Myth busted - Electric vehicles cost more to maintain than gas cars do

Although EVs could cost a consumer less due to their design, they don’t. Here’s why.

When electric vehicles became available in a variety of choices about 3 years ago one of the positive aspects of ownership promised was that they would be maintenance free. This was of course an exaggeration, but it had some elements of truth. Historically, maintaining a car was focused on the internal combustion engine (ICE). This meant that the owner’s cost to maintain the car was closely linked to the engine. Since the EV has no engine of this sort, maintenance could be less expensive. Let’s look closely at the two top selling EVs to see is this is actually true.

Tesla Maintenance Costs Compared to BMW or Lexus
We are big fans of the Tesla Model S here, and we like Elon Musk. Both are a breath of fresh air, dynamic, modern, and forward leaning. The Tesla Model S retails for between $75,000 and about $120,000. All vehicles sold in this price range come with some level of included maintenance, except the Tesla. The first Tesla service is at 1 year, and the cost according to both the Tesla Website and also owners who have posted their invoice information on Tesla clubs we belong to, is $600. This makes Tesla the most expensive car in its price range to maintain. Drive a Lexus, Cadillac, BMW, Volvo, you name the brand, and this costs you nothing.

Tesla offers double-speak about its maintenance. Elon Musk likes to point out how useless dealers are saying “…auto dealers make most of their profit from service, but electric cars require much less service than gasoline cars. There are no oil, spark plug or fuel filter changes, no tune-ups and no smog checks needed for an electric car.” Let’s look closely at this. There are no fuel filter changes on any modern car. That requirement went away long ago. What the heck is a “Tune-up?” Again, long-gone with modern ignition systems. Plugs? Plugs in even the cheapest cars now last over 100,000 miles, and in some cars even longer. Smog check? There are no smog checks required by automakers. In fact, the emissions components on a modern car are warrantied for 8 years or 80,000 miles by federal law. If Mr. Musk is referring to the annual inspection sticker most states require, he should know those are more about safety and revenue generation than emissions.

Mr. Musk is also guilty of double-speak when it comes to charging for maintenance. His website and stores offer service plans, but point out that the vehicle warranty is not affected by maintenance. Then why charge for it? A four year, 50,000 mile service plan for a Model S costs $1,900. All internal combustion BMW automobiles have this exact amount of miles and years of service at no charge.

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Nissan Leaf vs. Toyota Prius
The Leaf is the people’s EV. Affordable, economical, mainstream, and the best-selling fully electric vehicle in America. However, the maintenance cost is higher than its rival green car, the Toyota Prius. We visited the Leaf page on Nissan’s website and there is no mention of included maintenance. It does say “Say goodbye to pricey oil changes and tune-ups. With fewer moving parts than any car you’ve ever owned, the Nissan LEAF® is ultra low maintenance.” There is also a note that says “Got the 15k mile checkup on my Nissan LEAF—it was just $20 for tire rotation, car wash, battery testing.” What Nissan does not tell you is there is more to it than that and it will cost you. We looked at the Nissan Leaf’s two-year service schedule and we noted that the brake fluid will have been changed twice, 33 inspections would have been performed, the cabin air filter replaced twice, and the tires rotated 4 times. The Prius, like all Toyota/Lexus/Scion vehicles comes with 2 years, or 24,000 miles of scheduled service free. That includes everything, and there is no charge.

Consumer Reports asked a Nissan dealer what the charge for just the brake fluid change was and their quote was $291.95. So over the first two years the Leaf costs at least $ 600.00. Cars.com says the Leaf’s 5 year maintenance costs are $3,405 and the Prius’ cost of ownership is $3,399. Where is the electric vehicle savings?

Don’t believe the marketing hype. Internal combustion engine maintenance costs have dropped dramatically over the past decade. Tire rotation, inspections of drive components, brake fluid changes, HVAC filter changes, and tire replacements even up the EV to ICE car cost ownership costs over the long run. The two market leaders in electric vehicles do not offer maintenance costs saving in the real world.

