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Toyota Corolla tops all hybrids, diesels, EVs in small family car cost of ownership

Kelly Blue Book’s annual ranking of the 5-year cost to own of various car types has an interesting side-story. The hybrids and diesels are ranked worse than larger economy cars and Corolla beats all the EVs of similar size.


Many stories will be written this day about the Kelly Blue Book (KBB) 5-Year Cost To Own awards. Writers will take the press release from KBB and they will write a story about the winners in the various categories and the overall brand winners (Mazda and Lexus). We are no different in that respect. However, looking at all of the most affordable small family car categories in comparison to one another reveals an interesting twist. Over the first 5 years of ownership the Toyota Corolla beats all of the hybrids (Toyota also wins that category) and it beats all the similarly sized EVs as well. Only the Chevy Spark, arguably a micro-car, has a lower cost of ownership according to KBB.

The KBB 5-year cost to own includes fuel costs in case you were wondering. That works to the Corolla’s advantage since it can achieve up to 42 MPG highway and has an overall 35 MPG combined rating in its most fuel efficient form. According to KBB, the Corolla will cost an owner $30,571 over its first 5 years. That includes the cost of the car (buy-price less its trade in value) plus insurance, maintenance, fuel and even a financing factor. By comparison, the lowest cost to own hybrid is the very small Prius C at $31,584. The similarly sized Prius (the original size) is much more expensive than Corolla at $34,461. We have driven all of these cars this past year and the Corolla is by far the best “driver’s car” of this expanded group in every measurable way.

By Comparison to electric vehicles, KBB says only the diminutive Chevy Spark EV can beat the cost of ownership of the Corolla. That small city car costs just $26,421 over 5 years. The Leaf and the Tesla Model S do not make the top 3. Next up is a true competitor to the Corolla, the Chevy Volt. The Volt is a similarly sized car inside to the Corolla, but the Corolla feels larger. The Volt is also only a four-passenger car, as opposed to the Corolla’s 5 passenger seating. As practical family cars these two might be close competitors. However, the Volt is much more expensive to own over the first 5 years according to KBB, coming in about 10% higher in cost at $33,462 compared to the Corolla ($30,571). Yes, KBB does know about the $7,500 federal tax rebate saying about that “Even when you factor in the potential $7,500 federal tax credit, that pricing limits the Volt's appeal.”

We should point out that KBB seems wrong about the Leaf. Our own research shows that a Leaf will cost an owner just about $14,000 after the federal tax incentive, which KBB does include in its cost analysis. It is hard to imagine how over 5 years that could grow to surpass $33K given that the car would have some residual value. Maybe those amazing (and true) stories of Leaf owners who pay almost nothing for 36 month leases don’t apply when the 5-Year analysis is done. Please add your hate mail to the comments section below and we will forward it to KBB.

Our own analysis of affordable diesel powered vehicles like the Volkswagen Golf and the VW Jetta have already proven that their cost of ownership (and mileage for that matter) is not better than the gasoline powered leaders in the categories in which they compete. In fact, the Jetta diesel does not even beat Jetta Hybrid in our analysis. Remember, this is a cost to own analysis, not a torque comparison. That said, the Jetta Hybrid is faster than the Jetta diesel as well as equally affordable and greener.

Green car buyers, EV enthusiasts ( dubbed “EVangelists” by one popular green vehicle writer) and the diesel torque lovers all have excellent points about why their particular mode of propulsion is the most logical and most beneficial to man-kind. They might be right. However, when third party experts analyze the costs to own these vehicles they are not the winners in the small, affordable, family car category.


Ewen (not verified)    February 6, 2014 - 9:49AM

Except what this story DOESN'T tell you is that both the Corolla AND the Prius (for all practical intents and purposes) FAILED the IIHS SORB crash test, making them potential death traps (or where the likelihood of injury is higher than some of their competitors).

So perhaps the old adage of "you get what you pay for" is quite appropriate here.

curt (not verified)    February 7, 2014 - 10:31AM

In reply to by Ewen (not verified)

Wrong EWEN. The Corolla recieved a marginal rating. Both the Corolla and all Prius models are still top safety picks by the IIHS.They are not IIHS top safety picks+ ratings. That test by the way, is not a realistic test as it simulates hitting a poll or a tree on the left side of the vehicle. The test is conducted by ramming a vehicle into a barrier. In a real overlap crash with another vehicle, the vehicles would deflect off. The damage is much less then the IIHS would have you believe. When was the last time you saw a tree or a poll in the middle of the road? Stop your hating, and get your facts straight.

John Goreham    February 7, 2014 - 8:48AM

Both were awarded Top Safety Pick status by IIHS, the organization that did the test you are referring to. The Corolla scored marginal on the small frontal overlap test. We felt those topics were important enough to have full articles dedicated to them. Here is our full story on the Corolla: The Prius C coverage is here at this link:

RBrooks (not verified)    February 7, 2014 - 12:54PM

Comments about the safety of this vehicle vs another vehicle are straw-men to distract from real truths--any vehicle can be a death trap if conditions are wrong and you get enough impact speed and inertia. We exist on roadways with 80000 lb trucks, that will squish any car flat. The kinds of impacts and scores all mask this inherent risk. Cars kill more people every year than AIDS ever has. We still need to get around, just calm down and quit kidding yourself, there is risk in every life task.

