Nissan LEAF Price Cut Makes it One of the Cheapest Cars to Own

By · February 28, 2013

Nissan LEAF Cost of Ownership

The 2013 Nissan LEAF S may end up having among the lowest 5-year total ownership costs of any car on the U.S. market.

Earlier this week, I came across an article from Time.com’s Brad Tuttle, which poses the question: "Are Electric-Car Enthusiasts a Little Too Enthusiastic?” Tuttle draws on accounts from two EV owners, one of whom claims that the cost of owning his Nissan LEAF is—despite popular perceptions about EVs being expensive to own—equal to or less costly than a gas-powered car. Here's Tuttle's response:

“What about the claim that the entire cost of owning a Nissan LEAF is cheaper than what the owner of a standard car pays for gas? Ridiculous. Two years ago, Leafs were being leased for $300 to $350 per month. Figure around $4,000 per year, not including a down payment. Do you spend anywhere near that much on gas?”

Based on my calculations, the total cost of owning a 2013 Nissan LEAF over five years is cheaper than the Honda Fit or Ford Focus.

It isn't really necessary to rebut Tuttle’s logic because it’s based upon a misinterpreted premise and backed up with incorrect numbers—which is to say, it’s par for the course for lightly-researched EV-bashing blog posts on major media internet outlets.

But in evaluating this claim I got to thinking: What is the true cost of ownership of an EV, and how might the new less-expensive 2013 Nissan LEAF change the outcome of that equation?

New Price, New Financial Consideration

In January, we finally got some details regarding long-anticipated pricing information for the 2013 LEAF. Prices dropped across all trim levels, but the announcement that got the most attention was that Nissan will now be offering a no-frills base model of the LEAF that starts at just $28,800 (plus a mandatory $850 destination fee that has always been part of the cost of the car.) That’s big news for drivers who are more interested in saving money than enjoying the host of standard high-tech features included in the LEAF SV, and it dramatically changes the base-level cost-to-own calculation for the car.

To try and get an understanding of just how much, I turned to Edmunds.com’s “True Cost to Own” (TCO) calculator. Based upon a number of variables including depreciation, taxes and fees, financing cost, fuel, insurance, maintenance and repairs, Edmunds establishes a total cost of ownership for the first five years of ownership of a vehicle. (These calculations change depending upon your zip code, so for the purposes of my experiment I used my own San Francisco Bay Area location.)

First, I compiled a list of a number of vehicles I thought would make for worthwhile points of comparison and input them into the site, recording their TCOs and “Total Cash Price,” which is a metric Edmunds uses to figure out how much it really costs to walk out of a dealership with a car (it’s always at least somewhat higher than MSRP.)

Vehicle Model Total Cash Price True Cost to Own
(Over 5 years)
2012 Nissan LEAF $35,957 $35,646
Chevy Volt $44,900 $42,127
Volkswagen GTI $21,718 $43,308
Honda Fit $14,982 $33,744
Ford Focus $17,336 $38,288
Hyundai Elantra $20,181 $37,401
Toyota Prius c $20,799 $36,922
Chevy Cruze $19,561 $38,495
Volkswagen Golf $26,456 $40,453

Interestingly enough, when you include the federal $7,500 credit, Edmunds’s TCO calculator already scores the 2012 LEAF ahead of a number of gas-fueled sedans when the costs are averaged over a five-year period.

The 2013 LEAF should fare even better. To get an estimate of how the new LEAF might come out using this metric, I subtracted the difference in base cost between the 2012 LEAF SV and the 2013 base model S. In order to estimate the cost of ownership, I calculated the rate of depreciation for the 2012 LEAF (as a function of its starting price) and applied that to the price of the 2013 model, keeping all other factors constant. Here’s what I came up with:

(To reiterate, the numbers below are not from Edmunds, but rather an estimate of how the 2013 LEAF might shake out using methods I’ve inferred from Edmunds's data.)

Vehicle Model Total Cash Price True Cost to Own
(Over 5 years)
2013 Nissan LEAF
(*estimated)
$29,705* $32,610*

Surprisingly, if my extrapolations are even close to correct, the 2013 LEAF S may end up having among the lowest 5-year total ownership costs of any car on the U.S. market. At $32,610 the LEAF even comes in ahead of inexpensive small gas cars like the Honda Fit and Ford Focus.

How could this be? The biggest contributing factor would of course be the $7,500 federal tax credit, which lowers the starting price of the LEAF to just $21,300. In states like California, where additional incentives exist, the after-credit price will drop to as low as $18,800, though I didn't include any further rebates in my calculations.

