Find out which fuel efficient car works for you
Bothered by high gasoline prices? If you're considering a fuel-efficient car, maybe a hybrid or even an electric vehicle, you will want to see our FREE economy, hybrid and electric car spreadsheet. This example spreadsheet is based on models available in 2012, but can still point you in the right direction.
We have taken six fuel efficient cars from different categories, added in all the costs a driver might experience over an eight-year period of ownership, and provided adjustments for fuel and electricity costs, purchase and loan costs, miles driven and driving style.
The cars compared are a Nissan Leaf (full electric), Chevy Volt (extended range electric), Toyota Prius (hybrid), VW Jetta TDI (diesel), Honda Civic (fuel efficient gasoline), and a used Honda Civic (purchased at 5 years old, sold at 13 years old.)
You will be able to make your own adjustments for your driving style, and see how the cost of driving each car changes for your particular circumstances.
All of the cars in this comparison will save you money over larger, more conventional vehicles, which can have total costs of ownership as much as twice as high versus the cars in this study. (Proof - look at the AAA ownership cost studies in the Resources section on this page.)
First, Get the Spreadsheet
- Click Here. This is your link to the fuel efficient car comparison spreadsheet.
It will open in Microsoft Excel, or alternatively it can be viewed in Open Office or in LibreOffice - both of these office suites are free - see the resources section on this page for download locations. IMPORTANT: if the spreadsheet opens as Read-O
How the New Car Calculator Works
The top (blue) section has facts about the cars: purchase price, expected resale value after 8 years, mileages on gas and electricity, repairs and maintenance, insurance and registration costs.
A few of these numbers have to be broad estimates, and some (like insurance and registration costs) can vary from state to state. For the most part, however, we have worked to make them as accurate as possible.
Feel free to make adjustments from your own research, or to message me in comments with suggested changes. The spreadsheet will allow you to change any figures you wish, and see the results in the bottom line.
The middle (yellow) section of the spreadsheet is where you adapt the calculator to your circumstances. It has numbers you should experiment with to observe how changes in financing, fuel prices and driving habits affect the final costs of ownership for the cars.
Play with the gasoline and diesel prices, to see which autos save the most money as these prices increase (diesel tends to be a little more expensive than gas, so adjust it at the same time you adjust for gasoline.)
Financing can also make a big difference in the cost of driving. Expensive cars (like the Chevy Volt) will take a bigger cost hit in our simulation unless loan rates are reasonable.
But in particular, look at the mileage entries for various lengths of driving trips you take. Think first about the number of miles you drive in a typical year - then divide those miles up into short, medium and long trips, and put those numbers into the three yellow mileage boxes. This is an important step to find the car that makes the biggest difference for you.
And finally, the bottom (red) section of our car calculator presents the output, how the costs of operation for our six example cars stack up against each other. Here's what each numbered line means.
- Total Miles Driven: The sum of the miles you put in each of the yellow miles boxes above. This should total the miles you drive in a year.
- Second car for >100 mile trips (Leaf): In order to fairly compare the Nissan Leaf, which cannot drive trips over 100 miles, with cars that can drive these longer trips, we add in some cost (and gasoline) that the Leaf owner would have to incur to put miles onto another gas car he may own, or onto a rental car. You can avoid having this handicap for the Leaf by only entering short and medium trips - in other words, put a zero into the "Trips > 100" yellow box.
- EV kilowatt hours used per year: For the Volt and Leaf only, how many kilowatt-hours of electricity these cars use per year.
- Gallons of gas / diesel used per year: For the non-EV cars, how many gallons of gasoline used in a year.
- Combined KWH energy used per month: for this measurement we convert the energy in gasoline into a kilowatt-hours equivalent. This allows us to directly see the difference in energy usage between electric and gasoline powered cars.
- Fuel cost per month: What your monthly fuel cost, both electricity and gasoline, is for each car.
- Fuel cost per year: What fuel adds up to in a year of driving, both electricity and gasoline.
- Monthly payment: This takes into consideration purchase price, interest cost, down payment, and loan term, giving you a number for what the monthly payment on your car would be.
- Total interest cost: Over the full term of the loan, what the loan costs you just in interest.
- Fuel cost savings per year vs. 20MPG car. How much money you are saving in fueling cost, over one year, compared to a conventional car that gets 20 miles to the gallon.
- Monthly payment offset by savings: A useful way to consider your monthly car payment, taking your fuel savings into account.
- Fuel cost savings over an 8 year period: All the savings on gasoline costs over the full 8-year period of this study added together.
- Total cost of ownership, 8 years: This is the bottom line. Here is what it costs to own a car for eight years. It's a lot of money!
- Average cost of ownership, per year: This is the same cost from above, divided up so you can see what the cost of car ownership is per year.
