Electric Cars vs. Gas Cars: What to Know Before Buying


With the electric car industry growing and electric vehicle (EV) sticker prices coming down, you may be asking yourself if it’s the right time to go all-electric. Add to that government tax incentives and states like California committing to zero-emissions vehicles by 2035, and it seems like electric is the way to go. This decision isn’t that easy, as you want to make sure you pick the right car for your needs and budget. Here’s how electric vs. gas cars stack up.

How do electric vs. gas cars function?

Before getting into the full comparison, you’ll want to make sure you understand the basic mechanical differences between electric and gas cars. Here’s a simplified version:

Electric cars have no tailpipe because there are no gas emissions. These cars use alternating electric currents, which are electrical currents that move in many directions, to power the vehicle. The car converts direct electrical currents (electricity that only moves in one direction) from the battery to alternating currents using an inverter and induction motor. Then, the induction motor turns the currents into a magnetic field that moves the wheels. Unlike gas cars that have multispeed transmissions, electric cars have a single-speed transmission that sends the power from the motor to the wheels, which causes them to turn. This means there’s only one gear in an electric car in addition to reverse and park.

On the flip side, gas cars use an internal combustion engine to make the car move. Here’s how it works: The engine pulls a combination of gas and air into the engine’s piston, the piston then compresses the mixture and an electrical spark ignites the mixture. The energy from the combustion forces the piston to the bottom of the engine cylinder and the connecting rod at the bottom of the cylinder transfers the energy to the crankshaft, which rotates the wheels. Then, the piston returns to the top of the cylinder, pushing out exhaust from the combustion mixture and releasing the exhaust through the tailpipe. Gas cars use multiple engine cylinders. Oil is used to lubricate the parts, and coolant along with a radiator are used to keep the engine from overheating.

Now that you have a general idea of the different functionalities, let’s get into the full electric cars vs. gas cars comparison.

Electric vs. gas car costs

The cost of owning a vehicle is more than just its sticker price; you’ll also need to factor in long-term expenses like repairs, maintenance, fuel and whether you can offset expenses with tax credits. Here’s how gas and electric vehicles compare:

Upfront costs

On average, electric cars are more expensive to buy than gas vehicles. According to automotive data company Kelley Blue Book, $55,353 was the average price paid for new electric cars in January 2024. For comparison, Kelley Blue Book reported $47,401 as the average price of a new gas car in January 2024 — that’s $7,952 less than a new electric car. But EV prices have been coming down steadily, and the price gap between electric and gas cars continues to narrow. For example, new electric cars cost $66,645 in July 2022 while the average price of a new gas car in July 2022 was $48,182, according to Kelley Blue Book.

When you look at the least expensive vehicles in each category, however, the price difference still feels pretty dramatic. Some new EV models now have starting prices under $30,000, which is substantially higher than the sticker price of the cheapest available new gas cars, a few of which start at under $20,000. Additionally, if you opt for a Level-2 home charger for faster charging, the charger itself will run you $500-$1,000. Its professional installation can add as much as $2,000 to your upfront expense, although your state or electric company may offer incentives to offset that cost.

Winner: Gas cars win for upfront cost.

Fueling/charging costs

Driving a gas vehicle means you’re subject to the fluctuating price of gasoline, which on average, ranged between about $3.25 and $3.95 in 2023. Because electricity tends to be cheaper than gas — and electric vehicles tend to be about three times more efficient than gas vehicles, according to the U.S. Department of Energy — opting for an electric vehicle could offer big savings in fueling/charging costs. In fact, driving an electric vehicle instead of a similar gas model over 15 years could save motorists as much as $14,500, as discovered by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory.

On a yearly basis, charging an electric vehicle could cost as much as almost 50% to 60% less than going to the gas pump, provided most of that charging is done at home. If you frequently use public charging stations, like Electrify America, costs could begin to approach the price of going to the gas pump.

Winner: Electric cars win for fueling/charging costs.

Maintenance and repair costs

As previously noted, electric cars have simple mechanics compared to gas cars, with fewer fluids to change and fewer parts to replace. Their electrical systems themselves don’t require much maintenance either. This means you should expect to spend less on maintenance and repairs for an EV than you would with a gas car. Even an EV battery, which is expensive to replace, is expected to last 12 to 15 years.

Because of these factors, maintaining an electric vehicle may be as much as a third less expensive than maintaining a gas vehicle over the first five years — and as much as one-half less expensive overall. Over 15 years, an average American driver of an EV might spend as much as $8,000 less on maintenance overall than a driver of a comparable gas model.

Keep in mind that opting for an EV doesn’t mean that you won’t need any routine maintenance at all. Among other things, you’ll still need to maintain your tires, headlamps, wiper blades and brakes (although regenerative braking reduces wear and tear). In fact, EVs often require new tires more often because of the regenerative braking as well as the weight of the vehicle.

On the flip side, gas cars require quite a bit of maintenance, including regular oil changes, routine maintenance (rotate tires, replace air filter, etc.) and special service when the mileage gets to a certain amount.