Other major factors include fuel costs (which put the LEAF at a $5,218 5-year advantage versus the Ford Focus,) and maintenance and repair costs, which Edmunds pegs at $2,447 less than the Honda Fit.

Caveats and Disclaimers

My little experiment wasn’t intended to be conclusive and there are several areas in which my findings can be called into question.

First, Edmunds’s True Cost estimates are based on 15,000 miles per year of driving, which is somewhat above average for both EVs and ICEs. Furthermore, drivers in my area pay well above the national average for gasoline, but close to average for electricity. Still, while reducing these two factors to average conditions would bring fuel costs of the LEAF closer to gas sedans, the difference certainly wouldn’t be significant enough to drive the TCO of the car past the Focus or Prius C.

Then there’s the issue of resale value. Edmunds’s resale projections for the LEAF are somewhat optimistic compared to other sources, and unless you plan on selling whatever car you buy at exactly the 5-year, 75,000-mile point in ownership, your results will vary.

And what about those options? Sure, you could buy a 2013 LEAF S without the optional 6.6-kW onboard charger, but most buyers will probably end up paying for that (and at least a few other) features. Then again, most people also tend to add a few frills to cars like the Focus and Fit when they buy them as well.

Finally, it’s worth noting that regardless of whose numbers or formulas you’re using to calculate something like cost of ownership, it's best to personalize them as much as possible. Gas prices, electricity rates, miles driven, insurance, and even maintenance costs vary greatly depending upon where you live.

Use resources like Edmunds’s True Cost calculator or the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s tool as a starting point, and try to do your best to recalculate based on your specific situation. See what you get compared to my numbers, and then let me have it in the comments section if my methodology or calculations are off.

But based on what I see, the base-level Nissan LEAF (at its cheaper price and with incentives) should silence the refrain: "EVs are just too expensive."

UPDATE: Edmunds appears to have updated its cost projections for the 2012 LEAF since this story went live. The Total Cash Price is now listed as $39,811 and the Total Cost of Ownership has gone up to $40,515. We'll try and get to the bottom of this and update you as soon as possible.

UPDATE 2: Edmunds's media relations manager Stephanie Mar responded promptly to my request for clarification. Here's what she had to say:

"There was an $8500 dealer cash incentive on the 2012 Leaf that expired on 2/28. The TCO tool on our website calculates these things on-the-fly, so when that dealer cash expired, the corresponding components of TCO (sales tax, DMV fees, finance interest, depreciation) were adjusted accordingly.

"…Nissan just extended this dealer cash until 4/1, and it will switch to a $7500 "final pay" dealer cash after that. So to add complication to your story, the TCO costs for the 2012 Leaf will look a little different tomorrow when everything is updated for Nissan's incentives change."

So it would appear that my original story was correct about the LEAF's TCO at the time of its posting but quickly became outdated due to an expiring incentive. Soon though, Nissan's new dealer cash incentive will kick into the calculation, brining the TCO and True Price scores back to within $1000 or so of the figures in the article.

Thanks to Edmunds for getting back to me with such a speedy and informative explanation.

Comments

· · 5 years ago

Zach

The spread gets even more dramatic when you go past 5 years to 10, 15 or 20. I have every intention of keeping my Leaf for 20 years. Even when I add in a battery replacement that I estimate at $10,000, the Leaf is still cheaper than any other car.

· · 5 years ago

I appreciate your work on this, but please realize that not every buyer will earn enough money/pay enough taxes to qualify for the full $7,500 federal tax credit. Also, it isn't a 'rebate', it's a non-refundable tax credit (you only get back as much as you owe, up to $7,500, in the year you purchase the car, and you can't carry it forward into future years). This may sound like a picky little detail, but there is a big difference between the two. Thank you.

· · 5 years ago

@Dollyj007

You're absolutely right about it not being a "rebate," although it really should be. There was legislation written and added to (I believe) the last failed energy bill that would have changed that, but unfortunately right now we're stuck with what we've got. I'll update the language to reflect this.

I actually wasn't aware that you have to apply it to a single year's income, but I suppose that's just another reason why a real rebate makes a lot more sense.

· · 5 years ago

Very nice info Zach... Very useable single sheet of paper info that anyone can quickly look at and get a good feel for lifetime operating cost. You should frame it.

· · 5 years ago

I'm guessing this assumes a driver driving 30,000 miles per year? You Californians sure drive alot.

· · 5 years ago

@Bill

15k miles per year. I did a back of the envelop adjustment to 12k and it didn't change things all that much. The real heroes of this story are the government tax credit and lower maintenance expenses. The LEAF actually wasn't all that much better than the Prius c in terms of fuel costs alone.

