Image: Electric car plugged into a house ©Woods Wheatcroft, Getty Images

Related topics: family, cars, gas prices, hybrid, car repairs

During President Barack Obama's most recent State of the Union address, he set a number of goals for "winning the future." Among them was his hope that America would have 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015.

It's an ambitious goal, and not only because electric cars have just recently begun rolling onto U.S. car lots. Still, with unrest in the Arab world driving up oil prices once again, there's sure to be renewed interest in vehicles that are not tethered to the gas pump. The question, then, is whether this first generation of electric cars makes sense for the average U.S. consumer.

The cost of ownership

The biggest factor in this determination is economic. While much of the appeal of electric cars is environmental -- Nissan has repeatedly stressed that its Leaf is "zero emission" -- no vehicle is going to have mass appeal simply because its green credentials are in order. Americans vote with their wallets, so MainStreet set out to determine how electric cars stack up against the competition.

To do so, we compared the cost of ownership of three midsize hatchbacks. Representing electric cars is the aforementioned Nissan Leaf; the Toyota Prius is our hybrid; and standard gas vehicles are represented by the Volkswagen Golf.

Our findings (summarized in the graphic below) took various factors into account. Starting with the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the base model of each car, the Leaf was far and away the most expensive of the group, followed by the Prius.

 
The real cost of an electric car (assuming 100,000 miles of use)Electric: Nissan LeafHybrid: Toyota PriusGas: Volkswagen Golf
Base price:$32,780$23,050$19,755
Tax credit for electric car purchase:Up to $7,500 (plus additional credits in select states)None (expired Dec. 31, 2010); some state incentives may still applyN/A
Recharging station and installation:$2,200N/AN/A
Tax credit for charging station purchase:$1,000N/AN/A
Fuel costs:$2,600 in electricity costs to travel 100,000 miles100,000 miles on 2,000 gallons of gas: about $6,774100,000 miles on 3,703 gallons of gas: about $12,542
Total cost of ownership:$29,080$29,284$32,297
Sources: FuelEconomy.gov, AAA

We also looked at costs and savings specific to electric vehicles. Most notably, the federal government offers a tax incentive of up to $7,500 when you buy a qualified electric car, a list that currently includes the Leaf, the Tesla Roadster and the Chevy Volt (a plug-in electric hybrid).

In addition, some states will give you a tax credit for purchasing an electric car. California, for instance, will give you up to $5,000 back on your state taxes, while Colorado will credit you $6,000.

Of course, electric vehicles require the purchase of an accessory that no other car needs: a home charging station, which costs approximately $2,200 to install. But there's a federal tax incentive for that, too, with a $1,000 tax credit for people who install a home charging station.

That brings us to fuel costs, which is where electric and hybrid cars get back much of their upfront cost. Assuming gas prices stay constant and you drive 100,000 miles over the life of the car, the 26-mpg Golf will cost you more than $12,000 dollars to keep fueled. The Prius, with approximately double the fuel economy, will cost about half as much.

The Leaf, of course, does not require gasoline -- that's the point -- but it still must be powered somehow. The main variable here is not gasoline costs but electricity costs, which vary based on where you live, who provides your electricity and at what time you charge your car.

"Most people are going to be charging this thing at night," said a Nissan spokesman, and working on the assumption that most owners will do it during off-peak hours, the company assumes an average rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour to charge the Leaf. That translates to about 2.6 cents per mile, which means it will cost slightly more than $2,600 to keep your car on the road for 100,000 miles.