When is an EV worth it? - Alternative fuels and the pocketbook

Springtime means a few things to Canadians. Some good like winter melting away, some bad: like potholes, floods… and taxes. Ah, yes, tax season! Many motorists out there, including your humble writer, have the obligation to keep a tab on all vehicle related expenses for tax purposes. As I was crunching my numbers for the past year, something hit me. I got a new car midyear, and my fuel costs went sharply down. I did not downsize, but I did switch to an alternative fuel vehicle (no, I’m not running plutonium or bacon grease).

While fuels like CNG (compressed natural gas), propane and hydrogen are not exactly mass-market friendly, we do have a few options out there – hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electrics and good ‘ole diesel. This got me thinking on the economics of alternate fuels in the Canadian context. Can we really save some loonies by upgrading to alternative drivetrains?

Focusing here on commuters who rely on private vehicles to get to work (as four out five  Canadians do), let’s have a look at the pocketbook impact of the various mass-market fuel alternatives. First, let’s set the scene so we can have a valid comparison while limiting the many variables.

The Commuters

You, dear reader, are a commuter. And there are just as many flavours of you as one can find in a bag of Jelly Belly’s. To simplify things, we will narrow you down to the three usual commuter stereotypes:

Urban

Drives surface streets with lots of start-stops, hardly ever gets to highway speeds. Lives in a condo or apartment, street parks, or, if lucky, shares a parking garage.

Suburban

Drives in traffic over various roadways, from surface streets to highways. Owns property, has full control of his private parking.

Rural

Drives over regional roads and highways, commutes to the fringe of suburbia, barely uses surface streets. Owns a single detached home on a lot big enough for a suburban subdivision.

The Drive

On average, according to Natural Resources Canada, Canadians drive 15,200 km yearly. Our average two-way commute is 34 km, for a total of 8,568 km annually. Commuting is thus on average 56% of annual distance travelled, but to reduce our variables (main family car, second car, etc.), we will use the average annual yearly distance driven for the math.

The Fuels

Over the last 12 months, according to the up-to-date information found on Natural Resources Canada’s website, Canadians paid on average $1.0691 per litre for regular unleaded, $1.03434 for diesel. Yes, the regional price spectrum is pretty broad, with Quebec and BC paying taxes through the nose and Alberta still having the lowest prices in the land.

Since we will also be looking at plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles, we have to look at the average Canadian prices for electricity too. Here, on top of regional differences, various rate policies can be in effect. Quebec uses a fixed rate at all times for residential customers, while other provinces will lower the rate during off-peak periods, for example. Again, myriad combinations are possible, and tons of data need to be analysed to come up with averages. Hydro-Quebec did that work for us, by publishing a yearly report on average prices for power for most major North-American cities. The 2016 report is not available yet at the time of this writing, but summing up Canadian rates from coast to coast as published in the 2015 reports gives us a national average rate of 12.32 cents/kWh.

The Cars

Even though rural commuters may think a F-150 crew cab makes for a fine commuter, and downtown condo dwellers will swear by their Prius C, we seek an apples-to-apples approach to keep variables in check here. This article is not a vehicle review, but we did pick a specific fleet of cars to generate a valid drivetrain comparison.

Ford offers the Focus family in all our fuels of choice: gas, tiny-turbo gas, battery-electric vehicle, hybrid & plug-in hybrid (C-Max, the tall-torso Focus platform-mate), all available in the market-preferred tow-pedal configuration. Sadly, Ford does not offer a diesel Focus on this side of the Atlantic, so we’ll have the Golf TDI as a stand-in. Yes, there’s a stop-sale still in place at the time of this writing on diesel V-dubs, but your friendly writer bought one just as Martin Winterkorn was practising saying “Vee are Zorry” in front of his bathroom mirror, sweating bullets. All of these cars have been covered in the real world by autoTRADER.ca contributors, including yours truly. Each vehicle selected here may not be the best torch bearer for its fuel family, but having the same genes across the fuel landscape ensures us of the most direct car to car comparison possible. The Focus platform even has strong Euro design ethics built in, so our stand-in from Wolfsburg, while not related, is at least a distant cousin.

