How Do EVs and ICEs compare? Really?

4 years ago by Mark Larsen 15

2012 Nissan LEAF Squares Off Against A 2012 Nissan Versa

2012 Nissan LEAF Squares Off Against A 2012 Nissan Versa

Because electric vehicles are so new, and still so few and far between, most consumers have never even seen one, let alone taken one for a nice, long test drive.

To make matters worse, what little information they have heard or read about EVs is all too often exaggerated, distorted, even false, thanks to a constant barrage of petrolganda from the fossil fuel industry. Consumers are consequently wary of their cutting-edge technology, and harbor understandable misgivings about how safe, practical, durable, and reliable they would be to fulfill their daily driving needs. It is almost a classic example of preferring familiar mediocrity to unfamiliar excellence.

Whenever I tout my Nissan Leaf with passersby, they inevitably ask a predictable set of questions based upon the only yardstick they have to make a comparison: the ICE vehicles they have been driving for decades. It therefore occurred to me that, to best answer those questions, it might be useful to compile and post the most salient comparisons in a single webpage.

Like in my “Long Tailpipe” analysis, I decided to use the two most comparable cars from the same manufacturer: the 2012 Nissan Leaf and the 2012 Nissan Versa hatchback.

Below are the key comparisons, separated into separate sections: the first in which the Leaf bests the Versa; the second in which the Versa tops the Leaf.

Fuel Economy:  Advantage LEAF

The EPA calculates that the amount of energy in 1 gallon of gasoline is equal to 33.7 kWh of electricity, and then applies that formula to determine the miles-per-gallon equivalent (MPGe) of an EV.

Fuel Economy Goes To The LEAF

Fuel Economy Goes To The LEAF

As you can see,  the results clearly show that EVs are much more efficient than their gasoline counterparts. Of course, as everyone knows, your-mileage-may-vary.  I can report that, so far, my MPGe is an extreme exception to the rule. At the end of last month, I had put 6,987 miles on my Leaf’s odometer using 1,295 kWh, i.e., 5.4 miles-per-kWh. I have therefore been averaging… 182 miles-per gallon equivalent!

Fuel Costs:  Advantage LEAF

Using the MPGe ratings above, the EPA calculates that it costs $1.02 to drive a Leaf 25 miles, and $3.12 for a Versa. I have quadrupled those amounts to determine the cost per 100 miles.

Fuel Costs: Advantage LEAF

Fuel Costs: Advantage LEAF

The EPA used the current national averages of 12¢ per kWh and $3.90 per gallon in these calculations. Obviously, said fuel costs will vary widely according to region.

For example, my utility charges 8.57¢ per kWh, so it would cost only $2.91 to drive a Leaf 100 miles in my area. (In my case, however, it actually costs zero, zip, zilch —thanks to my solar panels.) If you know your local utility rate, you simply need to multipy it by 34 kWh to determine the cost for your region.

Also in my community, gasoline prices are averaging $3.99 per gallon, so it would cost $13.29 to drive a Versa 100 miles here. That’s four times more expensive than driving a Leaf! To determine the cost for your area, multiply 3.33 gallons by your current price at the pump.

Maintenance: Advantage LEAF

Unlike ICEs, EVs require very little maintenance, also lowering their operating cost over time.  Obviously, with no oil, no carburator, no sparks plugs, no air filter, no automatic transmission, no belts, no muffler, etc., EVs are much easier and cheaper to maintain. The addtional costs to service an ICE will add up significantly as the years go by.

Pollution Emissions: Advantage LEAF

The EPA provides “smog scores” according to the various regulations and pollution tests mandated in each state. The score “represents the amount of health-damaging and smog-forming airborne pollutants the vehicle emits.”

Emission Advantage Is Obvious

Emission Advantage Is Obvious

These scores are for my state of Utah. Readers can find the scores for their own states on the Fuel Economy webpage. I am confident, however, that the differences will be negligible.

