How Do EVs and ICEs compare? Really?
Mark D Larsen

February 23, 2013

Nissan Leaf vs. Nissan Versa

Because electric vehicles are so new, 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.



Advantage: Leaf


Fuel Economy

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.

MPG(e)
2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
City: 106 28
Combined: 99 30
Highway: 92 34

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

Using the MPGe ratings above, the EPA calculates that it costs $1.02 to drive a Leaf 25 miles, and $3.09 for a Versa. I have quadrupled those amounts to determine the cost per 100 miles.

Fuel Cost
2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
per 100 Miles $4.08 $12.36

The EPA used the current national averages of 12¢ per kWh and $3.86 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

Unlike ICEs, EVs require very little maintenance, also lowering their operating cost over time. Let’s compare side-by-side the scheduled services that a dealer should perform after 2 years/30,000 miles, as specified in Nissan’s “Service and Maintenance Guides” for the Leaf and the Versa.

Maintenance
2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Services:
  • Replace brake fluid
  • Replace in-cabin microfilter
  • Rotate tires
  • Inspect the following:
    • Axle & suspension parts
    • Brake lines & cables
    • Brake pads & rotors
    • Charging port
    • Charging port sealing cap
    • Drive shaft boots
    • EV Battery Usage Report
    • Front suspension ball joints
    • Reduction gear oil
    • Steering gear and linkage
    • Steering linkage ball joints
  • Replace engine oil and filter
  • Replace brake fluid
  • Replace engine air filter
  • Replace in-cabin microfilter
  • Rotate tires
  • Inspect the following:
    • Automatic transmission fluid
    • Axle & suspension parts
    • Brake lines & cables
    • Brake pads, rotors, drums & linings
    • CVT fluid
    • Differential oil
    • Drive shaft boots
    • Exhaust system
    • Front suspension ball joints
    • Fuel lines/connections
    • Fuel tank vapor vent system hoses
    • Propeller shaft
    • Steering gear and linkage
    • Steering linkage ball joints
    • Transfer case oil

Obviously, with no oil, no fuel injectors, no sparks plugs, no air filter, no fuel 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

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.”

EPA
Smog
Scores

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Scale:
1 (worst) to 10 (best)


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.



Green House Gas Emissions

The EPA gives the GHG emissions in grams-per-mile; I have rendered them below in pounds per 100 miles of driving.

Lbs. of GHG
per 100 Miles

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Tailpipe: 0 65
Upstream: 33 16
Total: 33 81

The tailpipe and upstream GHG for the Versa are on the Fuel Economy webpage. EVs have no tailpipe emissions, and their upstream amounts will differ according to the electric utility in a given region. I have used my zip code to extract the number for a Leaf in my area. Readers can enter their own zip codes and see the results on the Beyond Tailpipe Emissions webpage.

The EPA clarifies that the tailpipe and upstream emissions “include CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide emitted from all steps in the use of a fuel, from production and refining to distribution and final use.” The amounts are “estimated using GREET Model 1.8 (U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Laboratory).” “This measure shows a vehicle's impact on climate change in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide (CO2), it emits. Your choice of vehicle has the biggest impact on your overall contribution to climate change.”

Finally, readers also need to remember that the electrical grid will only become even cleaner in the future, as we transition from coal to more wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro. In fact, right now many consumers can sign up for “renewable energy” programs with their utilities to receive their electricity from 100% clean, pollution-free sources. They could also install solar panels on their homes, an investment that would eventually pay for itself with the fuel savings from driving an EV. Conversely, they can’t generate gasoline on their roofs.



Safety Ratings

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:

Crash
Test
Ratings

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Frontal Crash:
Side Crash:
Rollover:
Overall:

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

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
Measurements

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Front Head Room: 41.2 in. 40.6 in.
Front Leg Room: 42.1 in. 41.4 in.
Front Hip Room: 51.5 in. 48.8 in.
Front Shoulder Room: 54.4 in. 53.5 in.
Rear Head Room: 37.3 in. 38.3 in.
Rear Leg Room: 31.1 in. 38.0 in.
Rear Hip Room: 50.0 in. 47.2 in.
Rear Shoulder Room: 52.5 in. 50.7 in.
Interior Volume: 112.8 ft.3 112.5 ft.3
Cargo Capacity: 14.5 ft.3 17.8 ft.3

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

Those who mistakenly assume that EVs are mere “golf carts” have obviously never driven one, let alone put pedal to the metal. Although the stats differ among the various auto websites, here is what Zero to 60 Times reports:

0 to 60 mph
2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Seconds: 7.9 9.0

Even if that site’s figures are inaccurate, what nobody will deny is that 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.



Advantage: Versa


Top Speed

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

Top Speed
2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
Maximum MPH 93 113

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

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.

MSRP
(minus federal
tax incentive)

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
SV Models: $35,200
- $7,500 incentive

$27,700

$14,980
SL Models: $37,250
- $7,500 incentive

$29,750

$18,590

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 has dropped to $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

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.

Miles of
Range

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
80% Full: 59 316
90% Full: 66 356
100% Full: 73 396

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 estimated 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

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.

Time Needed
to Refuel

2012 Leaf

2012 Versa
From Empty 26 minutes to 80%
(QuickCharge 480V DC)

7 hours to 100%
(dedicated 240V EVSE)

20 hours to 100%
(common 120V outlet)

about 10 minutes
at the pump

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.