Cheapest Commute: Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Ford Focus or a Train?

Commute1
Have you ever wondered how much it costs to commute in a plug-in car versus a hybrid or a gas-only model? After we published our exclusive comparison test among three different plug-in electric vehicles, many people asked us to test additional fuel-conscious options.

Among them was Roz Varon, the transportation reporter from Chicago ABC News affiliate ABC7. So Cars.com partnered with ABC7 and pitted the Cars.com Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf against a Toyota Prius, a high-mileage Ford Focus hatchback and a commuter train to see how much each costs in a typical round-trip commute from the suburbs to the Loop, Chicago's central business district.

Commute2
Four Different Drivetrains
The cars represent four separate drivetrain approaches: The 2011 Leaf is all-electric; the 2011 Volt runs on electricity alone for roughly 30 to 40 miles and then switches to premium gas; the 2011 Prius relies on electricity and regular gas; and the newly redesigned 2012 Focus uses regular gas. The Focus is part of the new crop of high-mileage compacts that can achieve close to 40 mpg on the highway with an automatic transmission. Unfortunately, the only diesel in our test was the locomotive that pulls Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. For the record, that's a diesel-electric series hybrid, but we won't geek out on mass-transit technology.

Our route was a 64.5-mile round trip from Cars.com headquarters, which is about two blocks from Union Station, to the train station in the populous suburb of Naperville. The drive covered interstates, surface roads and a frustrating crawl through the Loop. All four cars traveled in a caravan, so they all encountered the same traffic and conditions. Each of the four drivers took turns over four legs to normalize driving styles. Successive traffic levels for the legs were moderate, light, light and maddeningly heavy. Temperatures ranged from 47 to 50 degrees. The cars started out fully charged and fueled.

*Premium gas required for Volt

The tables above show our results, which we must emphasize are a single snapshot. The Leaf ended with 11 miles of range left, so a longer commute and/or less ideal conditions (cold weather, for instance) mean it would lose — in dramatic fashion. Likewise, shorter trips improve the Volt's standing, and longer ones the Prius'.

Plug-Ins on Top
The two plug-ins fared the best, with the Leaf's all-electric drive exploiting more of the cheap electricity than the Volt, which switched to gas power just over halfway through. While the Prius doesn't plug in, its hybrid system delivers an estimated 50 mpg in combined driving; in our test, it was 53.4 mpg. Once the Volt's battery is spent, it gets around 37 mpg, so the shorter the trip, the less gas is burned relative to the Prius. For our 64.5-mile commute, the mpg was 84.9 mpg, but the premium gas requirement increases the cost a bit. The Prius was right on its tail, costwise.

Gas-Only Brings Up the Rear
The Focus' 30.7 mpg average was just shy of the 31 mpg EPA estimate for mixed driving. We expected better because most of the trip was at higher speeds, but the Focus was fresh off the production line, and mileage typically improves as a car breaks in. Its cost of operation was more than three times that of the Leaf, illustrating just how painful the high gas prices are. Note that the price at the time of the test was $4.15 per gallon for regular and $4.38 for premium. It has since climbed. We pay 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is the national average.

Train: No Purchase Required
The commuter train's cost says as much about the pricing scheme as anything. Two one-way tickets cost more per trip than the most-expensive car commute. With a monthly pass, it beats all but the Leaf. Bear in mind, though, that you don't have to purchase a train before you can use it.

To that end, none of the above takes into account the initial price of each car, either. We're reluctant to present a time to break even on the plug-ins' higher prices due to many unknowns, among them:

Commute3
Likely cost of ownership, especially regarding the reliability of the new plug-ins

  • How much the $7,500 tax credit for the Leaf and Volt translates to in real money, depending on your tax liability
  • Cost to install Level 2 charging at your home (essentially required for the Leaf)
  • Availability of plug-ins and true purchase price of all cars during a gas crisis (likely to favor the Focus, which is the least expensive contestant but costs the most to fuel)
  • Cost of electricity and gas in your region — current and future
  • Your mix of low-vs.-high-speed driving, as low favors the plug-ins and hybrid
  • Your climate, as cold favors the gas-only car over the others

That being established, if you'd like to bust out your calculator, have at it:

*Total price includes options and destination, Nissan Leaf/ Chevrolet Volt are in limited production and distribution; higher transaction prices are likely.