Safety Ratings: Advantage LEAF

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandates that all cars sold in the U.S. must undergo a series of crash tests to determine how well their structural integrity and air bag systems will protect their occupants. The results are then assigned a number of “stars,” from 1 (the least safe) to 5 (the most safe). Here are the stars reported on the NHTSA’s SafeCar website for the Leaf and Versa:

Safety Ratings Of the LEAF And Versa

Safety Ratings Of the LEAF And Versa

The Leaf has the highest, five-star rating overall –one star higher than the Versa. I am no engineer, by any stretch of the calculator, but I suspect that the battery pack underneath the car helps make the Leaf’s frame even stiffer —and thus safer.

Roominess and Comfort: Advantage LEAF

As their photos suggest, these vehicles are practically “fraternal twins”: 5-seat hatchbacks with only slightly different exterior dimensions. Nonetheless, their interior specifications are not identical.

Interior Dimensions Favor The LEAF

Interior Dimensions Favor The LEAF

The Leaf has more room for front seat occupants all around, and more hip and shoulder room for rear seat passengers. Nonetheless, the latter have less space above their heads and below their feet, undoubtedly because the battery pack is located underneath the floor and rear bench. The Leaf’s charger is located behind that bench, which reduces the useable hatchback area. Nonetheless, most consumers are surprised at how roomy and comfortable the Leaf is on the inside, more like a mid-size car than a compact.

Acceleration: Advantage LEAF

Those who mistakenly assume that EVs are mere “golf carts” have obviously never driven one, let alone put pedal to the metal to jump from 0-to-60 mph.  The instantaneous torque of an electric motor is a thrill to experience. The acceleration off the line is exhilarating, and the gearless surge of power allows drivers to smoothly and effortlessly merge with traffic at on ramps, and pass slower vehicles in short order.

Top Speed: Advantage Versa

If you really want to push these cars —and your luck— to the absolute limit, the Versa has a higher top speed.

Nissan Versa Is A Virtual Speed Demon Compared To The LEAF

Nissan Versa Is A Virtual Speed Demon Compared To The LEAF

I have to question if this difference is noteworthy. In either case, hauling down the highway as fast as these vehicles can go is a recipe for a big, fat ticket and a dangerous risk, not only to the driver but to everyone else on the road. In my mind, the only situation that warrants such a high speed would be to pass a slow-moving vehicle as quickly as possible, thus reducing the chance of  a head-on collision with oncoming traffic. Surely this is easily accomplished at 93 mph!

Purchase Price: Advantage Versa

EVs are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, no question about it. Most consumers experience sticker shock when they see an EV in the showroom for the first time.

Electric Vehicles Are Not Known For Their Inexpensiveness At Point Of Sale

Electric Vehicles Are Not Known For Their Inexpensiveness At Point Of Sale

As occurs with any nascent, cutting-edge technology, prices always start out high until production can ramp up sufficiently over time to spread the manufacturing costs across a truly mass market. Consider, for example, the earliest prices consumers had to pay for laptop computers, cell phones, DVD players, flat-screen TVs, or iPods. This is precisely why the federal government is offering tax incentives for EVs: to “jump start” a promising new industry for the good of our national security, environment, energy, and climate. After all, taxpayers have involuntarily been forced to subsidize the oil industry for years; it is high time they received at least some of that money back to purchase cleaner, alternative modes of transportation.

The good news is that the prices are already starting to fall. Now that Nissan has sold over 50,000 Leafs worldwide, and launched the new battery factory and assembly line in Smyrna, TN, the MSRP of the base 2013 Leaf S is $28,800. With the federal tax incentive, that translates to a $21,300 pricetag. Some states like Colorado offer their residents an additional $6,000 incentive, lowering the price even further to $15,300 —only $320 more than the 2012 base model Versa above! Moreover, given the significant savings in fuel costs, consumers will likely make up any remaining differences over the lifetime of the car.

And even if an EV still ends up costing more than an ICE, it ultimately boils down to a matter of principle. Is it worth the higher price to help clean up the planet, transition to renewable, domestic sources of energy, and build a better world for future generations? As the old adage says: you get what you pay for.

Range: Advantage Versa

On the Fuel Economy webpage, the EPA estimates a new Leaf’s range with a full 100% charge. This can be misleading to potential owners, since Nissan recommends charging to 80% most days to maximize battery longevity. Conversely, the estimates for the Versa “assume 90% of fuel in the tank will be used before refueling.” To make the comparison more accurate, therefore, I have included below the calculated ranges for both vehicles in the top three 10% increments.

