02.25.2014 - by Tom Saxton
Leasing a Plug In Vehicle: Total Cost of Ownership

As with any car purchase, there’s more to consider than cost when thinking about a plug-in vehicle. There’s also the convenience of fueling at home and the superior driving experience of an electric drive train. But at some point, we have to think about the cost and thrifty consumers will start there.

Doing the cost analysis for a gas car is pretty simple: look at the monthly payments, estimate your fuel cost based on how much you drive and the vehicle’s MPG, and add in the basic maintenance costs like oil changes. It’s not any more complex for an all-electric vehicle, but thinking in kilowatt-hours may be unfamiliar for most first-time EV buyers. It’s even a little simpler for an all-electric car since there are no oil changes and a lot of other regular gas-car maintenance goes away. For a plug-in hybrid, the situation is a little more complex, having to do both gas and electric calculations.

Since many plug-in buyers are choosing to lease rather than purchase, I’ve developed a spreadsheet tool to help with the calculations. I picked some representative fuel-efficient vehicles, looked up the EPA ratings, and researched some current 3-year lease deals. As a set of affordable vehicles that buyers may be considering, I chose the Toyota Camry, Toyota Prius, Toyota Prius PHEV, Ford C-Max Energi, Chevy Volt, and Nissan LEAF.

You can replace the vehicles I picked with the vehicles you’re considering and/or update any values that have changed or differ in your area.The gray boxes in the spreadsheet are the values that describe each car and can be freely edited.

Once the vehicles are set up, you just enter information about how you drive and where you’ll be able to charge and the tool does the math from there.

Here’s an example result for someone who has a 30-mile daily commute, also drives an average of 35 miles per day on the weekends, lives where there are no state incentives, and pays about the national average for electricity. These values have been filled into the yellow boxes in the spreadsheet.

As you can see, the LEAF is the cost winner in this situation, the Volt and C-Max Energi cost a bit over $100 more, the Prius about $200 more, the Camry $243.33 more, and the Prius PHEV $359.29 more per month than the LEAF.

Now let’s try an example with a longer commute: 60 miles per day.

The rankings don’t really change much, but there’s a bigger difference between the highest and lowest cost. Only the Leaf and Volt benefit from being able to drive more electric miles. The costs for the others go up according to their gas efficiency

Next, we’ll increase the commute distance to a really extreme value, 100 miles (fewer than 1% of Americans commute this far each day), and add in the ability to charge at work as well as at home which increases the range of the Leaf and doubles the electric range of the plug-in hybrids.

The LEAF is still the cost winner, but the Volt increases its cost advantage over the C-Max Energi because the Volt has more electric range.

Now let’s go back to a more typical commute, but push the weekend travel up to 100 miles per day and see what happens.

In this scenario, the Volt is the cost winner, with the C-Max Energi very close.

Since the LEAF has an EPA range of 84 miles, it’s not suitable for a single car household that drives beyond that in situations where there’s no opportunity to charge along. While it may be completely reasonable to make trips like that in the LEAF in areas where there is convenient charging infrastructure, to be conservative, the tool removes the LEAF from consideration.

Since the Prius has better gas mileage than the Volt, for drivers that do a lot of driving but have limited opportunity for driving electric miles, the Prius has to win out. To find a situation where than happens, I reduced the daily commute to just 10 miles and cranked up the weekend driving until the Prius beat the Volt. To get there, I had to assume driving 680 miles per weekend!

With a very short commute to minimize electric driving during the week and an incredible 340 miles per weekend day, the Prius comes out less expensive than the Volt by $0.50 per month. However, the cost winner in this case is the C-Max Energi with gas mileage that’s close to the Prius. For the Prius to beat the C-Max Energi, I had to assume 1,300 miles of driving every weekend all year long!

Here’s a summary chart of the scenarios considered here.

The Camry came out as more expensive than everything but the Prius PHEV. It even loses to the expensive Prius PHEV in the highest mile scenario. I also considered the Honda Accord, but its gas mileage isn’t quite as good as the Camry and Honda’s lease calculator showed a higher monthly lease payment ($433 for the least expensive model), so it would do worse than the Camry in these cost comparisons.

Although the Prius PHEV came in as most expensive in all but the last of these comparisons, that’s just because the lease terms I could find online were expensive enough that its savings in fuel costs from a small electric range were not enough to cancel out the highest lease price from this particular set of vehicles. If you can find a better lease deal, the numbers may turn out differently.

Charging Equipment I didn’t factor in the cost of installing home charging equipment. If you have an outlet near where you park overnight, the charging cord that comes with most plug-in vehicles can give you 30 to 40 miles of range overnight. If that’s all you need, you don’t have to spend any money on charging equipment. If you do need to installing charging equipment, perhaps a Level 2 (240V) charging station, you could spend as little as $500 or much more depending on your situation. Any investment you make in charging equipment may pay off for many years, so you may want to amortize that cost over a period that’s longer than the lease period. It’s something to think about as you’re comparing vehicles and before you sign a lease.