The Prices

All prices reflect model year 2016 base-model cars with optional automatic transmission (where applicable) and destination, as published on Ford’s website. No manufacturer incentives are considered, as these vary wildly. For the VW diesel, pricing data reflects the 2015 model year, pre-dieselgate stop-sale, as vw.ca was purged of everything TDI last fall.

Here we go…

For each vehicle type, we will compare the price increase for the alternative fuel option and the time it takes to recoup that cost based on the Energuide or EPA ratings. All ratings and costs are listed in the usual order: city/highway/combined. Armed with these numbers, we will be brave enough to establish a proper diagnostic for each commuter. Published fuel economy ratings are getting closer to what we see in the real world, but first and foremost they are a great comparison tool as they remove many variables, like weather and driving style.

Focus SE hatchback with PowerShift – The Baseline ($0)

No, the Focus SE is not free. With the automated manual as its only option, the $22,549 SE hatchback is our baseline. Remember chemistry class where you would reset the scale to remove the weight of the beaker? This is what we’re doing here, establishing our monetary baseline. There is a cheaper Focus, the S sedan, but that car is mostly sold to fleets. The five-door SE is the volume seller of the Focus family. It’s also the entry point to the favoured hatchback body style. The Focus is motivated by a 160 hp 2.0L four-cylinder engine that uses regular gas. The PowerShift dual-clutch automated manual has its load of critics, but that robot box strongly contributes to the Focus’s excellent highway fuel economy ratings.

Energuide ratings: 8.9 / 6.0 / 7.6 l/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Real-world report:6.5 l/100km over 2,000 km of high-speed highway travel
Yearly fuel cost:$1,446 / $975 / $1,235
Time to recoup:n/a

Who is it for?

Our Rural commuter needs to look no further. A conventional Focus will deliver stellar range and fuel economy without any added complexity, all at a very palatable price of entry.

Ford Focus SE hatchback 1.0 EcoBoost with automatic – The Small Turbo (+$1,195)

Since the beginning of the decade, there’s a growing trend of offering optional, smaller turbocharged engine upgrades. The reasoning is that smaller displacement = better fuel economy, the smaller mills coming with a side of turbo boost to negate any loss of performance, or even actually improve it. Ford’s EcoBoost approach aims at many targets depending on the vehicle line, and here in the Focus fuel economy is the priority. A turbocharged 1.0L three cylinder replaces the four cylinder, and a regular six-speed automatic replaces the high-tech DCT. Choosing this drivetrain makes an appearance package mandatory, not helping the price increase.

Energuide ratings:8.4 / 5.9 / 7.4 l/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Real-world report:8.9 l/100 km suburban commuting
Yearly fuel cost:$1,365 / $959 / $1,203
Time to recoup:15 / 75 / 37 years

Who is it for?

Unless you really like the addictive sound of the three cylinder: nobody. The Energuide ratings barely show any advantage to the 1.0 litre engine, and our real-world experience confirms that.

Ford C-Max Hybrid SE – The Hybrid (+$5,150)

The $27,699 C-Max is a tall-roof version of the Focus hatch, based on the same platform. Even though the C-Max is diesel-fueled in its home land, in North-America its mission is to serve as the poster child for Ford’s hybrid technology. As such, it is only sold as a hybrid five-seater (Europe also gets a three-row extended version), with a 2.0L Atkinson cycle four put in tandem with an electric motor, sending motivation to the front wheels via a CVT.

Energuide ratings:5.6 / 6.4 / 6.0 l/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Real-world report:6.5 l/100km, half commuting/half highway trip
Yearly fuel cost:$910 / $1,040 / $975
Time to recoup:10 years/never/20 years

Who is it for?