Nissan Versa 'just' Edges Out The LEAF On This One By 300 Or So Miles

Nissan Versa ‘just’ Edges Out The LEAF On This One By 300 Or So Miles

There is no doubt that the Versa can travel much farther before it needs refueling than the Leaf. In point of fact, the limited range of EVs is probably the most worrisome stumbling block for consumers who consider buying one. The irony, however, is that the Leaf’s range is actually twice as far as the vast majority of us drive on a daily basis. It is a simple question of math: since the NHTSA reports that the average driver puts 13,475 miles per year on the odometer, that amounts to only 37 miles per day. Few of us realize that such is the case, and erroneously assume that we “need” more.

Of course, once in a blue moon we do drive farther than that. For example, I visit family out-of-state two or three times per year. Like most households in this country, however, I have two vehicles, and keep a “backup” gas car on the other side of the garage for those rare long distance journeys. Even with only one car in the home, if such trips are as infrequent as mine, one could easily afford to rent a gas or hybrid vehicle on those rare occasions, thanks to the fuel savings with an EV.

The crucial question is: how many miles do you drive daily? Tally the miles that you’ve put on your odometer during the past year, then divide by 365. You could also use Nissan’s range calculator map to gauge how many miles you actually drive on a typical workday or weekend. Most consumers are actually surprised to discover that an EV would more than meet their driving needs on a daily basis. The trick is to use the right tool for the right job. To hang a picture on the wall, we do not need to use a sludge hammer.

And again remember: your-mileage-may-vary. In my case, as I mentioned above, so far I have averaged 5.4 miles-per-kWh in my Leaf, rather than the EPA’s 2.94. At that rate of consumption, in theory I could drive more than 100 miles per charge. In practice, however, I have driven an average of only 23 miles per day since taking delivery —not even half the EPA’s range prediction above for an 80% charge.

Refueling: Advantage Versa

Another difference that disturbs most consumers is that it typically takes much longer to recharge an EV’s batteries than to fill an ICE’s gas tank. Of course, just how long it might take depends upon the type of charger used.

Refueling Times May Vary On The LEAF

Refueling Times May Vary On The LEAF

Because they are so accustomed to driving ICEs, most consumers do not understand that the amount of time to refuel is not a crucial as when to refuel. Having to deviate from one’s intended route to stop at a gas station is hardly “convenient.” Why is it that the “low fuel” light invariably comes on when one is already running late and in a hurry? And inevitably there are lines of other cars also waiting to fill up, turning what one thought would be a 10-minute stop into a half-hour delay.

It would be an error to assume by default that such would also be the case for an EV, with an even longer wait for the battery to charge. That’s just not the way it works. In truth, refueling an EV is more like using a cell phone than a gasoline car. When you get home at the end of the day, you simply plug it in to its dedicted 240V EVSE. During the night —while you’re asleep, the demand on the grid is minimal, and the rates the lowest— the charger’s timer kicks in. Perhaps the best way to think about the difference is this: an EV has a “tank” only 1/3rd the size of what you’re used to in an ICE, but… every morning that “tank” is full again. Voilà! No muss. No fuss.

This is why expanding a public charging infrastructure is not as paramount to the success of EVs as one might assume. As Nissan has learned from the CarWings data gathered to date, over 90% of charging is done at home in just this way. Those nighttime charges more than suffice for the vast majority of Leaf owners to drive an average 37 miles per day. Moreover, replacing that amount of charge in the battery only takes about 2 hours at most with a dedicated EVSE —not the full 7 hours needed to charge a completely empty pack to 100%. For example, last night it took 88 minutes for my Leaf’s 3.3 kW charger to restore the 26.6 miles that I drove yesterday. And the 6.6 kW charger in the new 2013 model is supposed to be nearly twice as fast. An empty-to-full charge is rarely —if ever— needed.


Editor’s Note:  Our thanks to Mark for kindly letting us publish out his labor of love to explain the differences between these two vehicles.  If you enjoyed what you read, we would also like to take a moment to direct you to his EV-advocacy site.

