Even Electric Cars Are No Safe Haven From High Gas Prices

Consumers decrease dependency on oil, but cost savings are questionable.

Mar. 7, 2011 — -- While oil and gas prices have been pushed higher by unrest in the Middle East, consumers have not yet run to the newest electric vehicles on the market. President Obama has said he hopes to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, in part to decrease American dependency on foreign oil.

An electric vehicle can allow consumers to purchase less gas and decrease our dependency on oil, but the cost savings vary both by consumer and by car.

Because both electric and hybrid vehicles are more expensive than most other vehicles, they may not give you any savings over a conventional car, said Eric Evarts, associate autos editor with Consumer Reports.

The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are the most recent additions to the mainstream electric car market, both released in December.

The Chevy Volt car has a base price of $40,280, while the Nissan Leaf can cost from $32,780 to $33,720, according to ConsumerReports.org. Chevrolet's website touts a $32,780 price after a maximum $7,500 federal tax credit. Similarly, Nissan says you'll pay $25,280 after those tax savings.

"They're not going to save money buying these cars," Evarts said about drivers who may purchase these two latest electric vehicles. "With gas and electricity expenses as they are, you're not going to pay them off any time soon."

Some states have additional tax rebates after the purchase of an electric vehicle, such as an up to $5,000 rebate in California.

General Motors, parent company of Chevrolet, announced this week it sold 281 Volt cars in February, down from 321 in January. Nissan sold 67 Leaf cars in February, down from 87 in January; in December, Chevy sold 326 Volts, while Nissan had a limited release of 19 Leaf cars, according to Engadget.

Evarts said one reason these electric cars are not flying out of showrooms just yet is that there are less expensive cars, similar in size to the Volt and Leaf, that have good energy efficiency. He points to the Toyota Prius, a hybrid vehicle, as a possible fit for drivers with longer commutes.

"The Prius has more cargo, is likely more reliable with better mileage than the Volt," said Everts, "and it costs half as much."

A spokesperson for Nissan said that the Leaf is still in limited release and has a reservation list that includes 20,000 names.

Testing Conditions Matter

When Consumer Reports tested the Leaf and Volt in early January in Connecticut, frigid winter weather affected the performance of both cars, said Evarts.

"The range in both cases was cut almost in half or in half," said Evarts.

While Evarts said January's weather was unusual, he said it also affected the heat inside the car. A gas car can heat when you turn on the engine, said Evarts, but not with an electric car.

"Running the heater really takes up your electric range and distance you can drive. The Volt wasn't really warm. Big jackets and gloves are in order," said Evarts. "Mind you, I think those were the toughest conditions for electric cars to meet, but we found they struggled."

He said the cars could work for drivers who have short commutes, around 20-30 miles per day. And they do have benefits to the environment because they do use less gas.

Evarts did say it's possible that the Volt and Leaf will save money eventually.

First, Evarts said, there will likely be other versions of the Volt, Leaf or other electric cars with better mileage and technology.

"These vehicles bring brand-new technology to the market. You can think of them as emerging technology," said Evarts. "In the computer industry, if you're the first to buy the first-gen iPad, you're likely to pay a premium."

Also, Evarts said if gas prices continue to increase and electricity prices decrease, then electric car drivers may see their investment pay off.

"That could change the balance," Everts said. "And with the second generation of these cars, five years or so later, those cars will likely be less expensive than these."

He said future versions of the electric cars could have longer electric range and quicker charging times.

Michael Albano, a spokesman for GM, acknowledged the Volt is not for everyone. He pointed to the Chevy Cruze as an alternative for energy efficiency at 42 miles to the gallon. And the Cruze has a lower sticker price: $17,000.

"If you have a short commute, like most Americans, you won't use any gas with the Volt," said Albano. "If that's the case, you're going to be paid back pretty quickly and you're reducing your dependency on foreign oil. But the trick for us is to provide solutions for all drivers."

This story has been updated to correct an error that appeared in the initial version on ABCNews.com, stating that the Nissan Leaf has a gasoline engine. The Nissan Leaf is a 100 percent electric car.