[1]Automatic required for best mpg

Just to throw another spanner into the works, here's the reality of public charging where you can find it: It's usually free. If we charge only at work, the Leaf runs for free and the Volt would have cost us $3.33 in this test. Fast-forward to when charger scarcity sets in and we're hooked on "the juice," and this cost could exceed the price of home charging — or even petroleum. Now how much would you pay?

Time Factor
Another interesting tidbit is the time involved. The cars drove 62 minutes to Naperville (excluding driver changes) and 82 minutes back to Cars.com HQ. The commuter train takes roughly 34 minutes for express and 69 minutes for local, each way. How much is an extra 40 minutes a day worth?

The Competitors: Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Ford Focus, Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe Express Train

Commuteleaf

Commutevolt

Commuteprius

Commutefocus

Metra

Comments 

I can tell you I have gone 1,800 miles on 6.1 gallons of gas. 8 weeks and now fill up.

Student

Your analysis of the cost of driving neglects the maintenance cost of driving the vehicles, especially compared with public transit. Your dollar per mile costs really just shift the cost of owning a car to the future.

Interesting and timely but you failed to mention that the Focus will have an EV version (Ford has targeted Chicago for the rollout) and it's uncertain when the LEAF and/or Volt will arrive here so we may see the Focus EV first -- also unless you can walk to train station and your downtown destination, you have to add gas/electricity and parking at the train station (in NW 'burbs its $2/day) side as well as bus/taxi on the other side to total costs. We have also heard that IL may offer something supplemental to the Fed tax credit (they do on EV conversions) so that could also be a cost reduction for the EV's as well. As far as 'burb to downtown, preferred route for me has always been Metra due primarily to my sanity as well as travel times -- a 'burb to 'burb based on most popular travel routes would be a good follow up, especially when Ford makes a Focus EV available for such a test!

Mark

The only thing I don't see addressed with regard to the car versus the train is parking; If I am commuting daily from the suburbs to the city, what is the average cost per day/week/month to park my car while at work? Shouldn't that factor into the overall cost of my commute to the city?

Tony

Here is what this research is not counting for.
Focus is 18K
And Leaf is around 30K (Tax credit doesn't mean you really save 7.5K. May be few Ks)
So, there is 12K difference or about 7-8 years of gas supply to enjoy freedom of driving far far away. The Leaf will only get you so far.
Anyway, this is understandable and clear that Train is the way to go to work. But when it comes to fuel efficient gasoline car vs alternative power car, considering that alternatives are substantially more expensive then typical car and in the case of electric they are limited in mileage, the normal fuel efficient car is the best choice unless you really want to save the whole nature, which being destroyed not by us, but by China and India.

Lance

Good article. Obviously in a short story it is hard to cover every single eventuality and twist. But I would like to add that the train(unless you live at the train station)on average would not save a lot of time. Sanity maybe but not a lot of time. A 10 minute commute to the station and a 10 minute walk to work would blow the 40 minute time savings not counting the cost if you have to drive to the station and pay for parking. Also, if you car pool and carry a couple of passengers it would drastically reduce the cost of any kind of automobile versus the train even including the cost of the vehicle. If one can avoid owning a vehicle altogether than that is a whole different ballgame.

For the total package of fuel cost, initial cost, range, roominess and functionality I can't see any of these beating the Prius. Just wish it looked more like the Volt and drove more like the Focus.

Mike L

I think this was more of a (not-so) simple snap-shot of what some different transport options might look like given today's fuel prices and whatnot. I don't think this was meant to be that in-depth of a study – taking all the mentioned points into account.

If I remember correctly, there was an article a few months ago in one of the 4 major mags that broke this stuff down too and include the price of purchase in their final thoughts.

To add to these conclusions, the plugins also reduce overall pollution and centralize it at a hand full of nodes where power is produced.

In addition, the fuel is produced at home versus abroad, where instabilities in geo-political forces can drastically change fuel pricing.