· · 5 years ago

Zach I thought the only savings would be lack of oil changes, and possibly one radiator and transmission oil change.. Or are you supposed to replace timing belts at 75000?

· · 5 years ago

Edmunds breaks up the costs into maintenance and repair (two separate categories.) It looks like they project a fairly high cost for most ICEs entering their 4th and 5th years on the road. I really don't know how close this is to reality as I've never personally owned a brand new car (actually come to think of it I'm not sure anybody in my family ever has either.) Does this ring at all true to you?

· · 5 years ago

Zach - I own an 04 and 06 Prius, and run several Prius lists with thousands of owners. Having *any* maintenance cost other than fluid/wiper changes through the first 4-5 years is unusual. To date, both of my cars have only had oil and transmission fluid changes, tire rotations, and wiper blade replacements (beyond a few no-cost recalls). And a new set of tires, since the 04 is nearing 100k and the 06 is nearing 120k.

So Edmunds might need to rework their calculations for the Prius C, as it uses the same engine as mine do. Prius engines simply don't see the hours of runtime a normal car would see, for the same miles covered.

Thanks for the article, it confirms that, if money permits, our next car will most likely be a Prius C or a Leaf or similar EV. If the Volt drops in price, and they wean it off of Premium fuel, though, that would make a difference.

· · 5 years ago

Isn't this calculation biased against the Volt?

1. Volt @ $44,900 is BY FAR the best equipped the car among all the cars your list there for the price. In the SF Bay Area, you can easily find a Dealer that is willing to match Costco Auto price for a $2k discount on the Volt. So, if you are willing to do a base Volt, it will be at least $2k-$4k cheaper.

2. Volt qualify for the $7,500 and $1,500 incentive in California. That will make it cheaper than just about every car on that list except for the Leaf.

3. @ 15,000 miles per year, that is barely 42 miles per day. Volt gets 38 miles per EPA rating. That is 5 miles per day and 2,000 miles max per year using gasoline. So, that is 57 gallon of gas @ $4/gallon for even the worst MPG of 35. If you can do 40 mpg like me, than you will only use 50 gallons per year and $200 in fuel cost. That is ONLY $200 more than the LEAF in yearly fuel cost.

4. Now, let us look at maintainence cost. Some BEV drivers like to whine about Volt's ICE maintainence. If Volt only has 2,000 gas miles per year, then what do you need to maintain on per yearly basis more than the Leaf? AT MOST, it is 1 oil change per year if NOT 1 oil change every two years if you use synthetic. NO more than $40. There are NO other cost for the first 5 years. Even if you have to change air filter once, that is about $20 from Walmart.

So, in summary, Volt will ONLY cost about $1,000 more than the Leaf in 5 years in gas cost at worst case and $270 more in maintainence cost. That is only $1,270 difference between the Volt and Leaf.

Volt has a better battery warranty than the Leaf. It is more fun to drive. It comes with more amenities and it will never require a tow truck and can actually take longer trip. Not to mention if that if you ever leaves the Bay Area to go to places such as Tahoe/Sierra or LA area, you don't have to rent a car...

So, Leaf might be the cheapest to own, Volt is a close second and a much better ride than most of the cars in that group...

· · 5 years ago

@Modern Marvel Fan

Hehe, I like the fact that on that minnesota link of the lady who had the bad experience with the Model S Roadtrip told her "You should keep a gallon gas can under the hood for emergencies", and then when it was explained to him that it wouldn't help much "If you want an Electric Car then buy a VOLT!". heheh. Looks like my combo of cars (Roadster & Volt) is what you need. hehe.

· · 5 years ago

@ModernMarvelFan,
You're right, but what really hurt the Volt with Edmunds was its starting price and projected depreciation. For whatever reason, they estimate the Volt to lose more of its value after 5 years than the LEAF. I don't don't know why, but that seems to be the big difference maker. Maintenance and fuel costs were relatively even. Poke around on the site and check out their breakdowns:

