As you’re no doubt aware, there’s multiple types of green car: traditional hybrids, EVs (electric cars), plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell cars. The technology (and infrastructure) powering green cars is progressing all the time, but are they a match financially for standard gasoline autos? This article will find out.

Table of Contents

Type of Car: Recap

This article will cover the following types of cars which we briefly mentioned earlier:

  • Hybrid: the traditional hybrid. A car mainly with a combustion engine, but also with an electric battery. The car’s combustion engine will recharge the electric battery as needed, and the car will ‘switch’ between electric and engine mode to get the best fuel efficient.
  • BEV: battery electric vehicle, also called an EV (electric vehicle) or plug-in electric. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt EV are examples of this.
  • PHEV: plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. This expands on the hybrid idea, by allowing for the electric battery to be charged by being plugged in. You can also switch to fully electric mode when driving it around, so you can use a PHEV as a fully EV until the battery runs out (or is re-charged), gaining the full benefit of this.
  • FCEV: fuel-cell electric vehicle is a vehicle powered by fuel cells, mainly using hydrogen as the power source. Hence these are also called hydrogen cars.
  • Gasoline: standard gasoline powered cars with a combustion engine.

Running costs breakdown from the EPA, fueleconomy.gov

American Fuel Costs for Four Types of Cars

Using the handy US Government (FuelEconomy.gov) tool website, we will compare four cars:

  • PHEV: the Toyota Prius plug-in
  • BEV: the Chevy Bolt EV
  • Gasoline: Ford Focus FWD
  • Hybrid: Hyundia Ioniq

All models are 2018, and the results for the fuel costs are:

  Toyota Prius Prime Chevrolet Bolt EV Ford Focus FWD Hyundai Ioniq
Annual Fuel Cost $650 $550 $1,500 $750
Cost for 25 Miles $0.81 $0.92 $2.51 $1.28
MSRP List Price $29,000 $34,043 $20,000 $25,000

The fuel costs here are broadly what you’d expect: the fully gasoline powered Ford is most expensive, then the traditional hybrid is next. Following on, there’s the plug-in hybrid; and the pure electric is cheapest.

In terms of pay-off time, the Ioniq is $5,000 more expensive than the Focus but fuel is $750 less per year - leading to a 6.66 year pay-off period.

The pay-off time for the Prius is then 10.6 years against the Focus or a massive 40 years against the Ioniq hybrid!

Finally, the Bolt EV’s pay-off time is 50 years against the Prius, 45 years against the Ioniq and 14.8 years against the Focus.

In other words… don’t buy a random fully electric vehicle and expect it to pay for itself quickly! As we see in the Model 3 vs Audi A4 section, a pure electric can pay itself off fairly quickly, but you just need to choose wisely. Or at least, you do if you’re buying for financial reasons.

The stats also show that traditional hybrids are still a pretty good choice financially: they don’t cost much more to purchase, but their fuelling costs are decently lower.

Running Costs: Hyundai Ioniq in the UK for a Short Commute

GoUltraLow - a UK Government and car industry joint project - has a really handy tool (similar to America’s EPA website) which allows you to pick two cars and compare their running costs.

The Hyundai Ioniq is available in multiple forms (hybrid, PHEV and BEV) so we’ve used this in our comparisons for people who would use this car for their daily commute: 15 miles each way, hence 30 miles a day Monday-Friday.

The tool used an average electric cost of 14p per kWh and 129.1p petrol per litre costs.

  Ioniq PHEV Ioniq BEV
Daily Fuel Cost £1.50 £0.78
Cost Per Mile 5p 2.6p
Annual Cost (250 days/annum) £375 £195
‘On The Road’ Price £25,895 £26,745

Clearly the BEV is cheaper overall to run than the PHEV, resulting in £180 per year savings. But at £850 more, it would take 4.7 years to ‘pay off’ the extra cost of the pure electric version.

Naturally, however, the more miles you do with the BEV, the lower this pay-off time would be.

  Ioniq Hybrid Ioniq PHEV
Daily Fuel Cost £2.24 £1.50
Cost Per Mile 7.5p 5p
Annual Cost (250 days/annum) £560 £375
‘On The Road’ Price £23,590 £25,895

The calculations here are different. It costs 50% more in fuel to run with the pure hybrid, but (just for this daily commute) this only amounts to £185 per year more. Hence with costing £2,305 more, the pay off time for the PHEV would be 12.5 years.

