The electric version of the Honda Fit has been one of the most heavily anticipated little cars to hit the market. Considering that the regular Fit is a perennial “best value” award winner, the hope is that the Fit EV would help push electric cars out of the category of overpriced novelty into the realm of practical and economical all-purpose vehicle. And while the car’s mpg rating (118 mpg!) is impressive, another figure—the Fit EV’s retail price—is problematic.
The 2013 Honda Fit EV officially has bragging rights. Earlier this week, Honda announced that the EPA rated the vehicle with an all-time high 118 mpg. Of course, an electric vehicle such as the Fit EV doesn’t use any gasoline. Nonetheless, electric cars are given mpg ratings based on the equivalent of how much electricity they consume.
Honda’s vehicle eats up 29 kilowatt hours (kWh) per 100 miles, which equates to 118 mpg (or “MPGe,” as it’s often listed). That’s good enough to trump EV competition such as the Nissan Leaf (99 MPGe), the Ford Focus Electric (105 MPGe), and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV (112 MPGe). The Fit EV also boasts the highest range. Owners can drive it 82 miles before having to plug it in for a recharge, which bests the competition by at least six miles.
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The cost of operating a Fit EV comes to about $500 per year. The average new car on the road, by contrast, consumes a little more than $1,800 annually in gasoline. (Numbers vary widely depending on local gas prices and what and how much you’re driving.)
For drivers who would be using the Fit EV mostly for reasonable commuting and running errands, the potential to save on annual costs is large. Nonetheless, consumers would have to wait a long time—more than a decade, on average—to see true savings from owning such a vehicle.
The Detroit Free Press does the math and reveals that based on driving 13,500 miles annually, a Fit EV owner would spend $445 on electricity, compared to $1,552 for gasoline paid by the owner of a regular Fit logging in the same mileage. The problem is that the electric version costs a bundle more upfront:
The price of an electric Fit is $29,125 after a $7,500 federal tax credit. That’s $12,210 more than the gas-powered Fit — a savings of $1,107 per year to make up the difference between the electric and the gas-powered version.
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A driver would have to own the electric car for roughly 11 years, all the while being limited to a driving range of 82 miles, in order to see any savings. That’s assuming gas prices stay where they are—which, granted, is probably not a safe assumption to make.
Even if gas prices rose to $5 a gallon, though, drivers would be asked to wait quite a long time to realize savings from purchasing an EV, or even a hybrid. Earlier this year, Edmunds did some number crunching and came to the conclusion that if gas prices hit the $5 mark, owning a Prius would save money only after eight years compared to its non-electrified counterpart, the Toyota Corolla. Under the same circumstances ($5 per gallon), a Chevy Volt owner would have to hang onto the car for nine years for the total costs to come out cheaper than going with the Chevy Cruze.
That’s a long time to wait, especially considering that the average driver has a car for just six years. That’s an especially long time to wait considering the unknowns, including future prices for gas and electricity, as well as innovation that might blow the doors off this first generation of electric vehicles down the road.
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These factors, as well as the much-discussed “range anxiety” inherent in EV ownership, are what’s holding sales of cars such as the Nissan Leaf back. The Leaf, which some early adopters just plain love, has struggled of late, selling 510 units last month, a 55% decline from May of 2011.
Interesting side note to the EV value equation: It looks like cars such as the Leaf and Chevy Volt are retaining amazingly good resale value. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, the current trade-in value of a 2011 Leaf is $23,975, or 95% of the original price ($25,280), once federal tax credits are factored in. Used Chevy Volts are expected to command 90% of the price initially paid by buyers. By contrast, a 2011 Honda Civic Hybrid is projected to have a trade-in value of 76% of the MSRP.
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In theory, what this seems to mean is that it’s possible to buy a Leaf or Volt, test it for a year, and, if you don’t like it, resell it and get most of your money back. Unfortunately, this strategy can’t be employed yet with the Honda Fit EV: Starting this summer, it’s available strictly via three-year, $389-per-month lease in parts of Oregon and California. The lease program is expected to expand to select East Coast markets in 2013.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.