Three Plug-Ins: The Cost to Drive


In a previous post, we compared the driving experience of three plug-in cars: the Nissan Leaf, the Chevrolet Volt and a Prius Plug-In demonstration car that is still a work in progress ahead of a 2012 retail product launch. Here, we present the results in both energy expended and cost.

Our "commute" departed from and ended at's Chicago headquarters and covered 47.1 miles round-trip. Each of the three cars had fully charged battery packs and was preheated on grid power to maximize range. (The Leaf and Volt accomplished this via their websites or iPhone apps and the Prius PHV via its remote).

We split the drive into three legs, encountering sustained highway speeds near 70 mph for a while and roughly 50 mph for a spell, as well as stop-and-go city and side-street driving. Each of our three drivers took a turn behind the wheel of each car, which should normalize senior editor Dave Thomas' leadfoot (if that's even possible). Outside temperatures ranged between 36 and 40 degrees, but our convoy experienced all the same temps, speeds and wind patterns as a group. Though it was only one trip, we kept variables as constant as possible.

Once we returned, we tallied up the electricity and gasoline used and came up with the following results. Note that the costs are based on real-world prices where we live, not national averages. Charging at home costs 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Regular gas two blocks from our office cost $3.99 per gallon of regular for the Prius and an indigestible $4.16 per gallon of premium for the Volt. (Yes, the Volt uses premium.)

*2011 demonstration vehicle; 2012 product will differ
**Based on local rates of $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, $3.99 per gallon of regular and $4.16 per gallon of premium.

Fueling Cost
The low price of electricity gives the Leaf an advantage in a commute for which it has enough range. Frankly, we expected the Volt to come in cheaper than the Prius Plug-In because the Chevy's electric-only range is roughly twice as great on the low end, predicted broadly as between 25 and 50 miles. In actuality, it went 25.6 miles and then switched over to gas power, where the price of premium gas added insult to injury. (We'll report on the Volt's and Leaf's winter ranges in greater depth in the future.) For a shorter trip, or if higher temperatures delivered longer EV-only range, the Volt might have cost less than the Prius.

Unfortunately, for this trip it's impossible to report the EV-only range for the Prius (a predicted maximum of 13 miles) because its gas engine can — and did — turn on relatively early in the drive, piloted by and/or attempting to keep up with Dave. Even with its shorter EV range and more gas used, the Prius PHV was less expensive to power. It bears noting that the Volt's $3.74 trip cost would have been about 10 cents cheaper if it could run on regular rather than premium gas, but that would still be 4 cents more than the Prius PHV.

How About Longer Drives?
The idea of buying a car just for commuting is a nice one, but it's not realistic for many Americans. The farther a motorist drives, the greater the difference among these three cars. In the table above, the Leaf is the cheapest to power, but it gets disqualified outright for long drives. Its range is 60 to 100 miles, and it depends on weather, driving style and other conditions — as with the other two.

Once the battery is depleted, the Volt defaults to a combined city/highway mileage rating of around 37 mpg. Though the Prius PHV is a few hundred pounds heavier than the regular Prius, Toyota reports that the demonstration vehicles consistently revert to the same combined mileage, 50 mpg, from the time the battery charge is depleted. As a result, as a trip gets longer, the Prius PHV's overall efficiency advantage over the Volt increases and then levels off at a theoretical 13 mpg gap.

Total Cost Fuel isn't the only cost involved. Unfortunately, we can't gauge total cost because the Prius Plug-In hasn't been priced yet. The Leaf starts at $32,780, the Volt at $40,280 before a $7,500 tax credit for eligible filers.

Because its battery capacity is well below 16 kWh (at 5.2 kWh), the Prius PHV won't be eligible for the same tax credit, so it will have to be competitively priced with minimal or no subsidy. We can also only speculate about maintenance costs. In theory, the Leaf's maintenance and repair will be the cheapest, as its drivetrain is simple and requires no oil changes or the like. The Volt does require oil changes, but the frequency will depend on how often the gas engine is used. Neither car has a reliability history yet. The regular Prius does, and it's been exceptional.