And comparing the hybrid to the BEV, with 7.5p per mile instead of 2.6p, you would need to do 64,387 BEV miles before it is ‘worth it’ over the hybrid.

Naturally these figures don’t include maintenance costs, but in our opinion they demonstrate that the UK’s not completely there with respect to making PHEV/BEV a financially sensible choice.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Costs

Comparing Hyrogen fuel cell car running costs to other types of vehicles isn’t the easiest because various comparison tools tend to treat Hydrogen cars separately (possibly as there’s so little infrastructure and demand for them currently). However the FuelEconomy.gov webpage shows that annual fuel costs are $1,250-$1,500 on their standard measures. This compares to costs of $550-$750 (as seen earlier) for more mainstream types of green car.

Motortrend’s review of the Toyota Mirai (Toyota’s only hydrogen car, and one of only a few hydrogen cars available) calculated Hydrogen fuel cell costs worked out at 26¢ per mile. This is after Toyota’s current offer of $15,000 of free hydrogen fuel for the first 3 years of Mirai ownership. This would equate to $6.50 for a 25 mile journey, almost 3 times more than the Focus FWD we looked at earlier. So this seems quite high in comparison and thus we wonder if it’s completely accurate, but the general consensus is that hydrogen fuelling is currently more expensive than gasoline fuelling, so we feel that it’s worth mentioning.

In the UK, the Standard have calculated that hydrogen cars cost 17.4p per mile in fuel, compared to 16.3p per mile for a traditional 40 mpg petrol (gasoline) vehicle.

In short, it’s still a little tricky to judge hydrogen fuelling costs, but the gist is that they’re nowhere near as good as hybrid/PHEV/BEV fuel costs and are close to (or more than) gasoline costs. This is expected to drop as hydrogen infrastructure increases, however, so we’ll review this area in the future.

UK Running Costs for Weekly Journey: BEV vs Gasoline

Here we got for a slightly different UK based example: a Nissan Leaf 2018 versus a Ford KA 2010 gasoline. They are both small cars, and we’ll assume that they are used just once a week for a 150 mile journey (perhaps people who don’t work, visting family once a week)?

  Nissan Leaf 2018 Ford KA 2010
Weekly Fuel Cost £4.93 £16.00
Cost Per Mile 3.3p 10.6p
Annual Cost £256 £826
‘On The Road’ Price £26,190 £11,000

So the fuelling costs are substantially cheaper, but the price to buy the Leaf is very much more expensive. And unfortunately, this is one of the cheapest electric cars in the UK.

The figures (£570 yearly fuel saving vs £15,190 more to buy the car) lead to a silly 26.6 years pay-off time.

This might seem like a silly example, but a small car like the Leaf would be similar to a £10k-£11k petrol car in the UK, and plenty of people do a very small number of miles throughout the week (then a bigger journey more infrequently). So clearly for this case, it’s worth sticking to a small, cheap petrol car.

American Luxury Sedan Running Costs: Model 3 vs A4

It can be tricky to compare the running costs of a luxury gasoline car with a luxury electric car, particularly as fuelling costs (and EV subsidies) vary per state. Therefore we’re happy to have found the following great video which calculates the averages for us:

  Tesla Model 3 Audi A4
Fuel Cost (avg) 13¢/kWh $2.49/gallon
Annual Fuel Cost $375 $933
Buying Price $46,000 $44,000

So in this case, the pay-off time for the Model 3 is 3.6 years, a pretty good pay-off time considering that the Model 3 is better technologically. And especially good when you consider that the $35,000 version should be released in 2019 - meaning it’ll be cheaper in all respects than the Audi A4.

Conclusion

When buying (or leasing) a car, the price is fairly obvious: gasoline are cheapest, then traditional hybrids are next cheapest, then PHEV. The pure BEV/FCEV cars are then the most expensive.

However the fuelling costs (excluding hydrogen fuel cells) are the opposite: electric/BEV is cheapest, then PHEV is next cheapest, then hybrids, then gasoline.

Unfortunately as this article has shown, it’s rare that a PHEV, BEV or FCEV will pay for itself in a couple of years: it’s more like 3-4 years in the best case, but often (much) more. So it’s definitely a balancing act, and if you’re looking for a PHEV/BEV/FCEV to save money, you would need to choose very carefully.

But thankfully, the buying/leasing price of such cars is falling all the time, whilst the price of gasoline (hence powering a traditional hybrid too) is rising. So the cost/benefit ratio of owning truly green cars is heading in the right direction.