From a purely economic vantage, we often hear that hybrids don’t make sense, and we’re proving that here. Highway driving nulls the hybrid advantage, so a lot of urban driving is needed to recoup the cost of the upgrade.

Ford C-Max Energi SE – Plug-In Hybrid  (+$11,150max - varies per province)

The $33,699 Energi version of the C-Max carries a much-larger battery at the expense of trunk space. In exchange, said battery may be charged on a regular electric outlet or through a public Level 2 charging station to offer up to 32 km of pure electric range. The trick to save money with a plug-in hybrid is … to plug it in as often as possible.

Even though plug-in hybrids keep the same internal combustion powertrains as their mild hybrid brethren, they are eligible to significant government incentives. In the case of the C-Max Energi, these are:

Quebec - $4,000
Ontario - $7,730
British Columbia – $2,500

Getting fuel costs for a plug-in hybrid is a tricky affair, as a tremendous amount of variables come into play. With that in mind, the EPA has come up with a plug-in hybrid calculator where you can customize the data set to try to narrow down your yearly fuel costs. Given the limited range and “accessory” nature of the plug-in capacity of the C-Max Energi, we used the following variables in the EPA calculator:

  • home charge on 110V
  • no charging at work or free 110V charging at work
  • 34 km/day on average (from 17 km one-way commute)
  • 15,200 km annually driven
  • Regular gas priced at 4.05 per US gallon (converted from avg CDN price per litre)
  • Power rates entered in Canadian dollars

From the EPA calculator, using specific power rates, we got the following yearly fuel costs:

Charging at home, not at work
$710 (Ontario)
$550 (Quebec)
$617 (British Columbia)
$660 (Canadian Average)

Charging at home, free charging at work
$443 (Ontario)
$273 (Quebec)
$344 (British Columbia)
$390 (Canadian Average)

Energuide ratings:
5.8/6.5/6.1 l/100 km (city/highway/combined; used as a regular hybrid, no charging at all)

Real-world numbers:
5.5 l/100 km, half urban commuting and half highway trip
2.8 l/100 km, urban driving with charged battery

Time to recoup: (Based on EPA calculator, considering provincial incentives and using combined use for Focus SE comparison)
Charging at home, no charging at work:
9.2 years (Ontario)
12.9 years (Quebec)
16.2 years (British Columbia)
19.4 years (Canadian average)

Charging at home, free charging at work:
6.1 years (Ontario)
6.1 years (Quebec)
11.2 years (British Columbia)
13.2 years (Canadian average)

Who is it for?

Quebec and Ontario suburban commuters who are able to charge both at home and at work could make a business case for the plug-in hybrid. The EPA numbers are very similar to our own commuting experience, putting some weight behind the theory. Rural commuters need not apply, however. On longer stints, the larger battery becomes dead weight and negates any gains vs the regular C-Max, as the unplugged Energuide ratings show. Urban commuters with either no charging opportunity or charge at work only can’t recoup the added cost of the plug-in hybrid technology.

Ford Focus Electric – Full-On EV (+$11,150- varies per province )

For exactly the same MSRP as the plug-in version of the C-Max, you can buy the fully-electric, no-net Focus Electric. This is a strictly electric conversion of a regular Focus hatchback, with no range extender and a very compromised trunk. Of course, with a full-on EV your fuel costs will be nil, but your electrical bill will shoot up a bit.

In Quebec, the Focus EV is eligible for an $8,000 post-tax government incentive. That sum climbs to $9,600 in Ontario while it falls to $5,000 in British Columbia. Once you complete the tax and credit math, the cost of the EV upgrade is $2,999.50 in Ontario, $4,819.72 in Quebec and $7,488 in BC. Other provinces don’t offer any EV credit as of this writing.