Hidden Benefits
Then there are the perks of plug-in cars. How do you value access to carpool lanes, preferential parking or free charging? Many bonuses remain unknown and unpredictable. For example, the state of California denied the Volt a classification that would allow it to access HOV lanes. How about your state or municipality? Right now, most public charging is free as an incentive to build EV demand and infrastructure, and to attract customers at retail establishments. Will this last? To illustrate the potential difference, below are the costs for our plug-in drive based on free charging (which we enjoy, though the parking isn't exactly cheap) and an arbitrary cost of $1 per hour multiplied by the charging period (rounded up to the full hour for each car).

*2011 demonstration vehicle; 2012 product will differ
**Where required, customers likely to be billed per hour or per session, not electricity used

Free public charging makes the fueling cost track with the EV-only range of our three test cars. Scandalously, the Leaf is free. However, based on a reasonable-sounding $1 per hour for 240-volt charging, EV driving seems decidedly unattractive. The Volt gets the worst of it with the one-two punch of overpriced electricity and premium gas. Frankly, we wonder if there's a business model for 240-volt charging at all.

Prospects for the Future
Initial affordability depends in part on automakers' ability to make a little profit, or at least not lose their shirts on every car sold. These three cars seem to strike a balance. The Leaf has the largest and likely most expensive battery pack, but the rest of the car's simple design makes it theoretically cheaper to build than a conventional gas-powered car. If battery prices fall and volume increases, the Leaf has promise.

The Volt is far more complex. Its battery is smaller than the Leaf's, but I speculate that its price will remain relatively high. Though many experts believe the inclusion of electric and internal-combustion components in the same car will never be the key to significant per-unit profits, Toyota doesn't seem to agree, having doubled-down and promised regular hybrid versions of all its models within a few years. The Prius Plug-In's relatively small battery pack and parts sharing with the regular Prius give it a substantial advantage, though its current ineligibility for a $7,500 tax incentive is no small matter.

Which Is Best?
Each of these cars serves a different type of driver. For us to pick a favorite would be to ignore the different goals. However, if you are just buying one as a green commuter car, the Leaf clearly comes out ahead in this match-up, where the parameters included a specific trip length, high gas prices and cheap electricity.

Today, saving money in the long run is far from assured with plug-in cars, depending in part on the vehicles against which you compare them. They're definitely a means to burn less gasoline, for whatever reason you might choose.



This is a good post. I enjoy my Volt #974 and have real stats on my site

Amuro Ray

2 Questions:

(1) "it's impossible to report the EV-only range for the Prius (a predicted maximum of 13 miles)"
How far short of the 13 mi did u folks observed? Less than 1/2? 3/4? Just curious there...

(2) Not exactly sure the part 'bou $1 charging/hour. Are you saying that, to use the charger, you need to pay $1/hr? So what's that 6 hours for the LEAF? That you need to plug-in for 6 hours using the 240V charger? Based on the mileage, do you actually need 6 hours to top off (that's assuming that this 47 mi trip used up all the juices on the LEAF). Otherwise,
(a) you don't have to charge it everyday, but like every 2 days (so $12/week); or
(b) just charge at home.
For the Volt & Prius, it's a different story. Both will require charging at those public stations daily if you want to have 100% e-driving.
The business model is actually there. You may not see it 'coz you have only 1 (of each) EV/PHEV. But when you have a lot of people driving EVs/PHEVs, even if 1 person uses these stations once every 3 days, it's highly likely that these stations will be used continuously, by different owners of the vehicles.


Anyway you can let us know the range left on the Leaf (after the trip)?

I'm about to run out on assignment for the rest of the day, so I'll have to give more detail later, especially on ranges. As for the PHV, we can't give range for _this_ trip, but when I drove it electric-only in other instances, I was getting less than the promised range, too.

As for public charging, to emphasize, I'm talking about _business model_ for billing customers. There will definitely be demand and supply, but unless the fee is nominal (50 cents an hour? Less?), drivers might use it only when desperate.