Helpful Links:
Summary of popular brands free maintenance plans
Toyota Corolla tops all hybrids, diesels, EVs in small family car cost of ownership
2013 Jetta Hybrid bests Jetta TDI Diesel in cost of ownership comparison

Comments

I can't speak to the Tesla, but the LEAF is a car that I have over 60,000 miles on and all I have purchased for it so far is a set of tires and windshield washer fluid. If you bothered to look at the maintenance recommended for any gas-burner they also have cabin filters along with oil changes, transmission checks, etc. An EV is much, much more efficient than any gas-burner in all aspects.
Thank you for adding this. It is a valid point and I get what you are saying. One can ignore things like brake fluid changes, inspections of drive shaft boots, all that stuff, in any car, EV or ICE. Rather than rotate tires one can just buy them more often when they wear unevenly and become loud and have no tread on one side. I am actually guilty of not changing brake fluid in a car and then having the rear calipers both freeze. I wish I had done the suggested brake fluid change to prevent that. The fact remains though that the two leading electric vehicle makers in the US both do have maintenance guidelines, both do charge for the maintenance, and their competitors' ICE cars do not cost more to maintain according to the manufacturer's guidelines. This could change. BMW is about to start selling an EV and could include the maintenance as it does for all its ICE cars. However, for now, the two cars that make up 90% of all the pure EV sales in North America are not less expensive to maintain than ICE cars.
If my LEAF were a gas-burner, I would have had at least six oil changes, in addition to the cabin filter swap, washer fluid, tires and checks and/or flushes of all of the other various fluids. There is just nothing to do to a LEAF for maintenance. The dealers try hard to get service revenue of them, but there's nothing to maintain. How much would six oil changes be anyway?
Oil changes for Toyota products like the Prius (most popular green car in America, and on Earth) are free for 2 years, which equals 4 oil changes. All other maintenance is also included during that period. The Leaf does require maintenance during that period according to Nissan. 2 additional oil changes at a Toyota dealership for the Prius would cost about $45.00 each, or $90 total. I know it is hard to believe, but oil changes for three years for a Prius costs under $100. If one were to go to Jiffy lube or a local station, the cost would be closer to $50 total over the first three years of ownership.
John, In 51 years of car ownership, I have never changed the brake fluid, except when the brakes were due for other service. I drove my Nova for 24 years, and had a Chevy Caprice for 20 years. My Tesla should require only tire rotation and windshield wiper replacement in the near future, according to members of my local Tesla Auto Club. Keep on writing; I enjoy reading your stuff! Frank
Thanks Frank. Good real-life examples. You would enjoy the Facebook Tesla Owner's club.
So.... based on the odd requirement that Nissan Leaf requires a brake fluid replacement every year (but only under "severe conditions", whatever that means), and the fact that 1-year and 2-year service is not free, Electric Cars cost more than gas cars to maintain??? Brilliant article (Not).
Nope. It is also the 33 inspections, and 4 tire rotations that owners pay for we pointed out in the article. That combined puts the Leaf way behind the example car used, the Toyota Prius, which includes these things at no added cost to the owner. The same would be true for a Corolla. By the end of the second year the Leaf is already in the hole $600. That is why the Cars.com examples (with links) shows that over 5 years there is no cost of ownership advantage to the Leaf. FYI, "Severe condition" is the default for Nissan's service manual as shown by the link. Most manufacturers use this term. It means if you drive where it is sometimes winter (they cite salt, cold starts etc), or dusty, or unusually hot, or if the car is often driven in stop in go traffic, or has a lot of cold starts with short drive intervals (like to a commuter rail parking lot close to home and then back at the end of the day). I kid you not. Feel free to blame the messenger(s). Doesn't make it untrue.
The Nissan break fluid requirement makes no sense to me. The brakes are hardly ever used. It's tempting to think that Nissan made this up to keep the dealer network happy. We've done nada to our Leaf in two years 25k miles except a set of tires and I don't even rotate -- just buy new rears and move the rears to the front.
You nailed it. . As you say, the brakes are rarely used due to the electric motor regenerative braking capability of the car, so they don't move, or cycle, as often as brakes in other cars. Changing the fluid more often helps prevent the calipers from freezing in place. Caused by moisture in the fluid. Google the phrase "Frozen brake caliper"