James Looker (not verified)    February 23, 2014 - 1:59AM

Honestly, you really skimmed the cost-to-own awards. 5-YCTO estimations were meant to help people estimate if a cheaper car would actually save people money. Absolutely ZERO people that were shopping to buy a Volt or Prius wanted a $16K manual Corolla. It's almost ludicrous to talk about base model compact sedans as if they are not exclusively targeted at people that NEED the absolutely cheapest lease possible. Dealers barely even stock base models. Cars are about fitting someone's lifestyle more than anything. You can only fairly compare prices on cars that customers judge as equivalent. Used car prices exist because people have limited resources AND they care about vehicle features, options, transmission, and options. Additionally, high-mileage commuters could easily put on 20-30K highway miles a year on a car and totally change the nature of the calculations to the point where KBB isn't helpful anymore. You also dismiss the fact that GM is selling a battery electric car with a cost of ownership the same as its gas equivalent. That's huge. Also, KBB doesn't address the lower maintenance costs associated with EVs or the state tax rebates that lower cost of ownership even further.

"Only the Chevy Spark, arguably a micro-car, has a lower cost of ownership according to KBB." That's just wrong. All of the Top5 5YCTO subcompacts had cheaper cost of ownership than the Corolla, $19,. Also, I know this is splitting hairs, but the Spark and Fiat 500 are usually called city-cars to differentiate them from larger subcompacts like the Chevy Sonic and true micro-cars like the Smart Fortwo and Scion iQ.

John Goreham    February 23, 2014 - 12:35PM

In reply to by James Looker (not verified)

James, you make excellent points and I won't try to find any fault with your points, except to say that my use of the term "Family Car" is important to the story. I will say a few things to expand the dialogue though. When I was at the Corolla press launch I drove all the Corollas and the prior model too. Anyone who buys the base is nuts. Anyone who buys a stick is nuts. That said, Toyota said that it expected to "sell" about 10% of Corollas as base models. Two possible outcomes: First, Toyota did that and it thus outsold the Leaf with its base Corolla. Also outsold all other pure EVs besides the Tesla and Leaf combined with its base model. Or, second, it didn't sell many base models and made gobs more profit. - -
I can tell you like EVs, me too. But I am cautiously pessimistic. Tesla owners are now starting to report their first year costs of ownership. Patricia K reports on the FB Tesla Owner's club she paid $1400 for her one year service (14K miles) which included 2 tires. They cost about $400 mounted. So she paid about $600 for one year of service, consistent with the Tesla pre-paid plan service it offers. Had she bought an ICE Corolla, her first 2 years of service would have been completely free and she would not have needed tires. 34 people commented on her post, many also needed tires sooner than she. She reported that Tesla told her it was due to regenerative braking (which it is not). All EVs are different. In the Volt forum on FB an owner posted his warranty bill (no charge) for his fifth Transmission. That is the exact word Chevy uses for the part. It has fluid. So where are the 5 year COO savings in that EREV? Just motor oil changes? We liked the Spark so much we published this story and I think we made some of the same points you did. Sorry that links are not automatic here you have to cut and past. Thanks for commenting you clearly know your stuff and we value your input.

James Looker (not verified)    February 23, 2014 - 4:59PM

In reply to by John Goreham

You make a lot of good points about the economics of new vehicle sales. Toyota knows the family car market like GM knows the pickup truck market. The Corolla is not meant to make waves or wake people up behind the wheel. It will always trade on Toyota reliability and be inoffensive to everyone. You can almost guarantee a 2020 Corolla will be as safe of a bet as a 2014. Making the Volt 2+2 seating configuration was probably a mistake because that limited its appeal among family buyers. Also, the fact that financing payments reflect the pre-rebate price probably scares a lot of customers. You're right that the reliability of electric cars has reflected the first generation nature of the technology. In theory a BEVs regular maintenance should only be tires and brakes. The long-term Model S is on its third drive-unit. I would definitely get the best extended warranty possible if I was going to buy, and I would probably favor leasing over buying until the technology has a track record. The reliability and longevity of the Prius has definitely set a benchmark for how problem free a next-generation powertrain should be. I think of myself as a futurist more than an EV fan. BEVs will always be niche vehicles because they will always either lack the versatility that people want from a primary vehicle or their entry price will be too intimidating. Buying an EV to save money also requires an investment in the purchase that buyers just don't have. People dismiss EVs just like people dismiss mass transit and solar panels on their roof. I think most cars and SUVs will stay with gas engines until oil prices make it almost reckless to not heavily consider mileage of a primary vehicle. KBB does show that a cheap car still costs around $0.40 per mile to own and only quarter of that is fuel. Even if their mileage doubles, their total cost only goes down about 10-15%. If gas prices doubled, fuel would approach half of the total cost of ownership. I would say right now I'm more excited about the technology than the market. Thank you for continuing the discussion.