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Is the Chevy Volt's payback period really 26 years?

Ken Paulman's picture
Midwest Energy News

Ken Paulman is the editor of Midwest Energy News, which provides original journalism and aggregated reports on regional energy issues. His writing has appeared on Grist, EnergyNow! and Miller-McCune.

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  • Apr 10, 2012

A recent article in the New York Times looks at different types of hybrid and fuel-efficient cars, arguing that many buyers opting for the more efficient models may take years to see any actual savings.

The article comes with a handy chart, using data from TrueCar. The chart compares the price differences between comparable conventional and hybrid cars, and using a figure of $3.85 per gallon and 15,000 miles driver per year, estimates the number of years it would take to recover the cost difference in gas savings (assuming the price of gas never goes up or down).

For most of the cars TrueCar looks at, the break-even point is ten years or less, well within the typical lifespan of most new cars. But there are two outliers – the Ford Fiesta vs. the Fiesta SFE and the Chevy Volt vs. the Chevy Cruze, both with payback periods in excess of – are you ready? – 26 years

At this point, if you’re Rush Limbaugh, you’ll be rushing off to the microphone to declare the Volt a waste of money. The rest of you may be wondering if that number is really accurate.

The missing mpg figure

The figures for the Fiesta are pretty clear (and trivial, the cost difference is only a few hundred dollars), but for the Volt, we’re left with a mysterious dash where there ought to be a data point – the assumed mpg.

Working backwards using a spreadsheet, I found that the missing number is 46.7 – that would be the mpg equivalent you would have to achieve with a Volt in order to reach a payback period of 26 years. That seems a tad pessimistic, considering the EPA rates the car at 93 mpg equivalent in electric mode and 37 mpg running on gasoline.

The problem with pinning down a mileage figure for the Volt is that it depends entirely on how much you drive in electric mode. A person driving fewer than 35 miles per day (the Volt’s approximate range on battery power) would theoretically never have to buy gas at all. Some Volt owners have reported average mileage in excess of 1,000 mpg, and figures reported by a handful of Volt owners on run from a low of 77 mpg to as high as 168 mpg.

But wait! You can’t just make estimates based on the cost of gasoline burned – electricity costs money, too.

The EPA says the Volt can go 100 miles on 36 kWh, and for simplicity’s sake, lets assume a cost of 10 cents per kWh. So at 37 mpg (in gasoline mode) with gas at $3.85, the Volt costs about 10 cents per mile to drive on gasoline, versus 3.6 cents per mile on electricity.

Still with me?

Your mileage will vary

To get to that 26-year payback figure, we’d have to assume the Volt was driven 11,000 miles in gasoline mode, but only 4,000 miles in electric mode. Assuming the car exhausts its battery on each trip in order for gasoline mode to kick in, that would mean the car was only driven 114 times each year for an average of 131 miles of driving each day. That’s not very typical driving behavior, unless you’re a part-time pizza delivery driver.

So let’s assume the car is charged and driven every single day. Over a year, that works out to 41 miles per day, 35 in electric mode, 6 in gasoline mode. Again using the spreadsheet, that puts our payback at 11.8 years.

Or, we can assume the car is only driven on weekdays. That means 57.7 miles per day (35 in electric mode and 22.7 in gasoline mode). That would put the payback period closer to 15 years.

And, just for kicks, if you drove the car in electric mode 100% of the time, the payback would be around 10 years – more in line with the other cars in the Times’ comparison.

Now, that’s still a long time, but it’s also based on some other unlikely assumptions – such as, the price of gasoline remaining below $4 for the next decade (anyone willing to wager on that?).

A recent analysis by Edmunds pegged the Volt vs. Cruze payback period at 15 years with gas at $3 per gallon, and 9 years with gas at $5 per gallon, though those numbers seem to have been reached simply by comparing EPA mileage figures.

The bottom line is that the Volt is a different beast, whether it’s a smart financial decision will vary dramatically depending on an individual’s driving habits. In fairness, the Times does make this distinction deep in the text of the story, but no such nuance can be found in the accompanying graphic.

