How Do Costs of The UK's Most Popular Cars Stack Up Against Leading Electric Vehicles?

Our NerdWallet research has discovered the cheapest car to run, that you could make savings of up to £76,420 over five years by switching to electric vehicles, and that fossil fuel cars lose their value much quicker than electric cars. Learn how popular cars stack up against electric vehicles.

Rebecca Goodman Published on 18 January 2021. Last updated on 28 January 2021.
How Do Costs of The UK's Most Popular Cars Stack Up Against Leading Electric Vehicles?

What’s cheaper: an electric car or one of the UK’s most popular motors? We’re not talking just about the price tag here, but the day-to-day running costs over five years too.

With just nine years left until the government will put a stop to the sale of new fossil fuel-powered cars, we’ve compared how much it costs to run (including fuel, tax, depreciation and maintenance) the UK’s most popular cars, such as the Ford Fiesta, when comparing them with electric vehicles, like the Nissan LEAF.

Read on to find how electric vehicles stack up against popular UK cars.

Our key findings

  • A low specification Ford Fiesta hatchback is the cheapest car of any type to run.
  • There isn’t as yet an affordable electric version of a low specification hatchback on the market.
  • Saloon drivers with a BMW Series 5 could save £76,420 over five years by switching to the Tesla Model 3 electric vehicle.
  • Estate models seem to be missing from the electric market.
  • Electric SUVs is a developing market - with new players emerging, including cheaper options than we've reviewed. They've not been around as long as the tried and tested models used in our study, so how they stack up remains to be seen.
  • All of the electric vehicles we compared were cheaper for fuel, or power, costs over five years.
  • Fossil-fuel cars lose around 70% to 84% of their original value in the first five years, compared with 61% to 74% for electric cars.

What we did

To see how costs compared, NerdWallet used data from gov.co.uk to find the following most popular cars for the years 2015 - 2020:

● Hatchback - Ford Fiesta (505,707 registered).

● Estate - Volkswagen Passat (75,950 registered).

● SUV - Nissan Qashqai (287,473 registered).

● Saloon - BMW 5 Series (99,856 registered).

We then calculated the running costs, for the high and low specification models of each car.

Car specifications provide a snapshot of the car's performance and important details to help ensure the car is right for the driver's lifestyle. Throughout this research, we will talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ specification models.

High specification models are the ‘high end’ vehicle in the manufacturer's range offering the premium construction, performance and operation. The low specification models are the ‘low end’ models in the manufacturer's range and may offer more basic functionality.

When it came to electric vehicles, we selected a range of cars which are frequently picked out as the ‘best’ electric motors by publications such as Auto Express and What Car?. Note, we looked at full-electric vehicles only, and the following were included:

● The Nissan LEAF.

● The Renault ZOE.

● The BMW i3.

● The Tesla Model 3.

● The Jaguar I-PACE.

Findings by body type

The findings show that the size and body type of a car affects its running costs and we included the following in our analysis: hatchback, estate, saloon and SUV.

Here you can see how the different body types compare as shown in Graph 1.

Hatchback

This graph shows the running cost of the Ford Fiesta hatchback, compared to all of the electric vehicles in the study.

The Ford Fiesta was Britain’s best-selling car in 2020 according to Auto Trader, and its minimum total running costs were the lowest out of all the cars compared over the five-year period.

The most similar electric hatchback equivalents on our list are the Renault ZOE and the Nissan LEAF. The lower specification models of both of these electric vehicles have higher total running costs than the low spec Fiesta.

In fact, it would cost a Fiesta driver £5,450 over five years if they switched from the low spec model to the LEAF low spec model, or £4,520 to switch from a low spec Fiesta to a low spec ZOE.

For a high spec Fiesta model, the five-year total running cost was more expensive than the high spec Renault ZOE, by £4,180, but cheaper than the Nissan LEAF by £2,560. The savings with the ZOE are decimated though by its higher cost, an additional £10,760.

Although the price of a car isn’t the only consideration when buying a vehicle, it’s worth looking further at the differences.

The average cost of a brand new Fiesta is between £16,410 and £23,680. This is significantly cheaper than the LEAF, priced at between £29,790 and £39,340, or the ZOE, priced at between £29,940 and £34,440. So if it’s cost alone we’re looking at, it’s a clear choice between the different cars.

But the government’s current goal is to stop selling non-electric cars, like the trusty Fiesta, by 2030. Therefore, the price of electric vehicles will need to come down considerably by that point if UK drivers are going to be able to afford to buy them when they need to replace older vehicles.

Affordability is not just about the initial price and running costs either, car insurance needs to be factored in. Insurers place all cars in groups from 1 to 50, with cars in the lower groups generally cheaper to insure. At the moment, the Fiesta falls between insurance groups 4 and 30, depending on the specification. However, the LEAF is at 21 and the ZOE is between groups 20 and 23, suggesting that insurance costs could also be higher for someone with one of these cars – another unwelcome hit to drivers’ wallets.

