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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 three 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 mainly 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 would be much less expensive. Let’s look closely at the two top-selling EVs to see is this is true.

Tesla Maintenance Costs
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, the Tesla does not. The first Tesla service is at one 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 is that they 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 this author is aware of. That 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 eight 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.

Nissan Leaf
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 two 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 for the first two years the Leaf costs at least $ 600.00. 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 or owners that write into blog sites saying they just ignore all the required maintenance. 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.

In addition to covering green vehicle topics, John Goreham covers safety, technology, and new vehicle news at Torque News. You can follow John on Twitter at @johngoreham.


Brian Keez (not verified)    April 1, 2014 - 12:52AM

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.

John Goreham    April 1, 2014 - 11:56AM

In reply to by Brian Keez (not verified)

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.

Brian Keez (not verified)    April 1, 2014 - 11:57PM

In reply to by John Goreham

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?

John Goreham    April 2, 2014 - 9:05AM

In reply to by Brian Keez (not verified)

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.

Mitch (not verified)    August 5, 2017 - 1:21PM

In reply to by Brian Keez (not verified)

I've had a mazda for 4 years and the dealer threw in free oil changes and inspections. My maintenance costs
have been $10 for a cabin air filter I replaced myself and about $10 for an air filter I replaced in 2 minutes.
I feel good environmentally also since I get 35-40 mpg and do not have that big dirty battery which was produced at
great damage to the environment and will have to be recycled somehow....another dirty procedure.
And of course, the electricity to charge the battery had to come from a power plant which in my area is produced from burning coal and natural gas. And my Mazda handles much better than a Nissan Leaf which costs more.

Frank Clark (not verified)    April 4, 2014 - 9:41PM

In reply to by John Goreham

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!

Hypersparc (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 2:59AM

In reply to by Frank Clark (not verified)

Without ABS systems there wasn't really a need to change brake fluid. Now the ABS systems are sensitive to corrosion caused by the water absorption in brake fluid. That's why you see the color change from clear to brown. The changing of the brake fluid every 2 to 3 years is to ensure your ABS system doesn't fail. If you live in a super dry climate then you can probably go longer without a brake fluid change. The issue is the dealers overcharge for brake fluid flush which shouldn't cost more than $120. The Tesla model S has 3 main maintenance items, Brake Fluid, Battery Coolant change, Gear Oil change beside standard stuff like wiper blades, tire rotation/alignment, cabin filter.
A Internal Combustion Engine car will have Engine Oil, Transmission Oil, Differential Oil, Transfer case Oil, Engine Coolant. The Engine Coolant and Battery Coolant are the equivalent and the Transmission fluid and Gear Oil is about the same cost with an Electric car. What the ICE engine requires in Oil changes, Differential Oil, Transfer case oil, Valve adjustment, Water Pump, Muffler Exhaust, Timing belt, gasket changes, Belt replacement and engine tune-up with spark plugs replacement also engine starter thrown in at 10 years.

John Goreham    August 29, 2017 - 9:57AM

In reply to by Hypersparc (not verified)

Thanks Hypersparc. Like many of us, and particularly EV enthusiasts, you are hung up on what things "Should cost." I agree EVs "Should" be less expensive. Luckily, we don't have to guess. Tesla publishes its maintenance schedule and costs. Here's a Nissan Leaf brake flush video you might like. The $300 this customer paid matches up perfectly with the cost other sources in my story were quoted. This service would be no cost in a Prius.

Michael (not verified)    July 9, 2017 - 11:11AM

In reply to by John Goreham

Tesla charging $600 annual for service is not the highest if you have been to a Mercedes dealership lately. A recent B service at 60,000 miles with just a brake flush was $560. If all the recommended service was performed, spark plugs and transmission flush, it would have been $1,000. Double.

David Rainey (not verified)    August 29, 2017 - 11:52AM

In reply to by John Goreham

Just because a few ICE car companies have maintenance plans included for a year or two as incentive to buy a vehicle, it doesn't mean that those vehicles are cheaper to maintain. After the maintenance plan expires, the ICE car owner will then end up paying more over the life time of the vehicle for maintenance. I leased a leaf for 3 years and ended up paying a couple hundred dollars in maintenance costs. A prius owner will pay that amount in maintenance in the 3rd year alone. Thus having paid more or less the same in maintenance over 3 years. After 4 years or 5 years the prius maintenance would be even more expensive (the more milage the more maintenance is recommended). The Leaf, however, would still remain relatively inexpensive with less systems to maintain. BMW includes a 3 year maintenance as part of the BMW experience which allows them to charge more for their vehicles. In other words, you are paying for the maintenance as part of the sticker price.

Terry Hamilton (not verified)    April 29, 2017 - 7:43PM

In reply to by Brian Keez (not verified)

Hi, I am a big fan of electric ; however, my Mazda Truck has run 250,000 miles with only oil changes and a few clutch slave cylinders replaced at a cost under 500 dollars (I did all the work). Dust and rust are the devil to electric batteries and electric motors, and both are really expensive to replace . Also, heat will kill a electric motor real fast. Electric is great for farm tractors and heavy industry trucks and also college professors drive to campus and someday it might even be all we have in the future. Now it's gas/elect.

stevec5088 (not verified)    April 1, 2014 - 4:27AM

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).

John Goreham    April 1, 2014 - 11:47AM

In reply to by stevec5088 (not verified)

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 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.

Shawn (not verified)    December 21, 2015 - 3:08PM

In reply to by John Goreham

Well, you can't accuse others of 'double speak' and then start taking about the warrantee programs of BMW. If combustion engine manufacturers are subsidizing the maintenance of their vehicles, thats nice, if you're rich enough to be buying new vehicles off the lot, but it does not change the fact that those vehicles are inherently more expensive to maintain once the warrantee period eventually ends.

I mean, that is classic example double-speak. Bending and twisting facts, to find your desired argument.

Aaron (not verified)    February 18, 2016 - 9:13AM

In reply to by John Goreham

It DOES make it untrue! Of all sites to spew these lies... You TEST your brake fluid to see if it needs replacing. It is YOUR FAULT if you blindly follow the dealership's maintenance suggestions. Use your head!

If the dealership says your blinker fluid is low, do you automatically accept this and pay the $600 fee to refill it? NO! Why? First, you do your research and find out there is no such thing as blinker fluid. But people have been suckered by this and have paid for blinker fluid! Dealerships are here to make money and they will do so by any means necessary, including lies.

It is YOUR FAULT for not using your head in regards to your vehicle maintenance. That is true.

dougliser (not verified)    April 1, 2014 - 10:49AM

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.

John Goreham    April 1, 2014 - 11:41AM

In reply to by dougliser (not verified)

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"

Thomas Earle Moore (not verified)    April 1, 2014 - 11:07AM

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.

Glenn Thompson (not verified)    April 2, 2014 - 8:02AM

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?

John Goreham    April 2, 2014 - 9:12AM

In reply to by Glenn Thompson (not verified)

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.

Christopher Lynt (not verified)    April 2, 2014 - 1:47PM

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!

John Goreham    April 2, 2014 - 4:31PM

In reply to by Christopher Lynt (not verified)

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.

Tinhart (not verified)    April 10, 2014 - 12:57AM

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.

John Goreham    April 10, 2014 - 12:42PM

In reply to by Tinhart (not verified)

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.

JP (not verified)    April 10, 2014 - 9:27PM

"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.

John Goreham    April 11, 2014 - 8:59AM

In reply to by JP (not verified)

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.