Everyone thinks they’ll save money buying eco-friendly cars, primarily electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids, but what are the areas that could add up? To gain some insight into this important topic, we spoke with John Voelcker, editor of Green Car Reports and an expert in the field.
John Voelcker: It depends on the vehicle’s life cycle. If you’re one of the Americans who buy a new car and own it for eight years or less, the powertrains of these cars are warranted for performance. If something goes wrong with them, which is to say they stop working properly, the manufacturer is obliged to replace them. The issues often come up in used cars. There has been for a long time concern for how long the battery packs on hybrid cars last, for instance. Toyota says that replacing battery packs is one of its less-frequent replacement parts, absent those packs that get damaged in accidents. Somebody rear ends you, you might have to replace the battery, but that’s not the battery failing.
And there’s less worry now than there was 10 years ago about the durability of hybrid batteries because there have been any number of hybrids and hybrids used in taxi service all over North America and globally that have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles and have functioned just fine. The carmakers are fairly conservative in how they protect the battery in terms of the control electronics. The average buyer ought to get 150,000 to 200,000 miles out of the hybrid battery pack. If you buy a 15-year old hybrid car with 200,000 miles on it, you may well be looking at the replacement of the battery pack. That’s a four-figure expense. It’s sort of equivalent to having to replace an engine. But those are by and large the exceptions rather than the rules.
JV: There’s a similar question with electric cars and there’s a lot less data out there because the first affordable electric car was only sold in December 2010. Early data indicates that electric car battery packs will lose some of their capacity – like any other battery – and I think this is most a concern for the, only because it’s the highest volume electric car in the world. Nissan… will sell you a replacement battery pack for a Nissan LEAF for around $5,000, which is relatively low and probably less than what the pack cost them. Thus far, virtually no one has needed to replace their battery pack. We’ll see what happens when we start to get electric cars with well over 100,000 miles on them.
iSeeCars.com: What happens in cold weather?
JV: The other issue with hybrids that people don’t necessarily think about is that all cars with large batteries, hybrids or electrics, lose some range in very cold weather. On a hybrid car you lose a little bit of the ability to supplement the engine. Your gas mileage may go down a bit – 1 to 3 miles per gallon or maybe 10 percent in my personal experience. In an electric car, the current ones with a range of 80 plus or minus, if you use the cabin heater to turn on the heat that significantly impacts range. I don’t know if that’s a cost, necessarily, because electricity is incredibly cheap, it’s much, much cheaper per mile than gasoline, but it is an issue to be aware of in this first generation of electric cars with ranges below 100 miles.
On the flipside, though, battery electric cars like the Nissan LEAF have virtually no maintenance. The only things that you need to replace on the LEAF are the tires, wiper blades and a little air filter that lets air into the cabin. That’s it. There are no plugs, points, timing belts to adjust – all the things gasoline-engine cars have, no transmission fluid, engine oil – all gone. The running maintenance costs of battery electric cars are actually significantly lower than for gasoline or diesel cars.
JV: By and large, Toyota hybrids are very solid. Honda has had a number of recalls on some of its hybrids, so if you’re looking at a used Honda hybrid, it’s best to see if there are any outstanding recalls and make sure that it is, in fact, getting the gas mileage that it’s supposed to be getting. That may involve taking a longer test drive. The used car buyer should be aware that certain Honda hybrids have had a number of recalls for battery performance and battery life, within their warranty.
In terms of electric cars, on the Nissan LEAF, there is actually a battery capacity gauge in the dash and it will show you how much of the battery capacity remains. This is not as you drive, but it’s totally energy level as it declines over the life of the car. There are 12 notches on it. I would say probably you wouldn’t necessarily want to buy a car that has fewer than 10 of those 12 remaining—unless you really do your research and you know what you’re getting. Unfortunately, the 12 aren’t equally proportionate, so you can’t assign them directly into percents. Be aware that Nissan LEAFs, the most common battery electric car, do actually have this battery capacity gauge. You can also get a battery health checkup at any Nissan dealer.
JV: Thus far, because the batteries are much larger and because they’re liquid cooled, the data seem to indicate that there is relatively little decline in their capacity. Again, the Model S has only been on sale for four years. The first ones were delivered in the summer of 2012. Thus far, the data seem to indicate that battery loss is less than what was predicted. Again, if you have a battery that gives you 208, 240 or 270 miles of range you can afford to lose some portion of that without it severely impacting how you drive. With a Nissan LEAF that’s a little more of a compromise.