Pure-electric trains would probably be the only thing to beat the Leaf. Electric motors are just unmatched in converting energy to rotary motion.

But we live in a convenience culture where the car has become the first choice for anyone who can afford one. So, if you're going to choose, this clearly shows that Pure plugin electric is the way to go.

On correction...
@Tony, tax credit means you get ALL of the money back. Tax deduction is where you only see a partial return. In addition, states are adding add'l incentives which bring the price down close to $23K.

Mitt76

@Tony, Please check your information on others destroying the nature and not by you
http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/science/each-countrys-share-of-co2.html

Easy to blame others than to correct yourself :)

Bonaire

I would have liked to see the Chevy equivalent Chevrolet Cruze Eco (40mpg) in the test versus the others. It would be similar cost to the prius gas-wise.

Many car commutes need to take parking into account. Does such a round-trip park for free in a city versus using mass transit? My city of Philadelphia has a daily cost of parking anywhere from $10 to 20. Monthly is at a disount. If you park at a remote suburban train station, it is $0.50. Lastly - any user of any green-car will still be more-green by using mass transit than commuting. If such a user is intelligent they would not buy a new car but would use a cheap used car to drive to a train station and save on the whole monthly car payment debacle.

Lance

@REinCarnate

Re: Your correction. I think Tony knows the difference between a tax deduction and a tax credit. What I believe he meant was if you don't pay $7500 or more in taxes you could possibly only benefit from some of the credit. The government doesn't give you more tax credit than total taxes paid. I'm not sure if you can take the credit over two or more years time but I don't believe that is possible.

@Bonaire
The Cruze would be comparable to the Focus. Even the Cruze Eco only has an EPA average slightly better than the Focus and from what I've read, the Cruze hasn't been attaining the EPA numbers very well. The Prius with an EPA average of 50mpg and which regularly attains that would be more comparable to the plug-ins as this small test displayed.

I'm guessing if you look at total cost of ownership -- car insurance, maintenance, interest on a car loan to buy a new car, cost of parking, and, of course, fueling costs -- all of the cars slide up significantly higher, perhaps approaching that of the cost of the train.

Matt C

@ Mitt76

You (and the website) are assuming CO2 is a pollutant, there is plenty of refuting evidence to show otherwise. I sell my scrap acrylic to the Chinese because there is no other country that is willing to put up with the horrific gases emitted from melting the stuff down to recycle it. There are far worse things than CO2 in this world that humans produce.

Amuro Ray

@ Matt C,

CO2 is NOT a pollutant. We humans produce it. Out atmosphere has it naturally. Most plants turn it into O2. The problem is - we don't have enuf plants for the conversion process, and there is too abundant of CO2 that isn't naturally occurring (e.g. from exhaust fume). What is it bad for? Well, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and that's why excess CO2 is REALLY BAD.

Bonaire

@Lance - right, I did mis-mileage my note there. Cruze Eco isn't 50mpg like Prius but is more in between the Ford and Prius with hwy rating 40mpg. However, the price is better than the cars in this test suite. Some Cruze models are in the $16K range. If you are looking for "cheap commute" you aren't buying the high-end model of the vehicles. You want to pick lower-end models (cloth seats, and other non-luxury amenities).

Bonaire

CO2 is less of a factor going forward than the release of Methane into the atmosphere from the arctic tundra and northern Russia as well as lake and sea-bottoms.

CO2 is usually sequestered by forrests, farms and plankton - however, with forrests being cut down to create low-nutrient grazing land for cattle - this is hurting CO2 re-absorbtion.

Jordan

I don't need a study to tell me the Leaf and Prius are the best buys. Of course you could spend twice as much and buy a Volt. Stupid does not need to be worn on the sleeve every day.

Tony

@ Mitt76

You don't understand how China pollutes the world. CO2 is a child's play.

Great comparison, yes it leaves out many of the advanced costing factors, but it also brings to light the differences between the cars. You have to decide your own practical reality!
Great article, thank you!