Both electric and gas cars also have as-needed costs, meaning you’ll have to replace or repair problems as they arise.

Winner: Electric cars win for maintenance and repair costs.

Tax credits

Receiving a substantial tax credit for your new car can go a long way toward relieving the burden of its sticker price. Certain new all-electric vehicles (and some plug-in hybrids) now qualify for a federal tax credit as high as $7,500.

Be aware, however, that these tax credits are not offered for the purchase of any gas vehicles.

Winner: Electric cars win for tax credits.

Environmental concerns

Although cost is usually the biggest factor in deciding what car someone buys, environmental concerns can also play a factor. Here’s how electric and gas cars compare.

Emissions and efficiency

Electric cars are generally more efficient than gas vehicles, converting over 77% of electrical energy received from the grid into operating power at the wheels, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Traditional gas vehicles, on the other hand, only convert between 12% and 30% of the energy stored as gasoline into power at the wheels. Be aware that the individual emissions and efficiency of any electric cars you drive will vary, depending on where you live, the vehicle you purchase and how your electricity is sourced.

In terms of emissions, electric cars also tend to be kinder to the planet. The average EV sold in the U.S. produces the equivalent emissions of a theoretical gas car that gets 91 mpg. In fact, in all U.S. locations, the average electric car produces less emissions than the average gas car.

It may seem surprising that electric cars produce any emissions at all, since they have no tailpipe emissions. Instead, electric car emissions are calculated from two other sources: the processing and materials used in their manufacturing, and the electricity used to charge these vehicles.

The one hiccup with electric car emissions is battery recycling, or what happens to the battery when it dies. Battery recycling is in its infancy. While the current process can’t keep up with future EV demand, we will likely see some major developments in the coming years.

Winner: Electric cars win for environmental concerns.

Convenience

Electric cars come with higher upfront costs and lower maintenance costs, are there any trade-offs with convenience? Here’s how the two compare in some daily driving areas:

Charging/filling up

When it comes to gas cars, most drivers don’t worry much about range. After all, the infrastructure is well-established and gas stations are easy to find almost everywhere. In addition, gas cars can go an average of about 400 miles on a tank.

Drivers may be reluctant to purchase an electric car because of “range anxiety” — the worry of getting stranded somewhere with nowhere to charge up. However, although the EV charging station infrastructure isn’t as developed as it is for gasoline fill-ups, it’s been growing. More workplaces are making outlets available to their employees (and visitors), or installing Level 2 charging units, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And the US. Department of Energy reports there are now more than 72,000 public charging stations across the country — some of which are DC Fast Charge units.

Depending on the type of driving you do and where you live, the availability of public charging stations may not turn out to be that much of an issue. The majority of available electric cars can go between 110 and 300 miles before needing to charge up, and it’s not unusual for an electric car to have a range of 200 to 300 miles. Use this locator tool to find out if there are public charging stations in your local area — or in distant locations where you plan to drive your electric vehicle — before buying an EV.

Beyond charging or gas station availability, something else to be aware of is the time it takes to charge or fuel up. It can take 5 to 10 minutes to fill a gas tank, while electric cars take up to 12 hours with a Level 2 charger and 30-45 minutes with a Level 3 charger (like one you’d find at a public charging station).

Winner: Gas cars win for charging/filling up convenience.

Towing

Both gas and electric vehicles can be used for towing, however towing a heavy load will decrease efficiency in both cases.

For gas vehicles, how much your miles per gallon diminishes depends on how much weight you’re towing, as well as the increased wind resistance. In general, the heavier your load, the worse your gas mileage will be.

Electric cars also suffer decreased range when towing heavy loads. That range reduction was shown to be dramatic in recent tests performed by Consumer Reports, with EVs consistently performing below the estimated reduced range for a tow. Because public charging stations aren’t as plentiful as gas stations yet and because charging takes more time than gassing up, EVs may not be practical for long-distance towing, although they may be well-suited to short-distance tows.

Winner: Gas cars win for towing.

Availability

Visit any new car dealer and you’ll find a wide variety of gas vehicles to choose from. Buying a new electric car isn’t always so easy. Demand for environmentally friendly electric cars is rising faster than dealerships have been able to keep up. In fact, a 2023 Sierra Club study found that 66% of American car dealers didn’t have a single electric car (or plug-in hybrid) for sale. Additionally, some dealerships didn’t want to carry electric vehicles, with 45% of the dealers in the study who didn’t have available electric cars stating that they wouldn’t choose to offer them. In such instances, you’d have to find a dealer with electric cars in stock or order one directly from the carmaker.

Winner: Gas cars win for availability.

Closing thoughts

Both gas and electric cars come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. EVs are the clear winner environmentally, as well as for fuel efficiency, maintenance costs and tax incentives. However, electric car range is very strongly affected during towing, charging takes longer than gassing up and it can be difficult to find new EVs at dealerships. Gas vehicles come out on top when it comes to sticker price, range, long-distance towing and fueling convenience while lacking in fuel efficiency, maintenance costs and environmental impacts. Ultimately, you should choose the vehicle that best fits your budget and lifestyle.



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