One area where costs come in at a lower level is fuel. The average cost of fuel for the LEAF is between 4p and 5p per mile compared with the Fiesta’s average of between 10p and 13p. When looking at the Miles Per Gallon (MPG) range on both, the LEAF again comes out better. It has a range of between 104 and 111MPG compared with the Fiesta’s range of 40 to 53MPG, depending on the specification.

NerdWallet Director of Operations, John Ellmore, comments: “Ultimately in the drive to move towards electric vehicles, the more cars that are actually on the market, and at an affordable cost, the better.

“What we can hope for, and what should happen in the next nine years, is for more of these kinds of cars to be made at a more affordable cost, and for the costs of existing options to come down. No one is going to want to switch to an electric vehicle, and some people may not be able to if they’ll end up paying far more to do it.”

Estate

The most popular estate car, a model favoured by those who need a little extra room, was the VW Passat. We compared it against the five electric vehicles we evaluated.

The lower specification Passat came in cheaper than the largest electric vehicles on our list, including the Jaguar I-PACE and the Tesla Model 3, the Passat’s nearest equivalents. Drivers buying a lower specification Passat would spend £3,505 more in running costs over five years for a Model 3 and £15,055 for an I-PACE.

However, when looking at a high specification Passat, there were some big wins when switching to an electric vehicle. If drivers chose a high specification Tesla Model 3, they could save around £16,000 over five years.

While this is a big saving, right now it does mean only drivers who can afford, and those who want, a higher-specification car are likely to see any savings by switching to electric. This certainly follows the trend with hatchbacks, as our analysis above shows.

While the I-PACE, Jaguar’s first all-electric SUV, and the Passat may be worlds apart when it comes to prestige, the running costs of the models are similar, with the electric car costing just 9p more per mile to drive. The electric car is miles ahead when it comes to fuel economy, with a 76MPG compared to the Passat which is between 37.2 and 45.6MPG.

It’s worth looking at the popularity of the estate when making this comparison. Of all the vehicles we looked at, the Passat had the lowest number of vehicle registrations in the past five years.

Could this be why there aren’t more alternatives in the electric market? Have electric vehicle manufacturers forgotten about the estate, or are they predicting that in the future there won’t be so much demand for these kinds of cars?

It may be the case that as we edge closer to the 2030 deadline more estate cars emerge in the electric vehicle market. Some of these vehicles are currently available as hybrids. However, there may be technological limitations to going fully electric at this size. If true, this may mean estate vehicles could become history, whether or not they remain popular.

Saloon


The sophisticated and stylish saloon car has fallen in popularity in the past few years, but the most popular model registered in the UK in the past five years was the BMW 5 Series.

Almost all the electric vehicles in our list perform better than a high spec BMW 5 Series for running costs, and it’s significantly more expensive over the five years to run. Its running costs can reach a massive £112,765 over this period.

Switching to an electric vehicle could save drivers of a high spec BMW 5 Series a lot of money. In fact, moving to the high spec Tesla Model 3, the most similar car in our study, could save them a staggering £76,420 over five years. This is enough to buy another car (or two) outright.

These huge savings are mainly due to the running costs of the 5 Series, at £22,553 a year on average. Even moving to a Model 3 could save some 5 Series drivers around £15,284 per year.

The main contributor to the BMW’s sky-high running costs is its fuel consumption. When looking at MPG, the Model 3 offers between 54.1 and 108MPG more than the 5 Series while the Jaguar I-PACE, the most similar luxury electric car, has between 17.1 and 50.8MPG more than the BMW.

However, low spec BMW 5 Series drivers looking for an equivalent type of luxury car may end up spending more to switch. The low spec I-PACE could cost some drivers around £1,550 more over five years if they switched. This difference in running costs may not be such a barrier to luxury car buyers.

NerdWallet Director of Operations, John Ellmore, comments:

"With more affordable electric options emerging in the market, it is possible we will see a resurgence in the saloon car's popularity. Clearly the BMW 5 Series, while popular, requires significant expenditure to run, and the savings on fuel for cars like the Model 3 can't be ignored.

“For drivers more attached to the 5 Series' luxury connotations, the choice they have to make goes beyond the simple question of fuel cost. With that said, for those who can already afford to run a high-spec 5 series, cost is probably a less important factor."

How a saloon car is used could weigh into drivers’ decisions to switch to electric. They’re often used as company cars, therefore range of an electric equivalent, for example, would be another factor. The Tesla 3, for example, starts at 267 miles on a single charge, while the higher-end Model S Long Range is capable of 405 miles. But are more affordable electric vehicles on their way with longer ranges? Finding the sweet spot for range may be what drivers need in order to be persuaded to make the switch to electric.