Disclaimer There are a bunch of reasons why these numbers aren’t right for everyone. I probably didn’t enter your average driving pattern. Perhaps I haven’t chosen the right vehicles for you. The lease deals may have changed since I set up this tool, or you may choose a different term lease or mileage allowance. I didn’t recalculate lease prices for the extreme driving examples. I don’t consider the end-of-lease residuals. You may have a different expectation for what gas prices will average over the next three years. Your electric cost may be higher or lower. Maybe you get free charging at work, or maybe you can’t charge at home and have to pay a premium to charge at work. Maybe you can’t charge at home or at work, so a plug-in vehicle doesn’t make sense for you.

There’s also an issue with the EPA-rated electric range of the Prius PHEV. The EPA sticker for the Prius says that it gets 11 miles in gas+electric mode but only 6 miles in electric mode. I understand this is because during the EPA test cycle, the Prius gas engine comes on after six miles, the battery isn’t depleted until the 11-mile mark, so maybe the electric range should be higher than six miles. On the other hand, the Prius PHEV can’t go freeway speeds without turning on the gas engine, so the nature of your commute will strongly influence how many electric miles you can get.

Just to be complete, note that the electric range for the Volt and Leaf are both true electric range. Both vehicles can operate at freeway speeds (and above) on just electricity.

We all know that your mileage may vary. Depending on how (and where) you drive, you may get a different MPG than the EPA estimate, you may do better or worse. The same is true for electric range. I chose to use the EPA combined city/highway numbers for MPG, electric range and electric efficiency so as to compare vehicles as consistently as possible. If you have a better idea of how a vehicle will perform for your driving, you can change those fields in the spreadsheet.

Please download the spreadsheet and plug in your own assumptions and driving pattern. Let us know what you find out in the comments.

22 comments on “Leasing a Plug In Vehicle: Total Cost of Ownership”
  1. Voltman says:

    Thanks for sharing the fruits of your hard work! I have a few comments about some unintended biases in the comparison:
    1) The EPA rates the range of the Nissan Leaf as 73 mi, not 84 mi.
    2) The annual maintenance costs are grossly exaggerated with respect to the Volt, and I suspect the Leaf as well. In over 30 months, my Volt maintenance has consisted of one oil change and one tire rotation, at a cost of less than $60. That’s about $24 per year.
    3) The cost per kilowatt of electricity during off-peak hours, is considerably less than the national average cost of residential electricity. My separately metered EVSE usage cost is about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, while my house is metered at more than 12 cents per kilowatt-hour.

    1. Tom says:

      Hi Voltman, thanks for the comments. The tools allows you to put in the numbers you think are right. The examples are not meant to be the last word, they just show how to run different drive patterns through the tool with some typical and some extreme numbers.

      To answer your points… 1) The range for the 2014 Leaf is 84 miles. The 73 was artificially low because the EPA reported the range for the average of the Leaf’s two charge modes: 80% and 100%. Nissan removed the 80% charge option in the 2014 and improved the vehicle’s efficiency. 2) You’re probably right about the maintenance costs for the Leaf and Volt. We’ve owned our Leaf for 2 1/2 years and have paid zero for maintenance. If you have a source for average expected costs, please add it to the comments. 3) The cost of electricity varies greatly by location. In Washington state, we have no time-of-use rates and no special EV deals, but electric rates vary from 3¢ to 12¢ per kWh. In Hawaii, electricity costs 45¢ per kWh. If you charge at work, it might be free or it could be much higher than the local rate. The tool lets you enter the value that’s right for you.

      1. Vanessa says:

        Thanks so much for putting this together! What a fantastic resource – I will share it widely.

        I have to concur on the maintenance issue, however. We lease a Fiat 500e and the only required maintenance over the three year term is a tire rotation (which our Fiat dealer threw in for free). Oh, and I had to put in some wiper fluid when it ran out after six months of driving. And of course I need to occasionally give her a bath at the car wash. 🙂

        Seriously – I would really downsize the maintenance figure, as that will a) better reflect EV reality (no oil! no spark plugs! no radiator or timing belt or tune-ups!), and b) make it even clearer how much cheaper EVs are to drive than gas cars. (Which, of course, is a big reason why the auto makers aren’t properly marketing them, or making enough to meet demand.) You could check with the main EV manufacturers to find out what their lease maintenance requirements are, if you need some hard numbers.

        And of course, if you factor in the cost of climate change, childhood asthma, and the many other health problems related to fossil fuel extraction and burning, the cost of gas cars goes through the roof.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It would be great to include a lease vs. buy comparison. Also, it would be interesting to see where a Tesla Model S ranks vs. say a Camry. Thanks for the worksheet.

  3. Griff says:

    It’s kind of hard to use the single spreadsheet to do an accurate, direct cost comparison. I’m pretty sure the volt requires premium fuel, while the prius and energi do not. For the Leaf, it’s not an issue. But, comparing the others directly is problematic.

    1. Tom says:

      A simple solution would be to scale the MPG on the Volt down to compensate for the more expensive gasoline.