Lance

@Bonaire

The Cruze ECO gets 28city / 42hwy with a stick only. The Focus w/ SFE pkg gets 28city / 40hwy w/ automatic. Both of them have a combined mpg of around 31-33 which is far below the combined rating of 50 for the Prius.

Actually, the best the regular(non-ECO) Cruze does is 24cty / 36 hwy which is less than the regular Focus.

All in all, very little difference in mpg between the Cruze and the Focus. The Cruze ECO does a hair better than the SFE Focus but the standard Focus does a little better than the standard Cruze.

Hardly puts either one into a seperate category from other compact offerings especially when you have the Elantra out there getting 40mpg in all iterations.

Investing for something like this is very hard. As you can see we are already polluted, but then we can't help but to buy more cars to produce more smoke. But that's a part of our improvement.

Thanks for the review,I will send these link to my brother for him to study because I don't have any idea about cars but I really want to have it.I will as his opinion about it.

Andrew

Few comments:
1. The Leaf is targeted, initially at least, at people exactly like me. Namely 1) hi tax payers that can benefit from the full tax return 2) own two cars, so the other can be used for long distance 3)Use one car almost solely for a short-ish commute - mine is 25 miles each way. 4) live in a state where there are additional state rebates - i live in CA where i will get an additional $2500 to $5000 back.
2. My cost of electricity will be about 5.5c per kwH, or half the 11c this comparison uses. I will charge at off peak hours on PG&E residential. There are many in my same position, so the cost of running the leaf will be very low.
3. It has been estimated many times by others that an electric car will cost far less to maintain than a gas car. This comparison does not take that into account.
4. I will get my charger for free. But even if i had to pay for it, it would only cost $1000 installed due to a federal rebate. So the chargers are low cost and a marginal addition to the price.

Once electrics can go closer to 250 miles at the same initial price i think the market will truly explode.

tompaq

One of the items that you forgot to cost - how much does parking run? If you are parking downtown its about $10-$15 a day so your reverse commute really isn't real world for someplace like DC.

Cory

My father in law got hit with the Alternative Minimum Tax the year he bought his Prius and lost the entire credit. It's a good thing his copy of TurboTax didn't include a firearm.

JonZeke

This test is interesting, but as a Chicago reverse commuter this test hardly tells the whole story.

If you live in a suburb, and work in the loop the test skips out on the cost of parking (since few people are going to have free parking when they get to the city), and as other commenters noted it doesnt discuss how Chicago's notoriously bad weather extremes will affect electric car mileage.

For a reverse commuter like me, the advantages of these options are further confounded by a lack of charging options when I get to the suburbs, or the fact that most people don't live close enough to Union Station to walk. You then have to include the cost of a CTA trip to get there, which further erodes the test results.

If anything I'd encourage Cars.com to start comparing travel methods regularly, and log data. I'd happily contribute to the test if you guys like and would be willing to blog about it.

Whaddya say cars.com folk?

shredder

Very nice, straight-forward comparison article. Really way to many variables to nit-pick specific omissions or considerations. Though I would like to point out that your calculations for the Leaf's consumption rate is off. You specify that 21.8kWh were consumed at a rate of 3.6 mi/kWh, this would result in a 78 mi trip. Since the trip was 64.5mi, it is more likely the consumption rate was around 2.9 mi/kWh (more in line with the Volt's 2.7 mi/kWh).

Chris

I wish they would have had a diesel. People who drive them often mention what high mpg they get, but they neglect to factor in the high cost per gallon for diesel.

Chris

I want to add in that I thought this story was perfect with the one exception of not having a diesel. It was direct and simple and didn't try to beat around the bush or cloud in too many factors that people would fight over. You did an excellent job at presenting the material.

I'm sorry to say that is very interesting test but worth less. The idea of the test is excellent but as many people say the car has other costs to consider oil change brakes insurance and other things ... and Ops there is no diesel car on the test why? I have been doing average 41mpg TDI with my commute will not going to win the Leaf I think.
They should considered all things in a period of 3 to 5 years and after you sell the car what you get as balance what really cost and the difference is a very complex calculation because who ever buy a car to commute will commute for 3 to 5 year with that car not only a round trip do be more aggressive and realistic they should do the same calculation in 10 biggest city with worse commute.... after all considerations depreciation and resale value after they will have a real cost!!! Those are just silly numbers....

