Electricity or Gasoline: Which Should Fuel Your Next Car?

By: James MacPherson

Electric cars currently account for only two percent of the new vehicle market. The auto industry, however, believes this will change. Major players, such as General Motors and Volkswagen, are predicting a rosy future for electric vehicles, or EVs.  As Bob Lutz, former head of global product development at General Motors, wrote recently, “The future unquestionably belongs to the electric car”. 

Has this future arrived? You decide. What follows are comparisons of electric and gasoline vehicles that buyers will want to consider before making a purchase. 

Fuel Economy
Winner: Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles, which have EPA combined fuel economy ratings ranging from 72 MPGe to 136 MPGe, are far more efficient than gasoline vehicles. MPGe allows direct comparisons to gasoline miles-per-gallon (MPG) figures. No current non-hybrid gasoline-powered vehicle exceeds a combined EPA rating of 39 miles per gallon. Even the best hybrid, EPA rated at 58 MPG, falls well short of the fuel efficiency of electric cars. 

Scheduled Maintenance

Winner: Electric Vehicles

With no oil to change, no conventional transmission or cooling system to service, no exhaust system and no fuel or engine air filters, electric vehicles require far less maintenance than gasoline powered cars. For the first 150,000 miles, Chevrolet calls for only tire rotations and cabin air filter replacements for its Bolt EV. 


Winner: Gasoline Vehicles

Electric vehicles have seen improvements in the distance they can cover on a single charge, but even the Tesla Model S LR, with a range of 370 miles, falls short of many gasoline-powered cars. Still, most electric vehicles are able to cover 200 or more miles on a single charge, which meets the daily needs of most motorists. 

Refueling Options

Winner: Gasoline Vehicles

There are 168,000 gasoline stations in the United States. Compare this to only 20,000 U.S. electric charging stations, though this number is growing. Further complicating this picture is the issue of compatibility. Not all stations can charge all electric vehicles. 

Refueling Time 

Winner: Gasoline Vehicles

Most gasoline tanks can be filled in minutes. Depending on the charging station’s power and the EV, recharging can require an hour – or 10 or more hours – though some of the most powerful EV charging stations can restore up to 80 percent of an EV’s range in 20 to 30 minutes. For this reason, most EV owners recharge overnight at home, or at work. 

Using a Level 2 (240-volt) charger, this usually takes seven to 10 hours when the battery is almost totally depleted. More typically, after driving about 40 miles in a day, this can be done in one or two hours using a Level 2 charger, or overnight using a Level 1 charger. A Level 1 charger can be plugged into a standard 120-volt household outlet, which requires no special wiring.

2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV

Fuel Cost

Winner: Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles can typically go three or four miles on a kilowatt hour of electricity, which means fuel costs of 4.0 to 5.3 cents a mile when electricity costs 16 cents a kWh. At $2.85 a gallon, gasoline vehicles, which average 22 miles per gallon, cost nearly 13 cents a mile for fuel. Complicating this comparison, some public electric vehicle charging stations charge significantly more than the utility company rate for electricity, while other charging stations are free. EV owners should check before recharging.

Acceleration Performance

Winner: Electric Vehicles 

As much as the lovers of piston engines hate to admit it, electric cars can be downright fast. Acceleration is brisk and accelerator pedal response is instantaneous in many electric models. Granted, there are some gasoline-powered vehicles that can accelerate faster than EVs, but they are few in number, not nearly as quiet, and generally quite costly. 

Climate Control

Winner: Gasoline Vehicles

AAA has found electric vehicles lose up to 41 percent of their range at 20 degrees Fahrenheit when the heater on. AAA also found that electric vehicles suffer a 5% decline in fuel economy at 95 degrees, compared to test results at 75 degrees. Turning on the air conditioning increased this to an 18% drop in fuel economy.

Tesla has objected to these findings, with many Tesla owners claiming the range lost to be about half that reported by AAA. It is also possible to markedly reduce these losses by pre-heating or pre-cooling the car before driving, while it is plugged in at home or at work.

Cars burning gasoline can supply heat at no extra cost, but it would be a mistake to think this heat is free. Most gasoline-powered cars convert up to 60 percent of the energy in their fuel to heat, which is usually wasted; thrown away by the cooling system when not needed for cabin heating.  Using air conditioning in a gasoline-powered vehicle also reduces fuel efficiency, often by about two miles per gallon.

Cost of Ownership

Winner: TBD

EVs cost more to buy, but are less costly to operate. Forbes.com has concluded that, “Once you figure in the cost of ownership, especially maintenance and fuel, electric vehicles are a bargain despite the up-front price tag.” 

However, EVs depreciate quickly. For buyers who keep a car only a few years that casts doubt on this conclusion. Of course, for drivers willing to consider a used electric vehicle, this rapid depreciation could make the cost advantage alluded to by Forbes more compelling. One unknown: Once the warranty on an EV’s battery expires, usually after 100,000 miles, what will the cost for a replacement be?

Your decision on gas or electric may come down to this: Do smooth and quiet performance, high fuel efficiency, and significantly reduced maintenance requirements offset the higher initial cost and refueling inconveniences associated with EVs? It’s your call.


Highway Taxes

The arrival of more electric cars has heightened concerns over highway funding. While the price of gasoline or diesel fuel includes federal and state taxes that pay for highway maintenance and construction, electric rates do not generate comparable tax revenues for highways when EV owners draw electricity from the power grid. To overcome this, some states boost registration fees for zero-emissions vehicles. Others are considering the imposition of an additional mileage-based fee on electric vehicles. This mileage-based fee is also being discussed in some quarters for hybrid vehicles, since their fuel efficiency is also adversely affecting gasoline tax revenues.

An MPGe Tutorial

MPGe was created by the federal government to facilitate fuel-economy comparisons involving gasoline and electric vehicles. To do this, the government started with the finding that one gallon of gasoline contains the energy found in 33.7 kilowatt-hours of electricity. So, whatever the distance an electric car can travel on this amount of electricity, 33.7 kilowatt-hours, becomes its MPGe rating. 

As for pricing, 33.7 kilowatt-hours would cost $5.40 at 16 cents a kilowatt-hour. That energy would take a Tesla Model S75D 102 miles. A comparable luxury sedan rated at 25 MPG would require about 4.1 gallons of gasoline, very possibly premium grade fuel, to go the same distance. At $2.90 a gallon for premium, the fuel costs for this vehicle would be $11.89. Therefore, on this 102 mile trip, the electric car would save its owner $6.49. Over 100,000 miles, fuel savings with this electric car would come to $6,362.75. At 22 cents a kilowatt-hour, the savings would be $4,392. While the cost of electricity varies widely in the United States, several sources place the national average price at about 14 cent per kilowatt-hour. 

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