      A better method would be to make the gas price a per-vehicle setting, but that means more data entry. But really, if you’re driving the Volt mostly on electricity, then a 10% difference in the gas price isn’t likely to change the rankings. If you’re driving the Volt mostly on gas, then maybe you should choose a more efficient gas car.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what the comparison looks like if you were to stack up a comparative model which runs on gas only….how attractive is PHEV then?

    1. Anonymous says:

      …that being said, I think what you’ve done already with this spreadsheet is awesome, so I thank you! I’m just considering what to lease….I have a 2006 Land Rover LR3 – so you know what I am coming from!

    2. Tom says:

      I’m not sure what you mean. The comparison already includes a Camry and a regular Prius. Also, I made the spreadsheet available so you can plug in any car you like with current lease deals and your gas and electric prices.

      1. Dani says:

        Thank you Tom for the through research. Would you consider expanding your study and charts to include the EV+Hybrid models of M+BMW i3, the Fiat 500e and other full EVs ? Please ?

        Thanks,
        Dani.

        1. Tom says:

          Hi Dani,

          The idea here was the explain how to evaluate and compare plug-in vehicles and gas cars. I knew the numbers would get out of date and I couldn’t cover all vehicles, so I supplied a spreadsheet anyone can use to fill in current numbers for whatever vehicles are interesting. Please update and customize to your interests.

              Tom

  5. Derek says:

    Tom,

    Thanks for spreadsheet. My wife has a Leaf and I have the Honda Accord PHEV. We opted for more options on the Leaf like GPS so our lease cost was $303/month. When we renew, we’ll likely get the DC fast charger option.

    For me it was interesting to compare the Leaf and Honda. In my specific circumstances, where I can charge at work and the average one way commute is 19 miles. I average about 17 miles pure EV range, the Honda came in at $40/month more than the Volt leased at $303/month. I took the average of 13 cents per kwh as we have a prepaid lease for power at 8 cents for 50% of our electricity and the other 50% is at 19 cents/kwh off peak.

    I actually prefer the holistic calculation of home electric+car cost to show how an EV+solar+Time of use rates can often cut total costs by over 40% inclusive of car payment. Our electric bill is about 30% compared with many neighbors and we only have a 3 KWH system (San Diego area). Cost was $8800 for 20 year prepaid lease.

  6. Dayton says:

    Do you plan on keeping the car for a substantial amount of time? Or do you plan on only keeping it for a couple of years? If you’re planning on keeping the car for a long time, it might be wiser to buy.

    1. Tom says:

      Analyzing total cost of ownership for a purchase is more complex since you have to consider depreciation, something that’s very difficult to predict for such new products. My wife and I own three EVs, so we’re betting on their long term value. Our oldest is a 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV which the original owner sold to us in 2008 for more than she paid for it originally. I don’t really expect that to happen with our other two, more modern, EVs but I wouldn’t dare try to predict the future.

  7. The quest for electric cars somehow lags due to lack of clear understanding on how to calculate and compare the performance of such cars. In the marathon of electric cars Toyota Prius achieves the most embraced vehicle status in comparison to others. Before you lease a vehicle, you must know your rights and responsibilities. Also, you can compare different lease offers and negotiate some terms, ask for alternatives or other lease offerings. Very knowledgeable and valuable article and the tool is highly beneficial to know the performance of the vehicle.

    Leasing isn’t for everyone as you have to accept certain limits and it offers an attractive and affordable means of driving a new car whenever you desire. I absolutely concede with one of your statement that plug-in buyers choose to lease than purchasing. But if you look at the total cost of ownership for over five years, a number of electric vehicle models are now low-priced than gas-powered cars. I will surely use your calculator to check the price differences in different areas.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thank you very much for your analysis here. Great details.
    However I wonder, have you accounted for the cost of extra miles over the yearly leasing limit? For example, there is a charge of about 15 cents per mile extra on 36000 miles of 3 year lease (1000 per month “limit”).

    1. Tom says:

      The spreadsheet tool provided allows you to adjust the leasing arrangements to current deals that meet your driving needs.

  9. Alex B says:

    There are a lot of used plug in hybrids and electrics on the market now at attractive prices. Any chance we could get a handy spreadsheet on any of those?

    APB

  10. Chris Lynn says:

    Leasing a Plug-in electric vehicle is just a damn good thing I can say. Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf, Volkswagen e-Golf, Audi e-Tron, BMW i8, Chevrolet Volt are some of the popular electric car models of reputed automotive brands. Ford C-Max Energi also a popular plug-in hybrid electric model of Ford motors, but I haven’t seen this one yet. Thanks for providing the above valuable information.

  11. Actually there are so many unnecessary features are their in plug-in hybrids that will consume more energy , but except these there are so many other issues and developed features found in these cars that will allow the owner to save some bucks from fuel.

  12. Marc Fontana says:

    The spreadsheet is “Not Found” when I try to download it. What happened? Is it outdated?
    I agree with others about maintenance cost on the Nissan LEAF. $360/year is about $280 more than I have spent in 5 years. (I just bought a new 12v battery).

    1. John U'ren says:

      Hi Marc,

      The link has been fixed. Please try the link again. Thank you!

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