It is unlikely that BEVs require less servicing overall, but they certainly require less routine maintenance. But then not everyone subscribes to the prescription that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and there is a strong tendency to shower care on any car in the ~$100k price range. Hence we can't complain when the manufacturers provide services to satisfy that demand, unless it is required by the warranty.
Your entire argument seems to be: Elon Musk gets car facts wrong, ergo electric cars are more expensive. "Free" maintenance from other luxury car providers is baked into the price. The argument Musk is trying to promote is that there is less to do on an electric car than on a combustion engine (his company's commercial disposition with it aside). What I'd like an expert opinion on is just that: is it a valid assertion that with more electronics and fewer "analog" parts, less maintenance is required?
In my opening paragraph I assert that it indeed, the electric cars' designs SHOULD cost owners less. However, the facts are the facts. Tesla wants your service money and has two ways for you to pay. In advance (see link) or when you bring the car in (as the owners have reported.) In my defense my argument also includes a link to the pricing page for Tesla's service and a link to the BMW free service plan page. Plus a complete overview of the other cars in the Tesla's price range. My argument is not simply subjective. I do appreciate your comments though, and you and I agree that electric cars SHOULD be costing customers less than ICE cars for maintenance. - On the point that ICE car makers bake in the costs for the internal combustion engine's maintenance - absolutely true. However, remember that in the case of BMW the oil is NOT changed on any short interval. It uses a lot more oil in the engine, and also a synthetic that only requires changing about every 15,000 miles. This reduces the cost of labor significantly. Let's not pretend that there are any manufacturers left with 3,000 mile oil change intervals. Times have changed and ICE engines have dramatically improved in this regard.
We have both a 2005 Toyota Prius and a 2012 Nissan Leaf. The Prius has over 100k miles. On average, including gasoline, we spent about $770 per year on the Prius. However, I have done several repair/maintenance tasks myself - such as replacing a fog light (twice) for about $40 each time (Toyota wanted over $200 each time to do the repair and it was just replacing the bulb assembly), and replacing the cabin air filter - $10 vs. the $30 Toyota would charge to do it. The only things not included in the cost are loan interest, personal property taxes and insurance. Overall, we are fairly happy with the cost of ownership of this Prius. The Nissan leaf is only 2 years old, and since it is driven only locally (we are retired now with no commute) only has 3400 miles on it. It has cost zero in gasoline, oil changes, or other repairs and maintenance. The only expense besides insurance has been 2 VA state safety inspections at $16 each, DMV registration fees (VA tacked on a $64 surcharge for EV last year to the about $40 fee) and about $83 in electricity (758 kWhr x $0.11 per in the first 3000 miles) or about 3 cents per mile. I will change my own cabin air filter. I certainly will NOT pay nearly $300 to have the brake fluid changed! (Are you kidding us with that $ quote?!) Rotate the tires? I can have that done for $10 at the local tire store or do it myself. Nissan provided 2 years of free battery checks - one dealer charged me $62 by mistake for the 24 month check but refunded it. So far so good...looks like it will be even less expensive than our 2005 Prius to own and operate. now if only it had comparable range, and there were fast charging stations out on the highway...someday!
Wow. Thank you for this excellent overview. Very generous of you to share. Indeed, the 9 year older Prius does have a higher cost to maintain than the 2014 would. The 2 years of included maintenance started with the 2013 model year. You're right the Nissan quote seems high. I included the link to the CR quote on the brake fluid change because it was so expensive. I think it was actually the cost to do all the other checks and filters too. Lexus charges me only $169 to have the brake fluid changed in my Highlander and it is only every 30K, even with the "severe" duty.
To claim that there a Toyota or BMW cosrs less to maintain because those manufacturers offer free maintenance for a few years is misleading. There is still a cost for maintenance on those cars, the manufacturers just choose to eat thise costs or, more likely, roll them into the price of the vehicle. Here's a real world comparisson to further support my claim that the assertion that EV's cost more than cars w/ ICE's to maintain: I am the original owner of a 2011 Nissan and i have put just under 35k miles on it. My costs for all maintenance for 3 years is $295 and includes the following items: all inspections, 1 break fluid change, 1 cabin air filter change, 1 change of all wiper blades. I did not have to pay for any tire rotations (free) and i already had a jug of wiper fluid in the garage to top