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15 responses to "How Do EVs and ICEs compare? Really?"

  1. Grady says:

    Why not do this comparison with a Ford Focus Electric and a Ford Focus ICE? That seems like the best side by side comparison available since they’re literally the same car except for the engine.

  2. GeorgeS says:

    Great article Mark. I’m going to send it to Jeff at GM-Volt.

    However, I think you should change the refueling to advantage Leaf. as we saw here in an article the other day by IEV. It actually takes LESS time.

    Maybe Jay know the link.

    1. Jay Cole says:

      Indeed I do:

      EV vs ICE fuel time
      -by Mark Hovis, February 22nd, 2013

  3. Bloggin says:

    WOW….nice work Mark!

    Now let’s talk about the lease comparison of the Focus Electric vs the Focus 5-Door Titanium:

    Focus Titanium: $321/mo for 39 months, with $3,376($86.56 mo) Down = $407.56/mo
    Focus Electric: $249/mo for 36 months, with $2,183($60.63 mo) Down = 309.63/mo

    Focus Titanium: $4,890.72 Yearly
    Focus Electric: $3,715.56 Yearly

    Focus Electric Lease Savings: $1,175.16 Yearly


    Focus Titanium: 12.68 per hundred miles = $1,512.60 (12k miles)
    Focus Electric: 3.84 per hundred miles = $460.80 (12k miles)

    Focus Electric Fuel Savings: $1,051.80 Yearly

    With just the lease and fuel, the Focus Electric saves $2,226.96 annually over the Focus Titanium. Or $6,680.88 in savings over the 3 year lease.

    So in 2016, you already have more than enough in savings for the down, for the lease on your next generation 150+ mile EV.

    1. GeorgeS says:

      WOW now there’s a comparison that works great!

  4. TAP says:

    “no carburetor”, seriously? The last new non fuel injected cars in the U.S. were sold in like the earl 1990’s.

    1. True! And EVs have neither

  5. evnow says:

    A good comparison would be Prius vs Leaf. Very close in price & dimensions as well.

  6. David Murray says:

    I think you are using the old pricing scheme for the Leaf.

    1. That’s right: they are both 2012 models. The 2013 pricing is mentioned down below in that section.

  7. On refueling… Leaf vs. Versa, on typical day (90% of refuelings)

    10 min stop for Versa once a week. Is an item on your weekly list of errands. Time to fill is dependent on distance & location from your commute route.

    <1 min. to plug-in Leaf when parking at home for evening. Start each day with a full tank. Time to fill… who cares, happens while your sleeping. 🙂

  8. Bill Howland says:

    Interesting comparison. I figure at current gas prices and 13 cents/kwh, the break even point is around 165,000 miles. I just wish they would put a double size battery in it.. The lack of range is the only reason I haven’t purchased one as of yet. Of course, in my cold climate here, my personal break even point will be around 200,000 but thats still ok.

  9. kdawg says:

    What I learned was, do not buy a Versa. Actually I knew this already, as I had one as a rental last year… lunchbox on wheels. I hope the Leaf is a much nicer ride (have not driven one).

    1. The LEAF is a completely different car in every respect compared to a Versa. While the two cars share the same basic dimensions, the LEAF is smooth, quiet and quick up to about 40mph. Virtually NOBODY is shopping a Versa or a LEAF.

      The same is true of many EVs; nobody is shopping a Toyota Rav4 V6 and also considering a Rav4 EV. For one thing, the two are about $20k-$25k different in price. There are, however, many former and current LEAF owners buying the Rav4 EV and Tesla Model S (both completely different class of car, but share electric drive).

  10. Joule Thief says:

    Interesting article, you could replace “Leaf” with “Volt” and “Versa” with ” Cruze”. It’s interesting how both plug-ins get compared to their ICE counterparts just based on the platform even though the driving experiences are vastly different.

    I agree with the comments that the refueling advantage could be argued in the EV’s favor, it only takes 10-15 seconds of your time to refuel an EV and you don’t get to refuel your ICE while you sleep 🙂

    And I would add that while the purchase price ‘advantage’ might go to the ICE, the TCO advantage will most certainly go to the EV when factoring in running and maintenance costs.