SUV

SUV stands for sport utility vehicle, but they’re used for a whole lot more these days and often picked as a family car. Our study highlights that there are fewer electric vehicle options for SUV family cars, unless these drivers are prepared to downsize or downgrade their car. And for families the specifications of the car may not be the only consideration as cost is an important factor.

NerdWallet Director of Operations, John Ellmore, comments:

“The cost of an electric SUV versus the specification is something for SUV drivers to consider when making such a big purchase. Consider if the vehicle meets your needs. And if you can afford it.

“As there are currently fewer electric SUVs on the market, a family may want to consider a hybrid, or fossil fuel, car if budget is a factor in their decision. Some hybrid models will be sold until 2035, the government has said this will be based on hybrid cars that can drive a significant distance without carbon coming out of the tailpipe.

“Drivers will also still be able to buy second-hand cars, including hybrid models past the 2035 deadline as the law only impacts new petrol and hybrid models being manufactured. “

To illustrate the cost and functionality of SUVs we have compared the Nissan Qashqai to all of the electric vehicles in our study for total running costs.

Drivers could save either £1,340 or £2,270 in running costs over five years by switching to the LEAF or ZOE low spec electric models, respectively. However, the cars aren’t really comparable because they are significantly smaller, and the savings are minimal.

Where the electric vehicle costs stack up is when looking at the I-PACE, a car that is much more similar to the Qashqai in size and performance. Drivers choosing the electric I-PACE could spend £15,000 and £20,000 in running costs over the five years, depending on the specification.

While £20,000 may seem like a huge amount, when you drill down into the figures, the majority of this comes from the depreciation cost. The five-year depreciation on the I-PACE amounts to as much as £23,970 more than the Qashqai’s.

One area where the electric vehicle wins, as with the other cars in our study, is on fuel consumption per mile with the I-PACE at 76MPG compared to the Qashqai’s 41MPG. However, the fuel savings don’t offset other higher costs.

The Nissan Qashqai and the Jaguar I-PACE are of a comparable size, but the similarities end there. In all other aspects the vehicles are very different. The price alone is a big factor, with the I-PACE being between £42,580 and £44,170 more than the Qashqai. A comparison of the I-PACE and a car like the Range Rover Sport, as seen in the graph here, would be more accurate.

Drivers of the lower specification models of the Range Rover could see savings of around £3,280 over five years when choosing the I-PACE. This changes to a whopping £37,855 in savings on the higher spec models – enough to buy a brand new Qashqai on top!

One of the main savings here is fuel. The I-PACE offers 57MPG more than the Range Rover, and the Range Rover as the older car depreciates at a faster rate. Drivers potentially lose up to 49p per mile more with the Range Rover. It is worth adding here that the I-Pace is in the top three overall in terms of speed of value loss.

The calculations show how important it is to weigh up all the costs involved when buying a new car. They also show a similar pattern with the estate cars mentioned in the study.

Depreciation

The depreciation of a brand new car is a key factor when looking at running costs, as shown in this graph. This is an area where electric vehicles are the clear winners. Over the five years, fossil-fuelled cars lose around 70% and 84% of their original value, compared with 61% and 74% for electric cars.

It’s well known that fossil-fuelled cars quickly lose value, around 60% in three years according to the AA, but it’s not the same story with electric vehicles. In fact, according to Drive Electric, the more popular electric vehicles become, the better their ability to hold their value. The impending time limit on fossil-fuelled cars, and also factors such as an increase in ultra-low emission zones, rising congestion charges and fuel costs, are contributing factors.

Conclusion

Various points become clear as a result of this study.

  • As expected, fuel costs are lower for all of the electric vehicles that we compared.
  • In terms of overall running costs, drivers of saloon cars appear to be the ones who could make the biggest savings.
  • More options at various price points and body types will be key to encouraging more people to switch to electric cars.

NerdWallet Director of Operations, John Ellmore, comments:

“Manufacturers must use every day of the next nine years to address the barriers to making electric cars available to those with smaller budgets. If they don’t, we may see these drivers priced out of replacing their vehicles when fossil-fuelled cars are no longer available.”

Before buying a new car, it’s vital you understand how much it’ll cost. This is not just the price tag, but all of the other elements that we’ve delved into throughout this study. For more tips, tricks and information, visit our motoring guides to help you buy, insure and care for your vehicle.

Methodology

NerdWallet used gov.uk data to identify the UK’s most registered models of car (2015-2020) across a range of body types. The high and low running costs for each over the last five years (to account for variations in spec) was compared to a set of leading Battery Electric Vehicles. The aim was to discover which vehicles have the highest running costs, and identify notable trends in the cost comparisons. These running costs were defined as, depreciation, VED (tax), service and maintenance and fuel. Only fully-electric Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) were considered in the analysis, to allow for a clearer-cut comparison between fuel types.

Images source: Getty Images

About the author:

Rebecca Goodman is a freelance journalist who has spent the past 10 years working across personal finance publications. Regularly writing for The Guardian, The Sun, The Telegraph, and The Independent. Read more

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