Cheapest Commute: Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Ford Focus or a Train?

Have you ever wondered how much it costs to commute in a plug-in car versus a hybrid or a gas-only model? After we published our exclusive comparison test among three different plug-in electric vehicles, many people asked us to test additional fuel-conscious options.

Among them was Roz Varon, the transportation reporter from Chicago ABC News affiliate ABC7. So partnered with ABC7 and pitted the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf against a Toyota Prius, a high-mileage Ford Focus hatchback and a commuter train to see how much each costs in a typical round-trip commute from the suburbs to the Loop, Chicago's central business district.

Four Different Drivetrains
The cars represent four separate drivetrain approaches: The 2011 Leaf is all-electric; the 2011 Volt runs on electricity alone for roughly 30 to 40 miles and then switches to premium gas; the 2011 Prius relies on electricity and regular gas; and the newly redesigned 2012 Focus uses regular gas. The Focus is part of the new crop of high-mileage compacts that can achieve close to 40 mpg on the highway with an automatic transmission. Unfortunately, the only diesel in our test was the locomotive that pulls Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. For the record, that's a diesel-electric series hybrid, but we won't geek out on mass-transit technology.

Our route was a 64.5-mile round trip from headquarters, which is about two blocks from Union Station, to the train station in the populous suburb of Naperville. The drive covered interstates, surface roads and a frustrating crawl through the Loop. All four cars traveled in a caravan, so they all encountered the same traffic and conditions. Each of the four drivers took turns over four legs to normalize driving styles. Successive traffic levels for the legs were moderate, light, light and maddeningly heavy. Temperatures ranged from 47 to 50 degrees. The cars started out fully charged and fueled.

*Premium gas required for Volt

The tables above show our results, which we must emphasize are a single snapshot. The Leaf ended with 11 miles of range left, so a longer commute and/or less ideal conditions (cold weather, for instance) mean it would lose — in dramatic fashion. Likewise, shorter trips improve the Volt's standing, and longer ones the Prius'.

Plug-Ins on Top
The two plug-ins fared the best, with the Leaf's all-electric drive exploiting more of the cheap electricity than the Volt, which switched to gas power just over halfway through. While the Prius doesn't plug in, its hybrid system delivers an estimated 50 mpg in combined driving; in our test, it was 53.4 mpg. Once the Volt's battery is spent, it gets around 37 mpg, so the shorter the trip, the less gas is burned relative to the Prius. For our 64.5-mile commute, the mpg was 84.9 mpg, but the premium gas requirement increases the cost a bit. The Prius was right on its tail, costwise.

Gas-Only Brings Up the Rear
The Focus' 30.7 mpg average was just shy of the 31 mpg EPA estimate for mixed driving. We expected better because most of the trip was at higher speeds, but the Focus was fresh off the production line, and mileage typically improves as a car breaks in. Its cost of operation was more than three times that of the Leaf, illustrating just how painful the high gas prices are. Note that the price at the time of the test was $4.15 per gallon for regular and $4.38 for premium. It has since climbed. We pay 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is the national average.

Train: No Purchase Required
The commuter train's cost says as much about the pricing scheme as anything. Two one-way tickets cost more per trip than the most-expensive car commute. With a monthly pass, it beats all but the Leaf. Bear in mind, though, that you don't have to purchase a train before you can use it.

To that end, none of the above takes into account the initial price of each car, either. We're reluctant to present a time to break even on the plug-ins' higher prices due to many unknowns, among them:

Likely cost of ownership, especially regarding the reliability of the new plug-ins

  • How much the $7,500 tax credit for the Leaf and Volt translates to in real money, depending on your tax liability
  • Cost to install Level 2 charging at your home (essentially required for the Leaf)
  • Availability of plug-ins and true purchase price of all cars during a gas crisis (likely to favor the Focus, which is the least expensive contestant but costs the most to fuel)
  • Cost of electricity and gas in your region — current and future
  • Your mix of low-vs.-high-speed driving, as low favors the plug-ins and hybrid
  • Your climate, as cold favors the gas-only car over the others

That being established, if you'd like to bust out your calculator, have at it:

*Total price includes options and destination, Nissan Leaf/ Chevrolet Volt are in limited production and distribution; higher transaction prices are likely.

[1]Automatic required for best mpg

Just to throw another spanner into the works, here's the reality of public charging where you can find it: It's usually free. If we charge only at work, the Leaf runs for free and the Volt would have cost us $3.33 in this test. Fast-forward to when charger scarcity sets in and we're hooked on "the juice," and this cost could exceed the price of home charging — or even petroleum. Now how much would you pay?

Time Factor
Another interesting tidbit is the time involved. The cars drove 62 minutes to Naperville (excluding driver changes) and 82 minutes back to HQ. The commuter train takes roughly 34 minutes for express and 69 minutes for local, each way. How much is an extra 40 minutes a day worth?

The Competitors: Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius, Ford Focus, Metra Burlington Northern Santa Fe Express Train

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