A search of the hundreds of charging locations on the extensive ChargePoint network found only four that bill, and they were more than $1/hour.

The market will determine the cost, just as it will the fair price of plug-in cars themselves. Many in the industry suspect Level 2 charging will remain free as an enticement for customers, who at this time are an attractive demographic for retailers, etc.

I predict that Level 3 quick charging is the main, and possibly sole, opportunity for an operator to profit directly, money for charging. --J


I'm not surprised that GM would:
A) Make the Volt cost $15,000 more than the Prius
B) Make the Volt cost more to operate than the Prius
C) Bring it to market 14 years after the Prius

Brilliant GM just brilliant!

You did catch that this wasn't a standard Prius hybrid, but a prototype of the company's upcoming Plug-in Hybrid correct? We do not know what the price of that vehicle to be.


Any chance you could post an Excel file or something for calculating the costs in this article? It might be interesting for people to be able to plug in the electricity and gasoline costs where they live to see how the price would compare for them.

Interesting article, though I am still wary of the leafm, it is showing promise and furthering the development of the electric vehicle. Keep em coming!

Amuro Ray

Actually, I take 1 of my statements back.

For daily commute, Prius doesn't require charging at those L2 stations, especially if there's an electric outlet somewhere around you park. It only takes 3 hours to fully charge a depleted battery with 110V. Definitely doable at your office location if you can find an electric outlet.


Someone is paying for that "FREE" electricity and the infrastructure to support it.

Right now it's all feel good, group hug time with this. When enough people start using the "FREE" service, the true price will come out.


It seems like money talk. This article is like a joke. Toyota was nice to provide its demonstration car, which is still under development, while the author abusively compare it down with little self-esteem. Prius has been in market in more than 15years with very reputable track record of reliability. Do you know what the economic cost of reliability is about? Huge! The time spent to visit & haggle with dealers, the time lost for driving, resale value, etc. What if there is electricity outage during the night while you have to drive to work in the morning?


Amuro Ray: Regarding "(1) "it's impossible to report the EV-only range for the Prius (a predicted maximum of 13 miles)"

The reason why it's tough is because if you are very hard on the gas pedal, the gas engine will kick on in the PHV Prius. It's apparently MUCH harder to get the gas enging to kick on in the PHV Prius than a regular Gen 3 though. shows some acceleration runs on a PHV Prius.


This article's Prius PHV mpg is 50 mpg. However Edmunds observed Prius PHV mpg is 54 worst/72 best/62 average over 500 miles.

The difference between Edmund's and Cars' is really way too much. Hope the author verifys his data.


Also, in response to Amuro Ray, if you watch video #3 of, you'll see that when they got to ~1.6 miles of EV range left, the ICE started up to prep the car.

In video 4, towards the end, he's entered hybrid mode and out of EV mode.


So the conclusion is the Volt is out classed by the Leaf and Prius? Everyone already knew that. Only naive persons would pay $40k for a beta GM car.

Amuro Ray

Thanks cwerdna.


Great article, and important to point out that local fuel and electricity costs vary. We built a calculator that calculates how much money you'd save commuting to work in a Leaf or Volt. You can check it out on

Clearly EVs are not for everyone, but they are certainly viable for many many people. Almost 60% of American households have 2 or more cars, and the shift in households from rural to urban means that a very big use case for cars is people for whom an EV could be the primary car with another gas-powered car for longer trips. This is the case for us.

But even a one-car use case works when you factor in urban rent-on-demand systems like ZipCar, where one can easily choose the right car to fit their need at any particular moment.

We own a Leaf (you can read about our experience so far on and we also have our old gas-powered car, but on the rare occasion that both drivers might need to have a long-rang car, we can simply pick up a ZipCar for a few hours, overnight, etc.

But for the vast majority of our driving needs, the Leaf is just fine - and honestly it is so fun to drive that we fight over who gets to use it. I had a range-anxiety experience one night (see the blog), but as I learn about the car's "true range" it is just becoming a part of my mental calculation.