The 26-year payback period that the Times is reporting is based on a pretty unlikely scenario, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

This article was originally posted on Midwest Energy News.

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Roger DePoy's picture
Roger DePoy on Apr 10, 2012

Are we to assume that the cost of a kWH will remain constant at $.10/kWH? This is decidely optimistic! Still, all in all, a good synopsis.

Ski Milburn's picture
Ski Milburn on Apr 12, 2012

Toyota loaned me a plug-in Prius for a few months, and although it has a much smaller battery and less electric-only range than the Volt, I easily got close to 60 mpg and would have done better if the “smart charger” my electric utility supplied had any brains in it at all.  So the 47 mpg numbers seems really low.

Second, I don’t think a Chevy Cruze is necessarily a fair comparison since the Volt comes with some value in “zoot factor”.  The Prius sure did, the Cruze, nada.  Maybe if you compared the Volt to a Camaro or something the payback would be five minutes!

But, let say it really is a ten year payback.  That’s roughly a 10% ROI and inflation protected to boot.  With inflation-protected T-Bills priced right below zero percent interest, that’s looking like a pretty good deal.  In fact, none of my investments have consistently returned 10% after inflation for the last decade.

It’s true that electric rates are going up, but so is gasoline.  Which one would you bet goes up faster?


James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Apr 13, 2012

Well, I’ve driven a Volt for 14 months now.  I’ve averaged 156 MPG and am charging at night using off-peak electricity that costs ~6 cents/kW-hr.  For electric mode, this equates to a “fuel” cost of 2 cents/mile, which equates to gasoline cost of only 80 cents/gallon, assming a 40 MPG car.  In gasoline mode, I’m getting just under 40 MPG.

Comparisons of the Volt to the Cruze are just (right wing) nonsense.  The two are not the same.  The Volt is a much nicer car, loaded with several luxury features that the Cruze does not have.  Also superior performance (handling and acceleration).  A Volt with an ordinary gasoline engine would cost at least ~$25,000.

The fuel savings for the Volt scales with the number of electric miles driven (regardless of how many gasoline miles you drive).  The table above shows a cost of ~$32,000 for the Volt (after subsidy).  Thus, the price increase is ~$7,000.  The fuel savings is ~$0.08/mile (vs. a 40 MPG car, at $4/gallon).  Thus, you need to drive ~87,500 electric miles before the car pays for itself.  If you manage to drive 40 electric miles per day, the car pays for itself in 6 years.  Most people will drive less than 40/day, though.  I sure do.

The real point, missed by the article, is that we first adopters are not looking for the car to pay for itself in the strict economic sense.  We realize that we will not break even.  The point is to support the technology and drive tech advancements and cost reductions so that it will eventually make sense.  A factor of three drop in battery costs over the next decade is predicted.  At 1/3 the cost difference, the car will clearly make pure economic sense.

Ken Paulman's picture
Ken Paulman on Apr 13, 2012

From what I can tell, the Times analysis relied strictly on fuel costs. But GM says the Volt battery is designed to last at least 10 years or 150,000 miles, so it wouldn’t be reasonable to assume that the average owner would have to replace a battery within the life of the car any more than we’d assume the have to replace the engine or transmission.


Ken Paulman's picture
Ken Paulman on Apr 13, 2012

That’s a really good point, and something I touched on in a post last year (I really don’t write that much about the Volt, but sometimes the media narratives get so stupid I can’t help myself). Buying a new car is rarely, if ever, a decision that makes purely economic sense – if saving money were the only objective, we’d spend our money on used Corollas or bus passes.

Jeff Watts's picture
Jeff Watts on Apr 15, 2012

The Chevy Volt cost a lot more than $31,767.  It’s misleading to not at least note the heavy government subsidies.

Ken Paulman's picture
Ken Paulman on Apr 16, 2012

From the Times article: “The Volt, which cost nearly $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit.” But regardless of how one feels about the subsidy, the point was to compare the end cost for consumers.

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