Tesla is offering leases for the Model 3. The stripper version (“Standard Range Plus”) is supposedly $39,500 to buy. It can be leased for $2,000 “down payment” plus $545 per month for 36 months and 12,000 miles per year. In other words, $600 per month.
What does a conventional sedan cost? US News says a Nissan Altima, which is about the same size as a Tesla 3 and has awesome ratings, is about $300 per month (depending on region). The Nissan comes with the added potential benefit of being able to buy the car at the end of the lease in the event that the value is higher than the predicted residual value (likely worth $1,000? Let’s mark it to zero for this analysis).
[Nissan fit and finish should be way better; UBS found that Teslas were well below average: “The car scored ‘below average’ on the fit & finish quality audit which looked at >1, 500 gap measurements,” UBS’ Colin Langan wrote in the note to clients. “The team also found the body-wind noise was ‘borderline acceptable.'”]
So Tesla costs $300/month more. What does it save in fuel (costs, if not CO2 emissions)? Let’s say that 1,000 miles per month are actually driven. The Nissan will consume 33 gallons of gasoline to go 1,000 miles (EPA combined), about $85 worth at current retail prices.
Electricity here costs 22.5 cents per kilowatt-hour (BLS). People say that the real-world electricity consumption of the Tesla 3 is 300 watt-hours per mile. So it would burn up 300 kwh to go 1,000 miles or $67.50 in electricity (but the Tesla Superchargers cost 31 cents per kwh so it would actually be more expensive than gasoline?).
It seems that the gas versus electricity cost is a wash. So the Tesla 3 costs $3,600 more per year to own than a comparable-size conventional sedan.
Maybe it is a better product? Consumer Reports gives the Tesla 3 a score of 65, with a mediocre rating for noise and a poor rating for ride quality (everyone who has been in our friend’s Tesla X, including the owner, says that our Honda Odyssey has a much smoother and quieter ride). The Nissan Altima rates 76 and actually did deliver its EPA-promised gas mileage in Consumer Reports testing. The only area where the Tesla seems to have beaten the Nissan was in acceleration, being about 2 seconds faster from 0-60 (given our average practical highway speed here in Boston of about 30 mph, the relevance of this number is unclear).
How about the autopilot? The Nissan puts virtual fences around the human driver, but does not attempt to drive. Consumer Reports liked the Tesla autopilot overall, but put in some caveats: “Some drivers may be frustrated by how the system operates, because too much pressure on the steering wheel will turn off Autopilot. So drivers must be careful to put some pressure on the wheel, but not too much. The system can be operated in many situations that it is not designed for. For instance, it can be engaged on a curvy back road with only a single lane marking. In such cases, it operates erratically rather than restricting Autopilot’s operation.”
Assuming that the autopilot actually did work perfectly all the time, then we could say that people are paying $300 for every 1,000 miles to have the autopilot drive for them. If it takes 30 hours to go 1,000 miles, it is a $10/hour system.
Finally, let’s look at the three-year cost to lord it over the neighbors with one’s all-electric virtue:
- $10,800 in extra lease payments
- $1,000 in expected trade-in value for a lease with the right to purchase (our 2014 Honda Odyssey was worth about $2,000 more to the dealer than agreed-on residual value)
- $1,200 to install a charger at home (probably closer to $2,000 here in Massachusetts)
Grand total: $13,000 (enough to earn a pilot certificate and do a bunch of family trips in a flight school rental aircraft during those three years, yet I am willing to wager that plenty of Tesla 3 owners would say that they can’t afford aviation as a hobby!).