This seems like a pretty complicated system - choose the right car for the right need - but it really is a very efficient way to think abou driving. How many people choose a car based on the worst case scenario: shuttling around out-of-town visitors, taking long road trips, hauling garden supplies?

I'd say cold-weather would be the biggest deterrent to getting an EV. But again, many many people live in temperate climates. Just like people in cities choose smaller cars, people in warmer climates could choose EVs.

But I'd expect that as batteries evolve this issue will be greatly mitigated.

Thanks for the article!

Amuro Ray

"a very efficient way to think abou driving"

I think that Kathy has nailed it - in terms of driving dynamics. Rather than thinking, "when should I step on the gas/brake pedal in order to achieve optimal efficiency," many of us have spend too much of our brain cells on "how do I incorporate my iPod into the stereo system, " "how many songs can I load into the (say) MyTouch system," "can I fit that 19" wheels into my vehicle," etc.


This test is hardly scientific due to the simple fact that 3 drivers were used in sporadic aspects of the drives. There is absolutley no information to ascertain HOW each vehicle was driven.Simple stating that the vehicle was "travelling at 55 then 70mph" inst enough because very rapid acceleration is quite detrimental to plug-in range but not so for the ICE powered Prius plug-in (under hard acceleration)

My insticts tell me that the VOLT was drive very hard in order to garner only 25 miles of EV range (even at 36-40F) as most Volt owners including Chelsea Sexton are currently reporting MUCH higher than that (high 30s mid 40s) in various forums such as

I have been driving the Volt in ~40 degree weather the last 2 months and I have NEVER received less than 39 miles on a full charge and a best of 51 miles. This would have put the Volt in the #1 position for these tests.

Additioanally it is stated that "pre-conditioning" was used prior to the road tests and it is well known that unless the 240V EVSE was used, the 1.3kw rate provided by the base 120V EVSE isnt able to "keep up" with the power demands of preconditioning. Therefore the difference needs to be made up by the Lithum Ion battery at the detriment of range on the next drive cycle. ONE 10-minute REMOTE START (aka interior pre-conditioning)cycle, drops my range up to 5-miles and 2-cycles (which is the maximum) will reduce your range by over 10 miles. This is what I think happended to teh Volt in your test.

This test is flawed and should be repeated under more moderate conditions using the same driver for each car (or at least create a methodology to insure ALL vehicles were being operated identically)

So this series of tests clearly establishes a new low in creating FALSE results in accordance to some personal or corporate agenda.


FIRST: Joe was saying the mileage would be 50 mpg AFTER the electric range was depleted, not the total mileage when calculating both. Please read the context before making your opinion heard on the content.

You read their testing conditions for those results right? In California vs. Chicago. A 90 mile route that isn't described, versus our very urban with a dash of highway in 35 degree weather. Oh, and ours wasn't about the best mileage, it was about the actual cost of driving.

To clarify to all our new readers from to the site via this story: purchased both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf. The only loaner here was from Toyota which as we stated was a prototype. We were very careful to state how it was still in development stages etc.

We have a staunch editorial policy here and no amount of advertising impacts our content. The fact that a Volt is in our header is simply because we rotate a new "hot" model into that space every few months. It will soon be replaced.

I've personally reviewed the Prius, and everyone here has driven it extensively. It remains a good car that gets the best mileage of anything on the market. It's proven to be reliable as well. We recommend it as a Best Bet etc.


"Steve" and "Chad", thanks for your brilliant insight. Now let the adults talk.


I find these articles very insightful. Prior to reading them I was leaning towards a Volt but will now give the Prius a strong second look. I'm having a hard time justifying the difference in price and with the Volt not being as efficient as the others maybe Chevrolet rushed the car to market to quickly.