http://www.edmunds.com/tco.html

· · 5 years ago

Keeping an electric car for only 5 years is not a good idea since their initial purchase cost is high and their use cost is low. In fact EV are already inserting themselves in the anti consumerism movement that usually want to make people buy a same product as fast as possible to increase sales turn over and profits. An electric car should at contrary rather be considered as a long term investment like a house or at least a high profile car like a Rolls Royce or a diamond necklace. When you buy it you don’t expect to replace in five years but rather in 10, 20 or 30 years.
That is when an EV really becomes a profitable item. Moreover, to take the full advantage of this they should be build to last. Avoiding rust with an aluminum body, have long duration paint protections, be equipped with LED lights and have high quality electronic systems. In a sense that is already what Tesla is doing with the Model S whithout really thinking about that extra advantage of duration in the first place. But it turn out they are right and other builders should also consider longer duration build, materials and systems.
For instance building an electric car out of steel is not a good idea because it makes the car heavier in the first place but also because it makes the car less durable. Durability has up to now not been thoroughly explored as an asset for electric cars but it should because durability is a key factor to reduce the overall cost of ownership. The Tesla use of 18650 cells is another smart move because they can be replaced in the future by newer cells but the car itself remains intact and can go on for 20 or 30 years. In the future, electric cars could be inherited much more often then what is the case today, simply because they have an interest in being build to last which a gas car doesn’t have, or at least not as much. Electric cars should be engineered with this in mind and chose a modular standardization base wherever and whenever possible. Aviation ways, like for a Boeing 737, can in this regard be an interesting inspiration model. A plane is made with duration in mind and the cost diagram is shifted towards higher value longer duration versus low cost short duration of standard cars.

· · 5 years ago

I did the math and came to a similar conclusion, though it's even more compelling if you factor in likely fuel cost increases. After ~20K driving a Leaf I can report it is even better! The maintenance cost is near 0 (tires is about it) the energy cost is lost in the noise, and my driving cycle suggests a 10 year minimum battery life, at that point it will be a free car(paid for in fuel savings) It helps that we have a state tax credit (Ga.) and a TOU rate but the price cut on the base model kind of makes up for that. Applying the same math to a Model S I would argue that the 40kwhr base model is really ~$25,000 car. The one catch is you have to drive it! It doesn't make sense to invest in an underutilized asset.

· · 5 years ago

I've run the numbers using the best estimates I can come up with, and comparing the "old" Leaf (at 340Wh/mile) vs a typical 23MPG car, I figured the total costs for energy and maintenance, you save about $17,000 in 100K miles. Even if you compare it to a Prius, you still save about $6K.

The 2013 Leaf also lowers the energy consumption to 290Wh/mile, that save you another $600 (assuming 12¢/kWh).

Here's another important point: if you own a home and you live in a state with incentives for PV systems, you can use a portion of your fuel savings (like $1,500-2,500) as a down payment on a solar PV system. And you can save about $800/year for the next 20 years, totaling $16,000 from what you are already paying for electricity - and that will include all your driving, too.

In other words, you pay about half as much as you currently do for all your electricity - and you pay nothing more for your driving. That increases the $17,600 savings by about $5,300 - which is saving more than the electricity to drive 100K miles costs (~$3,480), actually!

AND all of the money you do pay stays in your local economy - *none* of it goes to a foreign country. It requires no military costs to defend it. It doesn't require foreign policies to keep the supplies flowing. It significantly reduces pollution, which will reduce healthcare costs in the long run, and will help us avoid the worst effects and costs of climate change, too.

Can you tell that I think this is really important? Good - because it is really important!

Neil

· · 5 years ago

Looking at these numbers, I noticed something very important to note.

The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of a Leaf over 5 years is barely above its purchase price, while the TCO for 5 years of any gas car is almost twice as much.

This means that there is a *very* large part of the TCO of any car that is hidden from the initial purchase, due mostly to the cost of gas. Insurance doesn't help either, but that's part of the TCO of a car anyway.

· · 5 years ago

@Priusmaniac:

It all comes down to how long the batteries last actually, except in certain areas (like most of Canada and half the US) where winter road salt will eat any car alive in 5 years whether you like it or not.

The fact is, that one way or another, an EV's batteries will need to be replaced sooner than an ICE engine would be. It might be 5 years, or 10 years, or somewhere in between, but it would happen, and unfortunately right now it would be more expensive. Maybe not in the future, and maybe in the future the batteries would be better and last longer, but only time will tell.

· · 5 years ago

@Zach,

" For whatever reason, they estimate the Volt to lose more of its value after 5 years than the LEAF. I don't don't know why, but that seems to be the big difference maker"

Okay, that explains it. But the funny part is that post 5 yr value is lower for most plugin cars b/c of the tax incentives. For example, a 1 or 2 yr old Volt/Leaf would lose at least $7,500 if NOT more/ B/c it would be silly for anyone to pay more for it since the new owner already claimed the incentive.

Now, as far as Leaf vs Volt goes, the judge is still out. Personally, I wouldn't pay more for a BEV with a 5 yr old battery when I can get an EREV that is 5 yr old AND that still have a 8 to 10 yr warranty left on the battery plus the range extender.

