I was not inclined to immediately dismiss the GM Volt as an expensive failure, (e.g., Chevy Volt is Automotive Version of Solyndra) and the October 2011 issue of Consumer Reports (CR) encouraged me to look into this different car.
Although CR did not award the Volt its coveted Recommended status, some of its critique is excellent for a compact car with unconventional technology:
- “Responsive steering makes the Volt feel fairly nimble in turns.”
- “The Volt was secure at its handling limits.”
- “The ride feels solid and firm yet compliant.”
- “Braking distance was very good overall.” And this one:
- “The Volt is amazingly inexpensive to run on short trips.”
Does a Volt make a good choice? We can arrive at an answer by comparing it to two popular choices in Honolulu like the Toyota Prius and the Honda CRV. (1)
CR compared their $43,000 Volt to a $26,500 Toyota Prius and a $18,500 Hyundai Elantra. It excluded the purchase cost. Based on gasoline and kilowatt-hour costs, CR found that Volt is cheapest for 30 mile trips, is similar to hybrids for 70 mile trips, and loses its advantage as trips get longer.
To get to a better answer I used both Honolulu and US mainland prices for fuel and electricity, 30 mile and 70 mile trips, an 8 year/100,000 mile horizon (that’s when Volt's battery warranty expires), US and Hawaii tax incentives, and resale value at the end of 8 years. One component that remains uncertain in these half life-cycle cost estimations is maintenance.
In 8 years, Prius and CRV will make extensive use of their internal combustion engine. They would need about 20 oil changes and a few component replacements which should cost $1,000 to $2,000. Also both of them may require transmission repairs which are not applicable to the Volt. Both Volt and Prius have regenerative braking so they may not need brake pads before 100,000 miles but the CRV will likely need two sets of front brake pads and rotor resurfacing. Brake costs for the CRV for 8 years and 100,000 miles may come close to $1,000. Maintenance and repairs play a role in life cycle cost.
Insurance, finance charges, license, annual registration and safety inspections were not included because they are similar for all three cars for the same driver at a given location, e.g., registration and insurance rates vary widely by state. (As of this writing I am not certain that Volt is subject to Smog Test where applicable.) These costs do not affect the bottom line choice.
Discounted parking and other perks for EVs were not included. Currently EV perks in Hawaii are as follows:
- Special electric vehicle license plates.
- Free parking at State and County facilities including meters.
- Free parking at UH parking structure.
- Exemptions from high occupancy vehicle lanes.
A big unknown is the durability and replacement cost of Volt's battery. GM's warranty is for 8 years and 100,000 miles. Note that California requires 10 years/150,000 miles. As a result, Volt buyers will not receive California's $5,000 incentive. This limitation is not applicable to Hawaii.
The Prius' entire hybrid system (which includes the hybrid battery pack) is warranted for 8 years/100,000 miles. A battery replacement with a new one at a dealership costs roughly $4,000. There are lower cost options such as Re-Involt Technologies in North Carolina: “...batteries for the Prius 2001-2010 are $1675.00 plus shipping and your old battery.”
The table above details my estimates for the usage of these three cars in Honolulu using monthly gasoline prices and my own electricity bills to determine the actual bottom line cost of HECO’s price to the household. This price was then reduced by 6 cents, a discount that HECO offers if the EV is charged at home overnight. I assumed that this preferential treatment will last for the 8 year horizon in my analysis. HECO installation of a appropriate meter, purchase and installation of a 240V charger add over $2,500. There is a $750 incentive for the 240V charger.
Despite Honolulu’s expensive electricity, use of the Volt exclusively for short trips is much cheaper than its competitors. Honolulu Volt owner’s running cost comes to $595; the same cost at an average U.S. mainland city is $283.
Then I used a mix of 5 trips of 30 miles each and 2 trips of 70 miles each, per week, to arrive at my bottom line estimates. With such usage, the Volt, Prius and CRV will cost $1,150, $992 and $2,044, respectively, to run for 12,500 miles per year in Honolulu, and $698, $843 and $1,738, respectively, to run for 12,500 miles per year at an average mainland city.
Volt is the cheapest to operate on short and medium trips on the mainland, and Prius is the cheapest to operate on short and medium trips in Honolulu; about $150 cheaper than the Volt and more than $1,000 cheaper than the CRV. HECO’s high price per kilowatt-hour takes a toll on Volt.
Using Edmunds.com’s True Market Value(2), a flat documentation fee, 4.5% tax (GET in Hawaii, 8% sales tax on mainland) and applicable incentives, I arrived at the following cost estimates:
CRV has a purchase price of about $26,000 and Prius is about $29,500. Volt is $31,500 after $7,500 in federal incentives and $4,500 in Hawaii incentives have been deducted. These prices include destination charges and regional adjustments of about $750 (an add-on to car cost in Hawaii.) Due to lower state incentives and higher sales taxes, the Volt is about $3,000 more expensive on the US mainland. The other two are about the same as in Hawaii.
The bottom half of the table above is the bottom line. I arrived there by estimating today’s resale value of the three vehicles for 8 years in the future, using Edmunds.com. Both CRV and Prius have an over 10 year history on the market so their used car value is reliable. There are no estimates for the year-old Volt, so I assumed that it will have a resale value equal to the Prius.
Bottom line is that in Honolulu over 8 years and 100,000 miles the CRV will have a total cost of $33,775, the Prius will cost $27,888 and Volt comes in the middle with a total cost of $31,080. Mainland estimates are in the same order with only the CRV costing about $1,500 less than Hawaii due to the cheaper gasoline price.
With analysis like this, one can run “what if” scenarios quickly. What if average gasoline price for the next 8 years increases by a whopping 50% over the 18-month average I used? This would take Honolulu’s average gas price to $5.43 per gallon. In this case, the bottom line for the three cars will be as follows: the CRV will have a total cost of $41,963, the Prius will cost $31,861 and Volt would come in the middle at $32,589 (... plus registration, insurance, maintenance, parking and other applicable fees ... and the charger for the Volt.)
But over 75% of Oahu’s electricity comes from oil and this is not likely to change by much in the next 8 years. So if gasoline goes up by 50%, then electricity will go up by at least 30%. This increases Volt’s bottom line cost to $34,394. So even with very expensive gasoline Prius is cheaper than the Volt by $2,500.
All estimates indicate that Volt is a losing proposition to its buyer and it is certainly a losing proposition to the taxpayer because tax incentives of $12,000 are involved in the sale of every Volt in Hawaii. A Volt buyer could have gotten a much lower priced hybrid car and $12,000 of taxpayer monies could have gone to far more worthy causes. Parking incentives and the tax credit for the home charger may also add several thousand dollars of taxpayer subsidies.
Even the most extreme of “green” advocates cannot argue that the environmental benefits of each Volt over a Prius are worth $10,000 to $20,000 depending on location and taxpayer subsidized perks.
The Volt is a huge “miss” for GM, a manufacturer that could least afford a costly “miss,” and the total financial blunder from this vehicle is attributable to misguided policies (of the familiar liberal type.) Billions more will be spent on mandated EV chargers at parking lots, and on government fleet purchases of Volts.
Postcripts: (1) What about the all electric Nissan Leaf? Look for my updated coverage that will include the Leaf once reliable data become available, most likely early next year. (2) Edmunds.com is a reliable publication that I also used in my doctorate dissertation to determine car values in the late 1980s. It includes a “True Cost to Own” estimator that takes into account most of the life-cycle categories mentioned in my article. It has no estimates for Leaf and Volt.