What the article is forgetting about is the deep charge/discharge life of EV batteries. Unless there's magic at play, the Li-ion batteries in the Leaf are unlikely to survive more than about 1,000 full charge/discharge cycles before they fail, no different than a Li-ion battery pack in a laptop doing similar duty (except the Leaf will have far more cells to fail prematurely). I've yet to hear whether a top-up charge during the day would improve that performance, or if the hybrid partial recharge due to regenerative braking would reduce or add to the battery life. But if 1,000 deep cycles is realistic, if you're a commuter driving to and from work on a single charge, 50 weeks per year, 5 days per week, that's 4 years before you're talking about a battery pack replacement. What's the cost of THAT per mile driven? Not insignificant, if the battery pack is a significant fraction of the vehicle's sticker price!

This is info I'd need to know before buying a Leaf. My ordinary hybrid Prius has already gone three years of long commuting with nothing other than oil/filter changes and tires, and Prius taxi users have driven theirs a lot further than mine.

Amuro Ray

"What's the cost of THAT per mile driven?"


Battery is warrantied for 8 years/ 100000 mi. Nissan does expect the battery to hold 80% of its charge instead of 100% after 5 years of use. There are internal battery maintenance software that actually prevent the Li-ion battery to reach 100% of its full charge potential, and all data published are based on this "preventive" measure.

You can learn more from Nissan USA, or Leaf's forum such as Better yet, search engine is your friend.

Warranty of Volt's battery is identical, although I don't know 'bou its battery maintenance part.


given that toyota has plug in Prius in test from 2005, and yet to introduce the plug in prius in market. there must be some issue involved with Li-ion battery. plug in prius has the lowest e only drive range, but also its battery pack is cheapest to replace when it fail. my vote is for Prius. electric car is still far away from mature, i won't throw my money in for beta testing a product, especially when it's a car that will hit really hard on my bank account.

I wouldn't take those guys personally. I think they were just pointing out that the Leaf and Prius are superior in virtually every way.

We have a Miles EV and a Prius for distance driving. The Miles works great for in town and thats what we do the most of. It is not a great car but it is really cheap to drive. We charge it with solar panels. We have had issues with the batteries, and until the Leaf has been around awhile we won't sink that much money into the car. I have seen the Volts but I wouldn't by a GM product no matter what. The Prius is rock solid

George Parrott

We have both the 2011 Volt and the 2011 Leaf. We replaced a 2006 Prius and a 2007 Camry Hybrid to migrate to two "cleaner" cars. For 90% of our daily driving we NEVER exceed the Volt's EV range, so compared to our previous Prius and/or Camry our cost basis is whoppingly less, especially since we are on a "time of use" and special EV rate from our utility company ($0.055/kW). Many utilities offer such special rates for midnight to 7am charging times, by the way. Further our house is fully solar photovoltaic equipped and the "credit" we get for overproduction during PEAK afternoon air conditioning times, fully covers our charged cost/use for those midnight to 7 am charging draws, so we end up with ZERO energy cost for our daily total of 60 miles (2 x 30miles) for our work dual career commutes. Try to beat that was a Prius, we sure couldn't.


Great Article Joe,

I would like to point out that it appears most people think about PEVs as a way to save money and the environment. But how about discussing the great advantage of independence from foreign oil that only an all electric vehicle like the Leaf provides?


FWIW, I'm seeing 33-40 miles/charge in my Volt with temps still in the 30s in the morning. My daily routine of 25-35 miles almost perfectly matches the capabilities of the car in EV mode. Last week, I drove 190 miles and used 0.3 gallons of gas. This week, I'm on track to drive 200+ miles w/o any gasoline. I have hit the speed limiter (101) on battery power in a car I picked up at the local Chevy dealer. I happen to think that's pretty cool though it appears my special form of brain damaged is rare.

It makes no direct sense economically (why something so obvious pervades every discussion of this car, I have no idea) but I've owned two Lotus Esprits. At once. I'm not a poster child for sensible purchases. What fun would that be?

Anyway, I love the car. I don't hug trees to save the rainforest whales, I'm just a gEEk fascinated by the tech in it. It's finished well, rides well, handles well enough (although I seem to be the only person bitching about rear-steer when it hits mid-corner bumps), and is a surprisingly cohesive package. It attracts awesome levels of Internet vitriol, which makes the ownership (leasership?) experience extra special. :)

watt now

"I'm not paying for their free electricity!" - Generally speaking you arent. The businesses that install them typically use the free power as incentive to shop there. Or the driver pays for the juice with a card.