Energuide ratings:     19.0 / 21.1 / 20.0 kWh/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Real-world report: n/a

Yearly “fuel” cost:
$356 / $395 / $375          (Canadian average)
$208 / $231 / $219          (Quebec)
$422 / $468 / $444          (Ontario)
$297 / $330 / $313          (British Columbia)

Time to recoup:
2.9 years / 5.9 years / 3.8 years (Ontario)
3.9 years / 6.5 years / 4.7 years (Quebec)
6.5 years / 11.6 years / 8.1 years (British Columbia)
10 years / 19 years / 13 years (Canadian average)

Who is it for?

Suburban commuters from Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia. If you live in Ontario or Quebec and have a relatively short commute (and are able to rely on another vehicle for longer trips and cargo needs), the Focus EV is an economic no-brainer. The limited range will not appeal to rural commuters. As for urban commuters, not having a private plug makes this option a no-go.

Volkswagen Golf TDI with DSG – Turbodiesel (+$3,551 according to 2015 data)

Energuide ratings:7.5 / 5.5 / 6.6 l/100 km (city/highway/combined)
Real-world report:6.5 l/100km, lifetime average for combined driving
4.3 long highway trips
Yearly fuel cost:$1,179 / $865 / $1,038
Time to recoup:13 years / 32 years / 18 years

Who is it for?

Thanks to VW’s diesel scandal, we now know why their four-cylinder TDI cars got real-world fuel economy that is so much better than the Energuide and EPA ratings. Still, even when using my own numbers, and even though Canadians love diesels, in this apples-to-oranges comparison the math doesn’t justify the added expense. High-milers who quadruple the Canadian yearly driven distance may find bliss with the diesel though.

The Verdict

Before bringing out the calculator, we fully expected hybrids would shine for urban and suburban driving, while electrics would prove impossible to justify on pure economics. It looks like we’re in for a crow sandwich. Yes, hybrids get terrific urban fuel economy numbers, but at today’s fuel prices, the cost increase for the technology is hard to justify. The big surprise though is how the electric car makes monetary sense, as long as government subsidies are there to support the significant cost of the high-tech hardware. Not far behind is the plug-in hybrid, provided you’re able to keep it plugged in at the end of just about every trip (and you live in Quebec or Ontario). Too bad urban drivers have little access to power plugs!

The regular gas car did prove to be the most viable alternative for rural drivers, so at least one assumption was right. And if you don’t live in a province that provides incentives towards the purchase of plug-in vehicles, you can’t go wrong with a regular drivetrain.

Final words

There are way, WAY too many variables to fully explore the subject in a way that’s tailored to each and every jelly bean commuter’s yearly grind and vehicular needs. However, you should be able to extrapolate from the above math, number and stats to fuel your own comparisons. In my personal situation, the dealership had two identical Golfs, right down to the colour, one gas and one diesel. Thanks to incentives and dealer motivation, my extra cost for the diesel was $25. No algorithms needed to draw a conclusion there. Also, in some instances, the alternate fuel option may be cheaper   (remember the GLK?) or come at no cost (Lincoln MKZ hybrid vs gas).

There are more economic factors to consider, of course. Some insurance companies will offer rebates for “green” cars, something we can’t consider here due to the extreme variations based on location, regulations and personal records. There’s also much hype around reduced maintenance costs on electric or partially electric vehicles. Brakes are less solicited thanks to regeneration, and of course a full-on EV will not need spark plugs or oil changes. But these don’t amount to much in the broader perspective when considering the high cost of the drivetrain upgrades. Recommended maintenance requirements also varies tremendously from one vehicle to another, so again a topic too specific in this context. Finally, some jurisdictions will waive user fees like tolls for “green” vehicles, or even allow them in HOV lanes, as Quebec does. This could be a determining factor in your motoring budget, but very region-specific.

So, as the saying goes, your mileage will vary. And in any case, you’re welcome to spill some fuel in our comments section.

Do fuel-saving technologies actually save you money?