Fuel Factor: Are electric cars worth it?

May 4, 2011 8:45:26 AM PDT
With the price of gas getting dangerously close to $5 a gallon, most of us are looking for ways to drive more efficiently.

But will new electric cars really save money over a hybrid or gas engine car?

Charging stations instead of gas stations: Plug it in, not fill-er up, and range, instead of miles-per-gallon. It's a whole different mindset with electric cars. The Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf are the two getting the most attention right now, and even they have their own differences.

"The Volt has an advantage in one regard, and that's after the initial charge is gone, 25 to 50 miles depending on lots of conditions, there is a gas engine and a generator back up; once that turns on you get another 300 miles," said Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor, Cars.com. "Now, the Leaf has roughly 70-100 miles of range, and it's strictly electric. If the electricity runs out, you're stuck."

Cars.com has been test-driving both vehicles for performance and efficiency as well as the ownership experience. How difficult is it to find a charging station?. Can you plug it in at home? One hundred ten or 240 volts? Both. How long does it take to charge?

Cars.com set up a test drive -- four different cars with four different drivers. Mike, in a 2012 Ford Focus, gas engine, Ian in a 2011 Toyota Prius hybrid, Kelsey in the 2011 Nissan Leaf and ABC7's Roz Varon started in the 2011 Chevy Volt. The route: a round trip from the Chicago Loop to Naperville.

At about the halfway point, the drivers exited the expressway, compiled trip data, and switched cars, the standard test-drive procedure to make sure the driving styles are balanced. For this leg of the trip, Roz drove the Leaf. The interior is roomier than the Volt, but a little noisier. Roz did like the fact that it has "a little kick."

When they reached their destination at the BNSF station in Naperville, they switched cars once again, and Roz took the wheel of the Prius, an electric/gas hybrid that she said felt more like a traditional car when you're driving it. One of the main differences is the placement of dashboard information.

"The gear shift takes a little getting used to as well," Roz said.

Nineteen miles later, they traded cars for the last leg of the test drive, and Roz took over the Ford Focus, a traditional gas-engine vehicle.

As they made their way back downtown, they got stuck in some heavy congestion, not good for the Focus, but no problem for the electric cars. The data from the 65-mile test drive had some interesting results:

The Nissan Leaf was the most cost efficient to drive. At $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, the total cost was $2.40. The Chevy Volt used $1.46 worth of electricity, and $3.33 worth of gas for a total cost of $4.79. The Prius, which uses electricity and gasoline together, consumed $5.02 worth of gas. And the Focus used 2.1 gallons of gas for the trip at a cost of $8.72

While it may seem like the electric cars are cheaper to run, that changes when you look at the cost of the vehicle.

The most affordable version of the Nissan Leaf is $33,630; the Volt is $41,000; the Prius is $23,810; and the Focus was $18,090.

Keep in mind, the Leaf and the Volt are not available yet in the Chicago area, and as demand increases, that could drive up the price even more. Another concern with this technology is the long-term worth of the car.

"Will it be like a regular car, or an iPhone, where the new one's out and you don't want the old one anymore?" Wiesenfelder said.

One way around that is to lease an electric vehicle. See if it's the right fit for you without a long-term obligation.

The reason testers chose the route to the Metra station in Naperville was so they could compare the price of commuting to the four vehicles. Surprisingly, a $5 one-way ticket makes the train the most expensive trip at $10, but a monthly pass comes out to $4.28, making it cheaper than all the cars except the Leaf.