Should You Buy An Electric Car?

The way some people look at electric cars is not unlike how a shy young teenager contemplates a mildly attractive person of the opposite sex.

She’s interesting, but what if something goes wrong, and what else might he find if he waits? That plus lack of sufficient knowledge and inexperience keeps the two apart.

And whether that loose analogy works for you or not, it’s a fact that many consumers are on the fence about electric cars with sales totaling 0.33 percent of the U.S. market.

Despite this, some meaningful relationships have blossomed, and people say they are happy they made the choice.


Studies – and our own empirical observations – have shown consumers are standoffish – some for ostensibly valid reasons, and some remain blithely unaware in various ways.

Just yesterday in conversation with someone not quite up to speed, a person suggested automakers are missing an opportunity. How? Electric cars can generate their own electrical power once rolling, he said, so manufacturers should make them fully recharge as they go.

“You mean like a perpetual motion machine,” I casually inquired.

“Yes,” said the armchair engineer in all seriousness.

But naiveté and incomprehension – or caution – are not the sole province of the uninitiated. Most automakers have cold feet too which probably instills less confidence in would-be intenders.


Only Nissan, Tesla and Mitsubishi are bold enough to offer their electric cars in all 50 states. Other manufacturers are testing the waters with “compliance cars” in a few states to satisfy regulators, but what does this mean for you?

Should you take a chance on a car that even manufacturers are tepid about?

Actually, there are numerous reasons to do just that, so let’s cut to the chase. These include:

• EVs can cost less to operate (a LOT less)
• Potential federal and state subsidies equal less taxes to pay
• Leasing is an option that can mitigate ownership risk
• They pollute less, even when factoring coal as the electricity source
• They’re quiet and convenient to “fuel” from home
• They’re high-tech, novel, and fairly fun to drive
• Learning to work with sub-100 mile range is a challenge you can learn
• They’ve been on the market for several years now, and catching on

In brief, following are factors you’ll want to know:

• Cost of the car less potential subsidies
• Electrical savings versus gas expenses
• Financing, taxes and fees
• Estimated resale value (assuming you don’t lease)
• Anticipated maintenance and repairs

Prime example

America’s top-selling EV is the Nissan Leaf. It was launched in December 2010 and is also number-one globally, approaching 90,000 units sold three years later.

Now manufactured in the U.S. for this market, it sells better than many internal combustion cars.


Logic that applies toward the Leaf applies to other EVs, and you see, the Leaf’s cost of operation clearly beats a 50 mpg Toyota Prius.

It’s also a simpler machine with a single power source, not two merged together. Deleted items from the maintenance/repair checklist include:

• Air Filter
• Oil Changes
• Exhaust system
• Gas engine
• Multi-speed transmission
• Radiator (in the Leaf’s case)

Brakes also last longer time due to regenerative braking but the real kicker is with electrical energy versus gasoline costs.

Energy Costs

To calculate your actual electricity costs, you’d divide miles driven by MPGe (129 city, 102 hwy, 115 combined) and multiply by 33.7 (33.7 kwh=energy in one gallon of gas).

The U.S. EPA figures electricity at 12 cents per kilowatt – costs actually vary by region – and calculates comparisons (as pictured) based on 15,000 mile per year.

The government compares EVs to a hypothetical 25 mph car but here we’ll compare to a 50 mpg Prius.

First, you’d divide 50 miles driven by the Leaf’s combined 115 MPGe and multiply by 33.7. This equals your actual kwh consumed – in this case, 14.7 kwh.

Next, multiply 14.7 by your actual price per kilowatt (12 cents in this example). This equals $1.76 to drive the Leaf 50 miles compared to an estimated $3.50 for one gallon of gas for the Prius (about half the fuel cost).

Potential drawbacks to the Leaf? Batteries do slowly lose range over the years, and being otherwise a standard automobile, it does have electrical and other components that must go the distance.

Also, official range is 84 miles on a full charge (75 miles at 90-percent charged and slower driving can exceed 84), and recharge times can be four hours for a fully drained battery.

Typically recharge times are less because you’d likely have some battery charge remaining.

Some EVs compared to Prius. Click to expand.

