Some Basics for Comparing Gas Cars to Electric Vehicles

Helping car shoppers better correlate cost and power factors

It can be rather confusing when shopping for a new car to compare a conventional gas-powered model to an electric vehicle (EV). Beyond the look, fit and finish exists a complex matrix of costs for acquisition, fueling and operation that is difficult to analyze, even for experts.

How can you tell if you are comparing apples to apples? In a recent Los Angeles Times article, the writer equated the price of a Chevrolet Bolt after all existing and proposed rebates to a gas-driven Honda Civic, two cars of about the same size and general capacity. While the purchase price gap between the two narrowed, the article failed to recognize that the Bolt has nearly twice the power as the Civic, sort of like comparing a Ford Mustang to a Fiesta.

When considering the choice of purchasing a gas car or an EV, I like to use two primary metrics: money and power. You’re no doubt familiar with money, but you may not understand exactly what power is when it comes to an electric car motor.

Parsing the Power to cost ratio

Since the early 1900s, the power of an internal combustion engine has been all about horsepower — a unit of measure designed to quantify how much power an engine can produce over time. For an electric car, all its power is available almost instantaneously and continuously, so its performance is all about torque, or its ability to supply a turning force to a crankshaft or wheel. Use torque (measured in pound-foot force) as your unit when comparing gas cars to EVs. Simply Google “(model of gas car) torque” and click through to determine torque ratings for each submodel.

If you chart the power-to-cost ratios of a few popular gas and electric cars, with the rising cost on the vertical axis and torque pound-foot on the horizontal axis, four models cluster nicely for comparisons: Audi A4, Ford Mustang and the Chevy Bolt and Volt.

Making a comparison

My favorites for comparison are two cars I have owned: the A4 and the Volt. The A4 (all gas) and Volt (in electric mode) both have about the same torque (258 to 275 lb.-ft.), acceleration (0-60 mph in 8 to 8.5 seconds) and price (mid $30,000). I like to base the comparison on three years and 36,000 miles, because that’s the most common basic lease term.

When it comes to mileage, I eschew manufacturer estimates and use the real-world mileage I experienced, given that I have a lead foot. For the Audi, I used 19 mpg, which at $3.39 per gallon for premium gas came to $0.18 per mile to drive. For the Volt, I used electricity rates at off-peak times at night at $0.18 per kilowatt-hour and an average of 2.8 miles per kWh, coming out at $0.06 per mile to drive.

To drive these two similar cars the same distance in the same way over 36 months, fueling costs for the Volt (at $2,160) are about one-third of the A4 (at $6,480). Using these figures, if you spent $200 per month in fueling a gas car and can charge an EV at home overnight instead, you will see a decrease in monthly gasoline costs of $200 and an increase to your electric bill of around $65, creating a monthly savings of $135, or about $1,600 a year.

Further whittling away at the price of an electric vehicle can be done with state incentives (in California, basic EV rebates are $1,500 and $2,500) and the federal income tax credit (up to $7,500), depending on the model you acquire and if you have sufficient tax liability.

Do the math and learn more

The bottom line is doing the math. Most everything related to EV budgeting is simple math and will not take much time to calculate. For me, the goal is to have a low-cost vehicle without compromising power and range. My electric vehicles have met my desires.

Explore the many money-saving advantages of electric vehicles and learn more about rebates and incentives at the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project car shopper website.

About Michael Sarrassat

Michael assists CSE’s Transportation team in administering California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project