- Average cost of energy, per mile: This is what you spend in gasoline or electricity to drive one mile in your car.
- Average cost of ownership, per mile: Another way to see the bottom line - what the total cost is to drive your car for each mile, including both energy and other ownership costs.
The first thing you will notice - looking at the bottom line, cost per mile - is that all the fuel efficient cars being compared have roughly similar ownership costs, once all driving factors are considered.
This is probably no accident, as car manufacturers have to be doing similar studies to ours when setting the sales prices for their cars.
However, each automobile type has it's strengths, so differences in miles, fuel costs, and trip lengths make some cars shine over others.
Example 1: Mostly Long Trips
First, here's a scenario where the Honda Civic posts the best bottom line.
What does it: 15,000 miles, mostly long trips. 9,000 of those miles are spent driving trips over 100 miles long.
Fuel-efficient gas burning wins the day under these circumstances. The result is an ownership cost-per-mile of 32 cents. The used version of the Civic comes in second at 33 cents per mile.
Example 2: Short and Medium Trips
Here's our second scenario, where the Nissan Leaf wins: 15,000 miles, all on trips under 100 miles.
What does it: The short and medium length trips. If your daily driving looks like this, the Leaf is a winner.
Driving on electricity uses just a couple cents per mile worth of electricity, so this is where a pure EV like the Leaf shines. Looking at the bottom line, we see a cost-of-ownership number of just 29 cents. The Prius is in second place.
Example 3: Lots of Miles
In the third scenario, it's the Chevy Volt on top.
What does it: lots and lots of miles. 35,000 miles per year total, split between short, medium and long trips.
The fact that the Volt is efficient and flexible both with electricity and gasoline gives it an advantage when lots of miles are being driven under a variety of circumstances. Cost-of-ownership per mile here in the Volt is 18 cents, with the Prius in second with 19 cents.
Example 4: Half short, Half Long Trips
Here's a fourth scenario that favors the Toyota Prius.
What does it: 25,000 miles per year split between both short and long trips.
Lots of miles are being driven on gasoline, and the Toyota Prius has the best gasoline mileage of all the vehicles. Ownership cost per mile is 23 cents, with the Chevy Volt in second place.
Example 5: Low and High Gasoline Prices
Next, let's try changing the price of gasoline to see which cars cope best with rising gasoline prices.
With gasoline down around $3.50 per gallon, here's a scenario won by the Toyota Prius.
We have a mixture of miles driven at short, medium, and long distances on reasonably priced gasoline. The Prius performance is 26 cents per mile, with the Honda Civic in second place.
Now, we'll up gasoline and diesel prices to nearly $6.00 per gallon, while changing nothing else. What happens?
GM's Volt is now in first place, at 29 cents per mile, and 31 cents per mile for the Prius.
This shows the value of electric propulsion in a future where gasoline prices may rise over $5 per gallon, and keep heading up.
The Leaf comes in second instead of the Prius, if the long trip mileage is reduced. This shows the remaining problem with electric propulsion (somewhat addressed by the extended-range electric vehicle, the Volt), improved fast charging to enable long trips on electricity.
How about the used car on our spreadsheet? When does it make sense to buy used? Try increasing the number in the yellow interest rate box. Somewhere around 8 percent-plus loan interest you'll see the used Civic start to compete on the cost comparisons, due to the lower purchase price of the car. If credit is expensive, and you can't buy outright or make large downpayments, used cars may save you money. Otherwise, there's little reason not to buy new vehicles.
Buy or Lease?
This page is all about the total cost of ownership when buying a fuel-efficient car. But is there any time leasing makes more sense?
We have purposely used a reasonable loan interest rate in our examples, in order to get a pure look at how changing driving variables interact with the technology and design of each car.
However, as you play with the car calculator you will find that loan terms and interest rates can have a large an effect on the bottom line, especially for the more expensive vehicles.
The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf merit special mention for having inexpensive leasing options - $350 per month with a $2500 trade-in or down payment. In general, you might consider leasing rather than buying one of these two vehicles if you can't get a decent interest rate on your auto loan (5% or better.)
Leasing electric vehicles has side benefits - it keeps you in state-of-the-art vehicles as the technology evolves - and it removes the possible future cost of a depleted battery pack from the equation.
How should you interpret the results of our hybrid car - economy car - electric car calculator?
Few people reading this are going to base their purchasing entirely on the numbers they read here, and indeed they shouldn't.
Go sit in some cars, and drive them around. In addition to ownership costs, there will be other reasons that one car appeals to you over another.
An EV like the Nissan Leaf may appeal to you, for example, because you like the idea of fueling at home, or you like the idea of not feeding the big oil machine.
An inexpensive Honda Civic may be your cup of tea because you don't want to carry a big car loan around.
