What is really the ‘cheapest’ car to drive? (Hint: Not Prius c)

One sure-fire way to grab the mainstream Web surfer’s attention is a good-old sound-bite of a headline proclaiming a superlative and simplistic statement such as “cheapest and most expensive cars to drive.”

People love lists; they love competitions that clearly show winners and losers. And many are interested in cars, saving money, and they like easy, quick reads. So this form of infotainment highlighting the Toyota Prius c that costs “7.2 cents” per mile is sort of like handing a salty pretzel and large soda to a famished kid at a baseball game on a hot day.

And sure enough, at the moment media including NBC News Business blog, CNBC and Yahoo Finance are passing along without scrutiny the results of a gasbuddy.com survey released yesterday that states the Toyota Prius c tops the list over other hybrids leading to gas hogs that cost upwards of 35 cents per mile to drive.

The criteria for the survey were simple: It measured fuel costs per mile driven. Period. Not factored were considerations such as how expensive a particular car is to buy or maintain. Only fuel cost was used to determine rank order.

To gasbuddy’s credit, the survey is helpful, and in qualified terms does have some validity.

And without a doubt, given that we’re HybridCars.com, we’re not usually inclined to argue with a positive spotlight cast upon a hybrid car, assuming it’s accurate.

However we also like the truth and the only problem is the Prius c is not the hands-down winner. Not by a long shot.

The Tesla Model S with 85-kwh battery costs 4.6 cents per mile to drive, says the U.S. EPA.

The Tesla Model S with 85-kwh battery costs 4.6 cents per mile to drive, says the U.S. EPA.

While 7.2 cents is cheap, not even mentioned by the survey are plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars – cars that do not need much if any gas and somehow overlooked by gasbuddy.com.

Any one of these can – within qualified terms – undercut 7.2 cents per mile for average daily driving by a large margin.

Gasbuddy.com says its look at fuel costs was the result of 700 vehicles surveyed based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel economy records:

Methodology of the Fuel Cost Per Mile Index: Gas price average based on the GasBuddy average price for regular grade gasoline during the month of July 2013. The Fuel Mileage based on combined city/highway data published on FuelEconomy.gov for 2013 vehicles.

 

The fact is, a whole other class of cars that use some gasoline and/or electricity as energy or “fuel” is also rated by the same federal Web site and the image below shows how the Prius c actually stacks up.

Click image to enlarge. (Note

Click image to enlarge. (Note “Cost to drive 25 miles.”).

On top of that, an informal survey today on GM-Volt.com found that some Volt drivers report costs as low as 2-4 cents per mile. These are tech-oriented people, and George S. Bower who said his cost is 2 cents per mile is an engineer who occasionally writes tech articles for the site. Bower researched the Volt, and thoroughly contemplated it before he bought one this year.

(Full disclosure, I am the editor for GM-Volt.com as well as HybridCars.com.)

Jackson

They say the average “news” today is written for someone with the reading comprehension of an elementary school student. However, even a first-grade math student would know 2-4 cents per mile blows away 7.2 cents per mile, and other readers answered comparably with one stating he gets what amounts to 519 mpg.

Similar results could be stated for other plug-in electrified cars to one degree or another.

And granted, electricity is not free, so that also needs to be factored, but cost-per-mile on kilowatts is a lot cheaper than gas, even if paying higher than average electric rates.

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At the average U.S. cost per kilowatt-hour, cost per mile for cars like the Volt, Nissan Leaf, and even the most-powerful Tesla Model S which out drag raced a 560-horsepower BMW M5 to 100 mph is much less.

This is why the U.S. EPA has come up with the formula for Miles Per Gallon Equivalent (MPGe). This info is on the same site from which the survey culled its statistics.

There are a few qualifiers to mention with the advantages held by plug-in cars, however.

Once a Volt runs out of electricity – after about 30-50 miles on average, the government says 38 miles – it gets 37 mpg. Here the Prius c does beat the Volt after a certain point, but one needs to average in the extremely low cost of the first electric miles.

Other electrified cars similarly handicapped could be the all-electric Leaf, which on a full charge only goes 84 miles before running out of electricity according to the government, whereas the range of a Prius c is 428 miles, and it can be refilled in minutes at any gas pump.

If you are traveling across country, the Prius c beats an EV every time in terms of convenience and practicality. No question there.

Granted the Volt uses premium gas, but drivers say it does not often need much.

Granted the Volt uses premium gas, but drivers say it does not often need much.

So the Prius c does hold some advantages, which is why we give credit where credit is due up top saying the gasbuddy.com survey holds some validity.

Unfortunately, we also happen to believe the old adage that “you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Passing on inaccurate and unequivocal statements like Prius c beats all is part of the problem as to why electric cars are taking so long to catch on.

Granted there are other reasons why they’ve been a tough sell, but it would help to at least mention their existence when aggregating results of inexpensive to operate cars from 700 vehicles documented by the U.S. EPA.

Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are “cars” too, and it’s been shown the average U.S. daily trip can be handled by the admittedly limited range of the electrified alternatives.

True also, plug-in electrified cars do tend to cost significantly more than gas and regular hybrid counterparts. However they are also subsidized on the federal level, and in cases state and even local level, and manufacturer or dealer discounts also help make them more affordable.

The Nissan Leaf according to the EPA costs  3.9 cents per mile to drive.

The Nissan Leaf according to the EPA costs 3.9 cents per mile to drive.

Bottom line: The cost-benefit equation has been known to pencil out in their favor, especially for the more modestly priced ones under $40,000 MSRP.

At HybridCars.com, we love the Prius “family” and of course can appreciate the value the Prius c and other hybrids bring. For some people they are the best choice.

But please don’t believe they are the cheapest to operate based on their fuel economy. It’s not that simple any more.

For daily driving under 90 miles per day, more or less, that title has long since been taken by the new breed of electrified cars.

If you want a no-brainer headline, try this: The Cheapest Car To Operate For Average Daily Driving Is Not A Hybrid, It’s Electric.