Martin

@REinCARnate: Electric motors may be very efficient at converting electricity to kinetic energy.
Unfortunately batteries are incredibly inefficient at storing said electrical energy.
Not to mention they are very costly (both in a monetary and an environmental sense) to produce and recycle.

There have been no major breakthroughs in battery technology since the lead-acid batteries and frankly I don't see any on the horizon either.
Perhaps supercapacitors hold more of a promise, but that technology is still like a unicorn itself.

Until we find a better way to store electricity, electric (pure or hybrided) unfortunately is not at all the way to go.
As far as environmental concerns go, a pure electric train is the way to go, there you don't have to worry about electricity storage.

Steve Schrier

The new German made DBM Kolibri solid-state battery may be one solution to the short range of present LiO powered EVs. Attached is a link to a May 4, 2011 news video about DBM's 300 mile solid-state battery equipped Audi A-2 cruising the roads of Germany:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=EP7iQzk5AlI

Matt C

@ Amuro

I know CO2 is not a pollutant, that was kind of my point. The fella I was responding to was pointing to our CO2 production as proof that Americans are the worst polluters. I merely pointed to something that is far more dangerous to humans, plant, and wild life.

AM

Many others have already commented on the fact that parking wasn't considered a factor.

Something else to consider is auto insurance. I no longer own a car, and my yearly cost of monthly passes is less than the insurance I would pay on a new car.

That in itself is worth taking the train and ditching the car.

Good article. As far as the $7500 Federal Credit, you can tell your employer to not deduct any federal taxes up to this amount, essentially getting the credit in advance of your purchase. The caveat being you better go through with it or you may get dinged. Ask your accountant for specifics; I'm only a periodontist.

If you really want to drive for your own then go for the ford focus type because it's the most cheapest.But if you feel more comfortable and no traffic then go for the train.It depends to your needs where you can have a fast way to go to the place you need to go.

(also posted but ignored on the original story of when you added the LEAF to your fleet --- ties into costs for 'pure' EV's) Hopefully the editor here will review any new posts -- why if you registered the LEAF in IL were you not charged the $18/yr or $35 / 2 years fee for your registration versus the Volt (the LEAF is a pure electric so should be eligible)? Would also assume that we would see the IL 'EL' suffix plate and not a standard plate on it (the 'EL' would be similar to the other suffix plates in IL for RV's, etc.) -- while not a huge difference from the regular $99/yr it is worth noting --

sandman 4x4

Yep parking is deff. costly if I was to park were the tran departs, $5.00/day.NO OVERNIGHT meens tow!!!. Also I read where in some areas the air going into the intake on all the new cars, could be cleaner coming out!, and there are more trees and plants in this country now than 50-100yrs. ago!

For me its not the cost but its the time on what time i should arrive to the place i want to go being practical is all there is to it just by riding the train i save more time for me to be jammed at a chicago traffic.

Mark

A very interesting comparison.
Maybe I am wrong here but the numbers seem a bit odd:
Nissan Leaf: If you consumed 21.8 kWh for 64.5 miles gives 2.95 mi./kWh not 3.6mi./kWh
Chevrolet Volt: If you consumed 0.76 gallons for 30.9 miles gives 40.7 mpg not 84.9 mpg

Cheers

Eurothinker

We should also consider that in all public transportation systems, the price or the train or bus ticket is not the real price, but it is subsidized with city or state taxes.

honestly, i don't really understand what Burqa means? i tried to research on it and it is actually use from muslims right?

There are definite similarities between this book and my first book Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality in terms of approach and tone - and very little overlap. The Web Startup Success Guide focuses on building a web-centric web, mobile, hybrid, desktop app; MIVR on a Windows desktop app.

I know CO2 is not a pollutant, that was kind of my point. The fella I was responding to was pointing to our CO2 production as proof that Americans are the worst polluters. I merely pointed to something that is far more dangerous to humans, plant, and wild life.

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