The Chevy Volt may even be what you like, because of the high-tech drivetrain, gadgetry, and the overall fuel versatility it offers.
The Toyota Prius landed in second place in most of our comparisons, so it may a good choice if you will be dealing with changing driving situations.
And the diesel-powered VW Jetta TDI, while not winning any of the fuel-efficiency comparisons, held its efficient head up well for a car with considerably more engine power than the other petroleum-fueled cars in the running.
Remember, our spreadsheet study - in most scenarios - shows the costs of ownership for all of these cars as pretty close to each other. And if the cost of ownership numbers are similar, it makes perfect sense to drive what makes you happiest.
Notes on Study Methodology
This is an informal spreadsheet car comparison, but I have nonetheless striven for the best, most valid numbers possible. Figures were derived from a number of sources, and averaged together to smooth any differences found in the datasets. Some of these references can be found in the resources section on this page.
For a look at how we developed the numbers used in the upper (blue) section of the spreadsheet, we have prepared a PDF document that explains our process, and the range of possible numbers you may substitute. Click here to display (it will open in your Adobe Reader or other PDF reader.)
The two electric vehicles on our calculator, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, present particular challenges in this regard, as there is not enough historical information on either car to confidently predict future expenses like depreciation and repairs.
Our approach to these two vehicles has been to use depreciation numbers similar to other fuel efficient vehicles. However, consider the risk that the numbers here for the EVs could wind up very different - in either direction - once these cars have been on the road for a few years.
In the case of the only pure electric car here, the Nissan Leaf, we have used particularly low repair figures similar to the very few pure EVs that have driven on American roads in past decades. Historically, EVs have had very low maintenance and repair costs because the electric motor requires no maintenance whatsoever.
Our study takes place over an 8-year period of ownership, which keeps it inside the warranty period for both the Volt and Leaf EV batteries. This allows us to avoid the (important) question of battery replacement costs for the electric cars. This position is justified by the observation that hybrid cars like the Prius have had very few problems with failing batteries, and little effect on resale values, even on very old used vehicles. Prius owners have also found a good workaround to the high cost of replacement batteries by robbing far cheaper (but still good) batteries from junkyard hybrids. EV owners may be able to use a similar strategy, especially once these cars are selling at mainstream rates.
The battery replacement issue is also more relevant for a pure EV like the Leaf, and less so for the Volt, since the Volt is halfway between a full-time EV and a standard hybrid like the Prius. In the Leaf, all the miles driven take a toll on the battery, since there is no other source of energy available. In the Volt, however, some miles are driven on gasoline, which should not, in most circumstances, take many miles off the battery. This should potentially allow the Volt's battery a much longer effective lifetime, depending on driving style.
This is a work in progress, and probably always will be. As data on EV battery lifetimes and replacement costs becomes available, these costs will be better integrated into our depreciation numbers. Likewise, data on the other vehicles here will be updated periodically when model years change.
- Free LibreOffice Download
LibreOffice is free, will allow you to view and create documents that are compatible with Microsoft Office. Use it to view and edit our auto calculator spreadsheet.
- Free Open Office Download
Like LibreOffice above, Open Office is another free office suite for your computer.
- AAA Cost of Ownership Studies
Some very useful studies on total cost of ownership for various types of automobiles.
- Motor Trend Cost of Ownership
once you choose a car, you'll see "ownership costs" in a menu on the left side of the screen.
If you would rather not download an office suite to view the car calculator spreadsheet, Open Office is available on disc inexpensively here:
Gilberto Galea from Willemstad on May 14, 2014:
Great lens, and excellent explanation.
craig57 lm on September 17, 2013:
Great information, thank you for this Lens.
Margot_C on April 20, 2013:
Very useful. I have a Honda Civic Hybrid and it still does okay on gas mileage.
anonymous on October 09, 2012:
Below is the link to a free course (website) on performing EV Economic evaluations. It contains a worksheet that complements the great work posted here and the worksheet offered by Dave Muse Media. See cleanenergyinstitute.net/course/view.php?id=53
Feel free to try to give us some feedback (Version 4 should deal better with imperial units used in the US.)
anonymous on September 16, 2012:
Hi thanks for this very useful tool. I am trying to decide about a commute vehicle where my one-way trip to work is 35 miles. I wish there was a way to adjust the calculator to account for a person's daily driving habits rather than an overall number. The length of each daily trip directly impacts how much gas is needed or not. Some of these cars could handle a commute entirely on battery while some will need to leverage gas. It seems like the energy cost could really vary based on your daily driving habits vs. just the overall number. Does this make any sense? Iâd also like to point out that being able to drive in the HOV/Carpool lane is huge with some commutes and may even trump cost due to lower stress, better time management etc. I am not sure how you factor that into a tool such as this though.