JV: There haven’t been federal incentives on hybrids for several years now. It’s probably worth pointing out that if you buy a plug-in car, you’re eligible for a federal income tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500 off your taxes, depending on the size of the battery in the car. You’re also eligible in California for either a $1,500 or $2,500 purchase rebate – that’s a check in the mail, and there are a number of incentives in other locations. Your company may have incentives, your county, etc. There are a number of these financial incentives, but only for plug-in cars, whether they’re battery electric or plug-in hybrids. The regular hybrids, the ones without plugs – there’s no more incentives – except they may be allowed to use carpool lanes in some instances, not California anymore. The financial incentives are gone.
Toyota hasn’t said yet how it’s pricing the 2016 Prius. But they have said that it should do 10 percent better than the 2015, which means that it will be at 55 miles per gallon combined. That’s just a question of sitting down and looking at how many miles do you drive each year, what kind of driving is that – Is it mostly highway driving or is it in town stop-and-go, where Toyota hybrids are better. My advice has always been if you’re racking up mileage like a traveling salesman – 20,000 miles a year or more at highway speeds, you’re probably better off with a diesel car. But if you drive like a suburban mom or a New York City cabbie, hybrids are better because you’re doing a lot of stop and go and that’s where the electric assistance and the surplus speed of all-electric running really come into play and your engine stays alive. For the 2016 Prius, you need to ask yourself, how long do I think I’m going to have the car, how many miles do I drive every year, and what do I think the gas price is going to be over the lifespan of the car? Is it going to stay below $3? Is it going to go back up to $4, etc.? You can do the math that way.
JV: The natural gas version was very limited, an extremely low volume that wasn’t really relevant to regular consumers. They have eliminated their hybrid model, in part because they feel that they can get within shooting distance of that kind of mileage in real-world usage without the hybrid system which adds cost. They’ve already said that the new 2016 Honda Civic will get a highway rating from the EPA over 40 mpg. The old Civic hybrid was rated at 44 highway mpg. For highway at least, you’re getting into that territory. One of the things about the old Honda hybrid system was that it was a very minimal system. We call them mild hybrids. It didn’t have what a number of people think of as the hybrid driving characteristics – the ability to drive a little bit electrically without the engine going on. It was a very small battery, a very small motor. It helped out a lot, but Honda was never as successful with its hybrids as Toyota has been. They’re now focusing on hybrids in bigger cars.
The basic message is – especially with gas prices as low as they are today – in a smaller, less-expensive car like the Civic or asubcompact – the extra cost of a hybrid system is enough of a difference where people may not make it back. Remember about gas mileage, the difference in savings between 33 and 44 mpg, the actual amount of gasoline you avoid is way smaller than that same 11 mpg difference than, say, 15 mpg and 26 mpg. It’s a little deceptive. People tend to think you save a ton of money when you go from 50 to 55 mpg, but actually, you’re only saving a fraction of a gallon every 100 miles. Once you get up above 35 mpg, going higher than that doesn’t actually save you a ton of money. Which is why, say the Civic comes in at 36 mpg, if it comes in there, the difference between that and 44 mpg isn’t actually a whole lot of gasoline. The cost difference between the regular Civic and the Civic hybrid was a couple of thousand dollars. You get more of a payback from hybrid systems in larger cars.
iSeeCars.com: So, consumers are better off going with non-hybrid, newer versions that are more efficient?
JV: Yes or an electric car. Electric cars are still more expensive to purchase, but the cost per mile of running on electricity is 1/3 to 1/5 as much. A 25 mpg car, for instance, at $4 per gallon for gas, costs you $.16 per mile. The average American price for electricity, which is $.12 per kilowatt hour, an electric car costs you $.03 or $.04 per mile, which is ¼ of the amount to run on electricity compared to gasoline.
JV: The electric carmakers will tell you that nine out of every 10 cars in America goes less than 50 miles a day. Any 40-mile car meets that range. That’s fine, but Americans tend to overbuy their cars. We tend to buy cars for the what-if scenario, instead of how we actually use them. Everybody thinks they drive more miles in a day than they actually do. What we’re going to see 2-3 years from now is a whole new crop of mass-market electric cars with ranges of 150 to 200 miles. Those pretty much take away the range anxiety issue. It’s perfectly understandable that someone will say 84 miles, it’s winter and I have to take my kid to the doctor and it’s 20 miles away at night, I’m not comfortable with that margin. That makes sense. When your range is 200 miles, those kinds of things really go away.
The most publicized one is the Chevrolet Bolt EV, which Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, has promised will have over 200 miles range for $37,500 before incentives. The second-generation Nissan LEAF, which will arrive as either a 2017 or 2018 model, will also likely have a range around that, or one model. They’ll probably have some battery pack options, but that second-generation LEAF will also have three-digit ranges.