emissions are better than a Civic according to the U.S. EPA – they also can be cost effective, and even more enjoyable to drive.

“The three cars offer comparable performance, though it is worth noting that the PEVs both have more torque (LEAF@187 pounds feet and Volt@294 pounds-feet versus Civic@162) as well as lower center of gravity, resulting in better driving dynamics than the Civic,” says the analysis. “All three vehicles seat up to 5 and have ample of cargo space for groceries or luggage, the LEAF also has more headroom and so is sometimes classified as midsize.”

Other Assumptions

The analysis’ intent was for to be as apple-for-apple as possible. A 32-mpg Civic LX Hatchback with CVT transmission was chosen as a similar vehicle type to the four-door hatchback Leaf and Volt.

2017 Honda Civic.

2017 Honda Civic.

Both the Leaf and the Volt qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit for people whose taxable incomes are roughly between $46,000 and $56,000 and up and this was factored in.

States also offer incentives as high as several thousand dollars which were not factored, but which would put both plug-ins over the top in these cost analyses. To show the effect of this consumer cost reduction, DECNE also produced a regional (MA, RI, & CT) version of the analysis that factors in a $2,500 rebate, as well as the average 3 cents more per kWh for electricity and 2-percent higher gasoline prices that Southern New Englanders pay.

SEE ALSO: 7 States With the Best Green Car Incentives

Maintenance and repair estimations were taken from Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) calculations by, “an award-winning American online resource for automotive information,” notes DECNE.

Another assumption in the analysis was to exclude depreciation because, says DECNE, “we want to show the cost to drive and not any assumption of future trade in values.”

“This is especially relevant for the life time analysis, as all three vehicles will likely have relatively little value after 11+ years,” says the study.

2016/2017 Volt.

2016/2017 Volt.

The Leaf has however had a low trade-in value, and a large percentage of people actually lease EVs for this reason, though a fair number have also bought them out at low cost at the end of the term.

The DECNE also excluded taxes, fees, financing, and insurance from this analysis.

“This is because these costs vary greatly, in some cases with locale, 0-percent financing deals, and vehicle safety features that reduce insurance rates, it is difficult to make assumptions that the ICE or PEV model cost will be more or less in these areas,” says the analysis. “It is recommended that the consumer investigate and compare these costs on a case-by-case basis prior to purchase or lease.”

As for the notion of a 160,000 mile “lifetime,” this was based on federal GREET2 EV battery life assumptions. It is assumed neither plug-in will need a new battery in this time, and while data is limited, this may be a reasonable expectation “since EV batteries are warranted for 8 to 10 years/100k-150k miles, and already proving such real world longevity,” said Renburke.

2016/2017 Leaf.

2016/2017 Leaf. “Over 69 percent of Americans drive less than 60 miles per weekday, well within the LEAF’s all season range, and 65 percent of U.S. households already have more than one vehicle so there would be no need to procure alternate transportation. (Source: UCS, 2015). Our assumption is that consumers would choose a BEV that meets their typical daily needs and/or use an existing second ICE or PHEV vehicle for any trips longer than the vehicle’s single charge range, if they were unable to plan for and/or reserve a public or private charging spot away from home.”

Otherwise, anecdotal evidence suggests between the Leaf with no active cooling for its 30 kWh battery and the Volt with liquid cooling for its 18.4-kWh battery, the Volt will experience less range loss over the life of the battery.

"None of the ~10 real world 3-5+ year old examples at ~160k miles or higher have reported any range loss," notes Renburke speaking of the Volt. (He is number four in the all-time leaders for EV only miles on

“None of the ~10 real world 3-5+ year old examples at ~160k miles or higher have reported any range loss,” notes Renburke speaking of the Volt. (He is number four in the all-time leaders for EV only miles on

Also notable is the 107-mile-range Leaf is near the end of its life cycle, while the Volt is a new second-generation vehicle introduced in 2016. A 2018 Leaf with longer range is due to be revealed this year, and other alternatives including the $6,400-more 2017 Chevy Bolt with 238 miles range may also be a better choice.

From the Trenches

One motivation for the DECNE analysis was to be a consciousness raising exercise – especially for those who automatically assume plug-ins don’t have cost parity with conventional alternatives.

Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Buy An Electric Car Now

If you survey available info out there, you may discover others suggesting the opposite is true. DECNE says its mission is to attempt to provide unbiased information to let consumers make informed decisions. Its analysis thus stands to counter misinformation from other “studies” that continue to be put together attacking the plug-in proposition.

Is America now free of big interests skewing results for unwary consumers?

Are electric cars to oil companies, as anti-smoking information and legislation was to Big Tobacco?

This said, a car purchase is a qualified decision, and there may be situations where plug-ins are not the best choice for some individuals, but they are getting better and meanwhile all plug-in advocates have had to fight confusion on many points.

Are Consumers Being Manipulated By Anti-Electric Car Propaganda?

Focusing just on a theoretical cost question, the DECNE’s takeaway message is simple: With federal and potential state incentives, and even at a time of inexpensive gas, plug-in cars may bridge a sticker price gap of $11-14,000 over a popular conventional car.

SEE ALSO: What Makes More Sense – 2016 Prius or 2016 Volt?

If you want another form of total cost analysis, Edmunds TCO calculator is useful as it factors depreciation. This is especially important for people wishing to trade in vehicles in shorter intervals, though its database does not have estimates yet for the 2016 Volt, which was substantially improved over the 2011-2015 generation.

The Leaf example especially is noteworthy, as it is due to get a big range increase soon for the same price. That it can come out ahead even as a first-generation car speaks well for it, and meanwhile choices are increasing.

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