Choosing another new car

Two years ago I wrote about our process for selecting a Subaru Outback. Recently we bought another new car—a Tesla Model 3. We used the same spreadsheet-driven process but with different criteria.

High level filtering

With the Outback we wanted something for long outdoorsy road trips. For this car I wanted something for commuting and getting around town. Something smaller and more fuel efficient. Specifically either a hybrid (“HEV”), plug-in hybrid (“PHEV”), or all-electric (“EV”).

It’s difficult to compare expected total cost of ownership between gas, HEV, PHEV, and EV since it depends on so many variables: price of gas, price of electricity, miles driven, and battery degradation (for which there’s not much data available, especially for EVs because they’re so new), but it seems likely to me that hybrid or all-electric make sense economically in the long run.

Even if not it also seems likely that all-electrics have a lower total environmental impact than the other options. That’s something I care about and am willing to pay a premium for.

I knew my commute would be about 30 minutes one way. A range of 60 miles would cover most days, but 100 miles is safer as it allows for some cushion, especially as the battery degrades over time. That’s longer than the battery-only range of almost all plug-in hybrids, which means I’d still be using the gas engine somewhat if I went that route.

I was particularly drawn to all-electrics because I love the simplicity. People don’t think about it, but automotive engines are absurdly complex. Valves, spark plugs, fuel injection, ignition system, intake, air filter, exhaust, catalytic converter, muffler, radiator, timing belt, cam shafts, fuel pump, fuel filter, sensors for intake and exhaust. It’s crazy. So many parts that require checking, tuning, and replacing. All-electrics have longer maintenance intervals and that’s hugely appealing to me.

I wasn’t sure I could find an all-electric we’d be happy with, but I felt confident I could find a hybrid at least. So I made a list of every hybrid and EV for sale in the US.

Frustration #1: Limited availability

Automaker websites happily tell you about their EVs but rarely detail their availability. For example, Hyundai dealers in NC, SC, and VA don’t keep EVs or PHEVs in their inventory. Dealers in NC have the Kia Niro PHEV in their inventory but not the EV version and they also don’t seem to have the Optima hybrid or PHEV. The VW e-Golf doesn’t seem to be kept in stock at NC dealers. We could probably have ordered any of these cars, but it doesn’t seem great to own a car that local dealers and shops won’t be familiar with. And test driving before buying could be tricky.

Frustration #2: Automakers treat hybrids and EVs like experiments

The aforementioned limited availability is one indication of this, but there are others. EVs are often small (BMW i3, Chevy Bolt). The Nissan Leaf’s infotainment system felt like it was from the ’90s. I think it’s weird that not all hybrids are plug-in hybrids. I guess there are additional electronics required and added development expense, but it doesn’t seem that bad considering the benefits. Other automakers don’t talk much about fast charging options, whereas Tesla has built out a country-wide network of fast chargers. Also Tesla’s Superchargers are really fast, with a max rate of 250kW. It looks like most alternatives use SAE J1772, which as far as I can tell has a max of 19.2 kW currently, with development in-progress for reaching 90 kW. Though this article talks about 100 kW charging a leaf, so maybe I’m wrong.

EVs have been on the horizon for a long time and it feels like automakers aren’t focusing on them. Tesla has a huge head start. The other automakers are far behind and that’s baffling to me.

Pre-owned?

Based on a friend’s suggestion I considered used cars. He pointed out that EV tech is advancing rapidly. Early adopters pay a price premium (and are also guinea pigs). Maybe it’s better to get a lightly-used car, own it for a few years, then trade up once there are better and cheaper options.

Since EVs are so new the options for used cars are small. The Nissan Leaf has been around for a while so there is decent pre-owned availability, but model years 2016 and earlier had a range of at most only 107 miles, which I feel is too short even before taking into considering battery degradation (and I’ve read that Leaf batteries do degrade a good bit, especially in hot climates (link 1, link 2, link 3), though some data shows that Leafs are basically on-par with other EVs (link 4, link 5)). So that ruled out used Leafs. The Toyota Prius has also been around for a long time. I looked at prices of used Priuses and the idea didn’t win me over. The options tended to be either very old and in not great shape, or just off a one or two year lease, where the price discount compared to a new car wasn’t huge. And Priuses are of course hybrids, which I was hoping to avoid.

A short list

At this point the list of possible cars was pretty short. The top hybrid contenders were the Toyota Prius Prime and Chevy Volt. The top all-electrics were the Tesla Model 3 and Nissan Leaf. The Chevy Bolt is reasonable, too. Maybe a bit short. But I wasn’t excited about it at all.

We test drove the Nissan Leaf and it was good. Acceleration was snappy, as you would expect for an EV. The infotainment felt dated. I got a bit of a weird vibe from the Nissan dealer. Almost like they thought it was weird that we were interested in the Leaf, but this was minor. The salespeople did typical car salespeople things like asked us to come sit in their office so they could try to talk us into buying it, so that was a turn-off—I get angry when people waste my time. The idea of having to negotiate with them on price and going through the purchase process was not appealing.

We test drove the Tesla Model 3 and it was great. I was worried about the lack of instrument cluster and physical buttons (most things are done via the large screen center-mounted on the dashboard), but it wasn’t as bad as I expected (but still bad—I’ll write more about this in a future post).

It seemed clear that the Tesla was the best car of the bunch, now it just came down to price. Was the Tesla more expensive? And if so, was it worth the extra cost?

Cost

The cheapest Model 3 is the “Standard Range.” It’s $33,175 when factoring in the $1,875 federal tax credit. Side note: It’s not possible to order a Standard Range using Tesla’s website. I’ll write more about this in a future post

The Leaf configured with the options we wanted and after the federal tax credit would have been around $28,000 according to TrueCar, so around $5,000 cheaper than the Tesla. That’s not a huge difference. I have a little more faith that Tesla batteries last longer than Leaf batteries, which is a significant future expense in the Leaf’s total cost of ownership.

I was actually a bit surprised by how expensive non-Tesla EVs are. I expected them to target a lower price point to compete against Tesla, but aside from the e-Golf (which is $11,000 cheaper) they weren’t much cheaper.

The Prius is actually quite affordable, at $25,000. That’s $13,000 cheaper. We possibly should have considered this more closely, but again, it’s a hybrid and I was drawn to the simplicity of EVs.

The Decision

After thinking about all the options we went with the Tesla. We’ve had it about four months now and it’s been great. I’m still happy the decision. In a future post I’ll write about the highlights and lowlights.

Here’s the spreadsheet we used:

Switch to “The Short List” tab at the bottom to see only highly ranked cars. View full size in Google Sheets for ease of use and to see full column titles. Please be sure to note all the caveats at the bottom of the full list!

Two final notes about vehicle registration

  1. In NC there’s a $130 yearly registration charge for EVs with the rationale that they don’t buy fuel so they don’t contribute to fuel taxes. This is a little reasonable… it’s roughly the same amount you’d pay in gas taxes for a non-hybrid driven around 10,000 miles. And I agree that this will be a problem when EVs are a higher percentage of cars on the road. But come on NC, this is super lame.
  2. We registered the car to just one of us instead of both of us. The other option was to register to “Mark and Emily JTWROS” (Joint tenancy with right of survivorship), but apparently that exposes the value of our house in a lawsuit involving the car, and the benefits of JTWROS are small (slightly less hassle retitling after one of us dies). See these two posts for more info: one and two.
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