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Is the Cost of An Electric Car Worth It? We Asked an Expert

An electric car and charging station at a car show.
Tramino/Getty Images

Two years ago, I test drove a Nissan Leaf at the Chicago Auto Show and I fell in love. The car drove smoothly and quietly, and I started thinking about how awesome it would be to own one.

In my case, convenience won out and I bought a 2016 Subaru Outback to accommodate my family’s needs. Back then, there weren’t many electric vehicle options that would satisfy my need for cargo space. But now, with more manufacturers committing to renewable energy, chances are my next vehicle will be an electric one.

If you’re trying to be more eco-conscious like me, you’ve probably considered trading in your gas guzzler for an electric vehicle. But buying electric over gasoline tends to come with a higher sticker price, which can be off-putting. Over time, though, can electric vehicles actually save you money over gas-powered ones?

Up-front Costs

Electric cars range in price from affordable to “are you kidding?” But what they have in common is that they qualify for federal tax credits, making them more affordable than they first appear.

“The Tesla Model 3 with a 220-mile range will cost approximately $35,000 after tax credits,” Chris Burdick, founder of Automoblog.net, told me. “The Nissan Leaf starts at $30,000, while the Chevrolet Bolt starts at approximately $37,400.”

That still sounds pretty steep for a new car, but tax credits really can make a difference.

“Federal tax credits range anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500 depending on size, weight, and battery capacity of the electric vehicle,” Burdick said. “Tax credits are money in your pocket.”

You might also be eligible for state tax credits. Do some research to see whether this is something you could benefit from. You might find the initial price of your electric vehicle goes down even more.

Also consider whether to lease the car or buy it outright. What makes sense for traditional gasoline cars isn’t necessarily the case for electric vehicles.

“The majority of electric vehicles today are leased instead of purchased as the residual value is the worst of any segment in the entire industry,” said Mark Cann of Cryo Energy Tech. “There’s a high probability that a used electric vehicle originated from a lease as over 80% of new battery-powered vehicles are two- to three-year lease option.”

So if new is what you want, look into leasing, which can save you money in the long run. But if you’re OK buying used, that might be the better option. Check the offers at your local dealers and see what fits your budget best.

Fuel Costs

An electric car battery
magnetcreative/Getty Images

Electric-vehicle owners don’t need to worry about gas prices, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely free to charge their cars.

“The fuel cost will vary depending on the time of day you charge the vehicle,” Cann said. “Charging overnight should provide lower cost per mile than gasoline. However, charging during peak times may result in higher cost per mile than gasoline.”

Therefore, it makes sense to avoid charging your car during peak hours. Instead, charge while you’re at work (if you have access to a charger) or overnight.

If you own an electric vehicle, you’ll need to invest in a home charging unit to make for easier refueling.

“These cost anywhere from $450 up to $750,” Burdick said. “But some energy providers are offering discounts and rebates for purchasing and installing a home charger. The rebates are about $500 depending on your location.”

Overall, the cost to fuel an electric vehicle is less than that of a gas-powered car. Over time, that means you’ll make up for any additional up-front costs you might have encountered.

“According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it will cost half as much to charge an electric car compared to filling up a conventional vehicle with gasoline,” said Burdick. “Assuming the price of gasoline is $2.50 per gallon, it will only cost you an average of $1.10 to charge an electric car.”

Maintenance Costs

Whether you buy an electric or gasoline-powered vehicle, you’ll need to take into account routine maintenance costs. Maintenance may seem like a pain when you have to pay your mechanic, but sticking to your manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule can help keep your car running smoothly for many years.

I spoke with John Gower of RepairPal about the typical maintenance costs for an electric vehicle compared with a gas-powered vehicle. His company, which certifies repair shops and provides vehicle reviews, recently updated its reliability ratings, which it says consider millions of repair orders to reach their conclusions.

“The estimated annual repair and maintenance costs for these vehicles ranges from $371 to $636 depending on the car, or $519 on average,” he said. “This places them roughly at or below the annual repair cost for vehicles overall, [ which is]… $631.”

There’s a reason it generally costs less to repair and maintain electric vehicles over gasoline ones: fewer moving parts.

“This means there is less likelihood of a failure,” Burdick said. “The electric motor on electric vehicles only have one moving part. Compare this to a conventional gasoline engine with hundreds of parts and the equation adds up.”

The motor isn’t the only component that requires less maintenance.

Electric vehicles do not require oil changes, air filters, fan belts, timing belts, spark plugs, engine sensors and cylinder heads,” said Burdick. “Electric vehicles are also equipped with regenerative braking that allows the electric motor to slow itself down without applying too much brake-pedal pressure. The result? Less wear and tear on the brake pads and rotors, which equates to less maintenance costs as well.”

Depending on how much money you have for a monthly car payment, an electric vehicle might not be for you. Since they are still relatively new on the market, it can be difficult to find a used model for an affordable price. But if you can afford the initial cost, you’ll enjoy savings of a different kind over time, from the cost of fuel to the cost of maintenance.

Catherine Hiles is an automotive writer living in Dayton, Ohio. If she had to choose her perfect electric vehicle, it would either be a Tesla Model S or a Chevrolet Bolt.

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