Nissan Shows Electric Cars Can Indeed Be Economical… Or Can They?

Given that electric cars are still far from mainstream, manufacturers and governments alike are working to make the vehicles as accessible as possible for the most people. Both the federal and state governments offer certain financial perks for purchasing a car that qualifies as being green, to help replace fossil-fuel powered vehicles with more sustainable and efficient units.

Nissan has just about set the bar as far as removing barriers to getting yourself an electric vehicle — with some clever (and possibly a bit advantageous) math, the automaker has shown how you can drive an electric car for an exceptionally low amount of money — provided that 1) the drivers live in states offering tax incentives (for Nissan’s example, either California or Georgia); and 2) don’t need to drive very far in a single day.

Here’s how the math breaks down: for a three-year lease on Nissan’s electric Leaf model, the buyer (user?) puts $1,999.99 down on the spot. Nissan then calculates the total payments (36, one per month) multiplied by the lease payments ($199 per month for the Leaf). Added together, this equals a total cost of $9,163. This is your total expense, and includes the $7,500 in federal credit for purchasing an electric car.

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Next, Nissan takes the average amount that one saves on gas by driving an electric car, calculated by the EPA. The agency figures that this would come out to about $5,550, based on “the average car.” This cost is then subtracted from the total expenses, equating to $3,613.

This is where the math becomes slightly advantageous. Depending on what state you live in, there are certain rebates and further incentives for buying such a car, which can range from $2,500 to $5,500. Therefore, in the best set of circumstances, your expenses for leasing a Leaf for three years will be $0 — or possibly even a surplus. In the worst, expenses over the three years will equal about $1,113 in “out of pocket costs.”

Regardless of how the math balances — as it’s different for everyone — the point being made is that Nissan is showing that owning an electric vehicle can really be economically beneficial. Critics point fingers at the electric charge that the cars demand to fill up, but the cost per mile to electric car owners have revealed that the extra burden on the grid really doesn’t have a profound impact on their power bill.

Additionally, electric vehicles don’t require the same degree of maintenance that gasoline engines do. Electric power trains can forgo oil changes, transmission-related expenses, fuel system work, and other major repairs that plague gasoline cars. (How much did that last head gasket job run you?)

Do electric vehicles have their drawbacks? Well, to start with the big one: what if you don’t live in California or Georgia, but in a state with far less gracious EV policies? An electric car’s rate of ownership rises right there. Indeed, you can avoid the major repairs associated with gasoline engines — just hope that you are not in possession when the battery pack finally dies — although Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has taken large preliminary steps against “bricking” related anxieties.

Then of course, there is the range issue. Since gasoline propulsion has become so entrenched and ingrained in society, there is no shortage of fill-up stops we can make. Au contraire, we have the luxury of being able to choose one of many. For electric cars though, this is not a reality — and may not be, as the refueling process is fundamentally different and requires a significant amount of time to initiate. That said, the daily driver should not have to worry — the Leaf gets roughly 75 miles per full charge, which is adequate for most daily commutes. (A top spec Tesla will get you 265 miles or so before needing some voltage.)

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As the deadline for the new CAFE standards draw nearer (54.5 miles per gallon by 2020), more and more manufacturers are turning to electric vehicles to raise their fleet average consumption numbers up. Chevrolet (NYSE:GM) is preparing an electrified Spark to join its plug-in hybrid Volt, while Ford (NYSE:F) has experimented with an electric power train in its Focus hatchback.

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