The wonderful thing about the Volt is the freedom. If the battery of the Volt goes down signficantly to only 5 mile range (1/7 of the original), it is still a "hybrid" and can be driven without expensive battery replacement. But a Leaf with only 11 miles range (1/7 of the original) becomes almost uselss... So, why would ANYONE take a chance on an used BEV until it is significantly discounted...

· · 5 years ago

@MMF: "So, why would ANYONE take a chance on an used BEV until it is significantly discounted"

Good question. Another possibility, though, is that new Leaf batteries are cheap enough in 5 years that it's not as much of a risk as you suggest. A 5 year old leaf will have >=70% of its original battery capacity, per the warranty. Granted, it's anyone's guess what happens next. But if you're ok with a 52-mile range (70% of 75) say for a commute, then it could be worth it. The kicker is that this market is automatically smaller than a used Volt. I'm sure there's a market for them, but I really don't see how a used Leaf could be worth more than a similarly used Volt.

· · 5 years ago

Okay, it would appear that Edmunds has now revised its 2012 LEAF TCO projection up to $40,515 and the total cash price up to $39,811 since this went live. Don't know if this has something to do with my post but I'll try and find out. Even with this change I still suspect that the 2013 would end up in the $35,000 range, which would still put it among the cheapest cars on the road.

I'll get to the bottom of this and post an update on Monday. Sorry, folks.

· · 5 years ago

"Another possibility, though, is that new Leaf batteries are cheap enough in 5 years that it's not as much of a risk as you suggest. "

I hope so. But the TCO cost shouldn't include that "hope" as part of the estimate. Also, even at 70% capacity, with a cold condition and 80% daily use, it becomes a 42 miles daily commuter. I would buy one for fun if the price is right. But for anyone to "depend" on it for serious and reliable commute, I don't see it as a solution until the commute is well within that "half radius" (Just in case you don't get a charge at work)..

But Let us hope the battery will be cheap enough in 5 years anyway for the sake of EV community.

Another point to consider is the fact is if all the BEVs and Plugins advance rapidly like we hope, the "used" car, especially 5 yr old used BEVs will drop even faster in price.

If the battery gets cheaper, then the brand new and way better LEAF (sure hope so) will be even cheaper 5 years from now. That will make the used LEAF even less appealing...

That is why I highly recommend "leasing the BEVs" now....

· · 5 years ago

I have a nearly 8 year old car with the odometer closing in on 140K and it doesn't have even one spot of rust on the body panels. My previous car was 14 years old and had nearly 220K miles on it and it was pretty rusty by the end; but it had a 6 year rust through warranty and it definitely meet that.

Five year old cars are just barely legal adults...

The fuel cost savings on an EV will more than pay for new battery cells. They are warrantied for 8-10 years, I think, and Prius batteries have lasted 300-500K miles with very few issues.

· · 5 years ago

Looking at TCO is a great idea but it's very hard with EVs. Part of the problem is the lack of track record. But a bigger part of the problem is that there is a surprisingly wide variety of actual prices paid.

For example, if you were to start looking to buy a new common car in good supply and demand - say a Camry XLE (non-hybrid) - and you sent around requests for prices to the internet department of, say, 10 or so local dealerships the price offers you would receive would be very near one another. It's just the nature of the market.

On the other hand, a new tech car like a Volt or Leaf is likely to see large varieties in price and great fluctuations over a period of months. Consider that the quoted article stated: "Two years ago, Leafs were being leased for $300 to $350 per month. Figure around $4,000 per year, not including a down payment. " I suspect the author chose to cite 2 year old pricing figures because November leases were much lower, closer to $200/month. Furthermore, as I called around asking for prices the lowest prices I were offered were under 60% of the highest prices I was offered, with lots in between. Variations in local demand, complex incentive structures, and issues with monthly dealer quotas all factored into these variations.

Then factor in the huge variation in the state-by-state incentives on EVs and a national average TCO calculation is almost impossible to nail down - even if you do have one your personal situation may be much better or worse than that average.

For the average car buyer this situation can only be intimidating - but for the bargain-hunter there are great opportunities to be had in the EV market.

· · 5 years ago

It gets more dramatic in Colorado with it's $6,000 rebate for the Leaf

· · 5 years ago

Just to update you all, Edmunds responded to my request for clarification. I've posted that response at the bottom of the article.

· · 5 years ago

It was pleasant to read this deep and well explained analysis, but in terms of comfort and design I still prefer to pay a little bit more for the Chevy Volt or the VW GTI.

· · 4 years ago

I paid a month ago $29,011.48 out the door with tax tag etc. came out to 32,000 for a 2013 volt it took me 4 hours to get it down to that price invoice picture https://copy.com/0aSm0aJhwVKhaOrr

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