that off. My wife owns a 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid. Maintenance items for 3 years based on published costs at dealer and maintenance info my service manual come out to about $425-$475 for: all inspections, 1 filter change, 1 filter change, 3 oil changes, and 1 break fluid change. Tire rotations and wiper fluid also no additional charge for this car. So my Nissan Leaf should cost about $130-$180 less to maintain compared to first 3 years of a brand new Accord hybrid. Over time, the maintenance costs will first get further apart and then closer together (the Accord will need valve adjustments and such after 4 years and then other adjustments and inspections the EV will never need and many other ICE specific maintenance items; and then the EV will eventually need battery replacement). But initial 3 year maintenance is definitely less for the EV in this comparo. Also note, both our cars follow the less severe maintenance schedules because that is exactly what our driving conditions are: not to hot or cold in Seattle, not dusty, mostly highway miles not stop and go, never towing or hauling heavy loads, etc.
Thanks for posting this Tinhart (cool name BTW). I appreciate your sharing this real-life cost info with us very much. Your main point is correct and I won't argue that there are some matchups that show EVs to be less expensive to maintain. In fact when the i3 launches I assume it will be cost-free for 5years/50K like the other BMWs are. I do think my matchup of the Prius and Leaf is valid, but you make a good point. - - I think it is fair to consider that some Mfgs add in service. I start out saying I agree that EVs SHOULD cost less. That said, Tesla includes electricity at its SCs at no charge and the Tesla folks LOVE that and they make a lot of positive comments about it with regard to COO. So I think the story is not really too misleading. Perhaps if more folks write stories like this with real data from the Mfgs Nissan and Tesla (Honda and Chevy) would feel pressure to even-up the free maintenance periods. Thanks again for adding your (accurate) perspective.
"Mr. Musk is also guilty of double-speak when it comes to charging for maintenance. His website and stores offer service plans, but point out that the vehicle warranty is not affected by maintenance" Which means it's optional, which also means it's not required, which makes the car less costly to maintain. There was no "myth busted" here because there was no myth to begin with.
Thanks JP, I am inclined to expand on one point you make. On thing that has always bugged me about automotive dealerships is that they have this list of stuff to do on my car that goes beyond what is required by the manufacturer to keep the warranty. Seem like stealing almost and I think it is high on the list of the car dealerships' biggest sins. You are basically claiming Tesla is doing exactly what the car dealers do. To me this is a much worse accusation than saying EVs (as currently offered) are not less expensive to maintain than ICE cars. - - To your more basic point, the fact is that Tesla has a list of stuff it recommends and it charges for those services. If the customer does not pay for them they do not get done by Tesla. Call it what you like.
Many companies offer additional, optional, service plans. It's common practice. Some people like the feeling of security they get from them, others don't see the benefit. I'm not sure why you feel a common business practice across all industries is worse because Tesla also offers it, as an option. Actually I am sure, because it destroys your entire premise of this article, which was flawed to begin with.
I guess I am not doing a good job explaining that the service plans for BMW and the other automakers I mentioned in the article are not optional. You get them at no added cost. So they reduce the amount of money required to maintain the vehicle the way the manufacturer suggests you should. The point of the article is that to maintain a Tesla the way tesla suggests that you should costs more than the cars it calls competitors (or peers if you prefer). I think it is pretty widely discussed that EVs should be less expensive to maintain than ICE vehicles. My story takes a look at the actual cost reported by actual Tesla owners and uses the company's own website as proof that seems untrue. The story did pretty well.
If you think an optional pay service plan is a valid comparison to required service included in the purchase price it's pretty obvious you have no interest in making an accurate argument. Try and grasp this basic concept, whatever service Tesla feels is "required" is also free, since the service plan that you can buy if you want is not required. Tesla simply offers an additional higher level of extra service if you want it, as an option. You do know what an option is, right? Like adding optional leather seating, or a sun roof, or any other option that is not required for the operation of the vehicle but you can pay extra for.