"If the power is out, you dont get a charge" - If the power is out, you cant pump gas either... next!

"It's my tax money that is paying those incentives!" How soon we forget the $10,000 incentive that the feds were offering if you bought a hummer, or a huge gas guzzling SUV, a few years ago. Also does Cash for Clunkers ring a bell?


Here are some things you don't know about the Nissan Leaf:


The Leaf is looking good for me to buy. Thanks for the link Jen. I am trying to do as much research as possible.


Like Rick Scarlet, I went into the Chevy dealer very skeptical. I've never owned a GM and considered them 2nd-class automobiles. I came out utterly surprised at the quality of the exterior and interior of the Volt.

BTW, Ronnie, you clearly did not read (or comprehend) the earlier head-to-head post. I am personally agree with it, and am glad and proud of both the Leaf and Volt. Pick the one right for you.

I look forward to the Tesla S (sedan). Toyota needs its relationship Tesla simply in order to catch up. I expect that they will.



The Leaf is not better than the Volt in "virtualy every way", especially if you want to take a trip longer than 50 miles.

Please be objective.


This so-called "real-world test" by is about as unscientific as they come.

It is frought with error and factors of high unreliablity.Did they even bother to read the owners manuals? LOL

To put any weighting as to the results of this test with respect to a purchasing decsision would be idiotic.

I'm driving my Volt ~39 miles per day at an electrical cost of 77- cents a day. ($38.50 total electrical cost) In just over 2 1/2 months I have travelled 1975 miles burned only 2.3 gallons of gasoline.

So... had I listened to these idiots and purhased their "winner" I would have burned ~44 gallons of gasoline at a cost of $165
over the same period.

My advice would be not to influenced by random car goofs and just go test drive the cars yourself.


This article clearly demonstrates how so many variables affect these three Green cars. Even outside temperature is a major consideration on the total cost of driving them. Electric cars (Volt/Leaf) are still relatively new technology that we don't fully understand yet. Or know how to accurately calculate their costs per trip.

In my 35 years in car sales, I've seen the rotary engine and the diesel engine come in like a thundering bolt of lightening and exit the market as a weak whimper. Rotaries ran way too hot and got terrible MPG. Diesels were way too noisy, rough idling, and blew out pollution like a foundry at full speed.

Will the electric and hybrid go the same way as the rotary and diesel? I don't think so. The hybrid has been and for 15 years and continues to improve its technology. And electric cars have shown incredible potential as fast sports cars, as well as daily commuters. They'll be around for some time to come. But will they capture 20% of the new car market by 2020 as some manufacturers have claimed? I say no. It will be 10% at best.

Afterall, when electric car sales take off, the electric companies will raise the price of charging them. And the cost advantage could be wiped out. And what about maintenance? We still don't know what that will be over 5 years. It could also hurt the driving cost advantage. The electrics and hybrids offer another way to propel us from point A to point B. But I think that just 10% of the car buying public will choose them this decade.

- Ray Lopez,


Way to go Chad and Steve! Thank god for blogs to let ignorant people voice their uneducated thoughts. GM makes better vehicles now than they ever had, but your closed minds could never wrap around that anyway. At least there will be 2 less douchy people driving GM's

John C. Briggs

Thanks for the great review. I think the discussion and comments show what happens paradigm shifts. These three cars are all different from each other and have different strengths and weaknesses. They cannot be compared as easily as two ICE cars or and ICE and a hybrid.

Personally, I don't think I could beat the LEAF as a daily commuter. The plug-in Prius might make a good second car for my longer trips replacing my standard Prius. Overall, Chevy has done a great job, but the price point is just a little to high.
John C. Briggs


Prius seems to get closer to 9.6 miles on EV. Dealer says this is normal!
Not what is sold as!

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