Some EVs compared to Prius. Click to expand.

The way EV ownership tends to work is a driver learns to deal with available range and adjusts. Local charging – including DC quick charging – helps mitigate range shorter than a conventional car.

A Leaf S starts at $29,650 (incl. destination) and is eligible for $7,500 federal and possibly state subsidies bringing it to under $22,500. A Prius starts at $25,010 and is not eligible for subsidies. Taxes and tags would be added to both these MSRPs.

Driving a Leaf – or other EV – means never having to stop at a gas station, but does mean installing a $400-$1,000 charger in your home – assuming you have a place to install it.

If you have solar energy, get electricity cheaper, or have permission to plug in for free, an EV starts to look even more compelling.

Other Considerations

Even the dirtiest coal plant yields less emissions for electricity drawn than a comparable internal combustion car – and the grid is getting cleaner year by year.

An EV is also a neat car to drive. Unless we’re talking the swift and sleek Tesla Model S, EVs now available do not out accelerate today’s quicker petrol burners, but they’re quiet, simple, and normal.

They all have sufficient creature comforts, and their makers strive to match standard automotive safety and operational standards. In the Leaf’s case, it does better in a crash test than many comparably sized conventional cars.

Culture Clash

Americans are all over the map in what they think or know about EVs and you can find polar opposite views right up to EVs are the scourge of society, favored politically, dead-on-arrival, etc.

Sidestepping polarized America, proof that EVs can work now is seen in a country far less divided on the question.

In tiny Norway, 12 percent of cars sold in November 2013 were electric and the calendar-year 2013 estimate is around 5-percent. Taxation and incentives in Norway make EVs a clearer choice, but the point is this is a society showing EVs are catching on despite perceived drawbacks.

Click images to expand.

Click images to expand.

Complaints about range and recharge times are not stopping a move toward far-greater adoption than in the U.S.

The Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association (NEVA) reports EV sales are growing faster in rural regions and this goes against any supposition that EVs are primarily suited for urban clusters.

As for cost of ownership, we’ve shown that an EV can cut fuel bills in half compared to a Prius.

What’s more, according to’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) calculator, a $24,263 Prius II costs $37,623 after five years factoring depreciation and all other costs including estimated maintenance and repairs. In contrast, the Leaf S sells for $29,920 and 5-year TCO is $27,164.


Compared to more run-of-the-mill contenders, the disparity is really stark.

Consider a $12,743 Nissan Versa hatchback. The calculator pegs its 5-year TCO at $33,569 – a cost of $20,800 over sales price! Talk about a case of “pay me now or pay me later.”

That means the “cheap” eco car costs $6,400 more to own than the Leaf – and the “800-pound gorilla” of hybrids, the Prius, costs $7,700 more.



Present U.S. market EVs are:

• Nissan Leaf
• Tesla Model S
• Ford Focus Electric
• Chevy Spark EV
• Toyota RAV4 EV
• Fiat 500e
• Honda Fit EV
• Mitsubishi i-MiEV


The Leaf and Model S presently sell around 2,000 units per month. The others are limited market except for the oldest, the i-MiEV. This latter one just had its price clipped in a big way and can be had for $15,495 after a $7,500 federal tax credit.

The Honda is lease only, limited market, and its $259 lease (including level 2 charger) is favorable compared to the mid-grade Leaf SV’s special lease price, and worth considering for those who can take advantage.

Actually, all of the cars can make arguable value propositions. The Model S sells well because it is a no-excuses luxury performance car that compares favorably against the finest conventional cars, and has negligible range anxiety with its large 60-kwh or 85-kwh battery.

Our Advice

Dig past what you may find on a quick Web search – past obfuscation on one side or over-billing on the other.

Decide whether you can adapt to an EV’s unique pros and cons.


Leasing may be an option to overcome uncertainties about battery longevity or new models that may come along that might reduce your resale value.

Bottom line: A strong case exists for many more EVs to be selling now.

Their range is sufficient for most needs and they especially make sense as a second car for daily commuting. Some owners use them as their only car and may rent a car for longer trips.

In either scenario, those who’ve gone ahead more often report savings and ease of operations for the majority of their driving.