Thanks JP, well argued. The owners paying the $600 at their first annual service, or those that buy one of the 5 service plans Tesla sells are getting something optional that they did not need to buy in order to properly maintain their vehicle. Frankly, that does not seem ethical. Seems like exactly what car dealers are often accused of by angry owners. -- Is the Leaf maintenance optional too or is that actually recommended and required by Nissan as we seem to think?
I'm still failing to understand how offering an optional product or service is unethical. As I said, some people like the extra level of service and think it's worth paying for. Just as people sometimes pay for an extended warranty, even though statistically it's not worth buying in most cases. I'm not that familiar with the LEAF maintenance but I believe there is a free yearly battery check and a tire rotation, which may or may not be free, or you could do yourself. Since Nissan uses dealers they may try to push other services, which as far as I know are not required. The bottom line is there are simply fewer things to maintain in an EV, and assuming it's properly built will need much less service compared to a conventional ICE vehicle. Along with the drastically lower "fueling" costs means a lower cost of ownership compared to a similarly priced ICE vehicle.
Thanks John, I do think you are asking important questions here and asking us to do some good critical thinking. Apologies for all the typos in my previous post. I should know better than to compose such long posts on my phone. :)
Maybe a bit off subject but...What if you don't want or need an automobile with the absolute lowest cost of ownership? I'm enjoying my 2011 VW Golf TDI in which I got 60 mpg on a cross country trip last year. The next generation Golf TDI due out later this year is supposed to get 10-15% better MPG. A VW Polo might compare with the Nissan Leaf in size and will get substantially better than the new Golf. (The Polo is not available here - yet) When concerned with costs consider many families have a pair of vehicles, with one being an EV, simply because they like the perceived cost benefit (questionable) and the coveted environmental social benefit (epidemically popular). Many of these families could own just one small efficient car that is capable of all tasks and save substantial money. But to each his own - until our choice is eliminated.
Well said Bill. Diesels have a big drivability advantage too. Diesels biggest challenge in the US is not performance, or amazing mileage in certain circumstances. The main issue is that there are no affordable diesels that lead their EPA (size) class in combined mileage (Golf gets 34 MPG combined, so does a Mazda 3). In fact, they have a hard time just beating the conventionally powered gasoline cars. Nor are there any diesels that have the lowest CO2 per mile in their given size class, so it is a hard sell to call them green cars. That is why they are marketed as "clean" instead of green. Consider the added cost of fuel (about 15% higher than regular here in Mass.) and diesel has a tough climb before it wins customers over in the US in any meaningful number. Looking forward to the EPA numbers for the upcoming VW engines. They might should pull ahead of the affordable gas cars. http://www.torquenews.com/1083/toyota-corolla-tops-all-hybrids-diesels-evs-small-family-car-cost-ownership
Driveability - who'd a thunk it? From my observation the VW TDI gets better MOG than the EPA suggests where regular gasoline vehicle gets lower than EPA estimates. Given this the CO2 per mile would be lower than the government reports. My city is pretty hilly, and I get about 41-42 here in town. Another thing that must be compared is feel. I've been in Civics, Prius', Elantra, etc. The Golf doesn't have the tin can feel the high milage compacts mentioned here. It may not have the lowest of the low in CO2 emissions (though I heard a few years ago the Golf TDI was lower than the Prius) but overall the driving experience is better. And I prefer to be clean than green. "Green" has no real meaning especially these days of eco-misinformation and enviro-hysteria.
And coincidentally, in regard to the website for which you write, "Torque News..." I learned the real meaning of torque when I bought my VW Golf TDI. "Lovin' it."
You cannot say "Electric vehicles cost more to maintain than gas cars do". First of all, that is generalizing, and second of all it simply is not true. All you do in your article is show that the two most popular EVs make you pay for maintenance in a different way then popular ICE cars. It is an important distiction, but it does not support the claim that Electric vehicles cost more to maintain than gas cars do. You are neglecting that someone has to pay for all of that 'Free' maintenance for 2 years, and you are also neglecting that it is obviously the customer who is paying for that maintenance (through their MSRP). Your title actually should read "ICE cars hide maintenance costs in sticker price". Also, last time I checked cars last longer than 2 years. Over the 10-20 year life of the car is that 2 years really significant?

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