I know the conventional wisdom for leasing vs. buying, but are the economics of an electric car significantly different than other vehicles?
There are some who argue that you should lease an electric car. These factors are in addition to all the normal pros and cons of leasing vs. buying.
The technology is still new and is advancing rapidly. In 2-3 years, the newer model may have significantly improved features, range, and efficiency, as well as lower prices. If you are the type of person to upgrade regularly to the latest and greatest, leasing can make it a smoother transition.
It is hard to predict the depreciation of the vehicles. This is both because of the above factors, but also because these kinds of cars are newer and so the statistical models used to predict their future values are less refined. The models for predicting gas car prices have been honed for decades. EV Manufacturers have in the past made some mistakes in their residual value estimations.
When you lease a car, you get essentially an option to buy the car at the future predicted residual value. If, at the end of the lease, the market value of the car is higher than the residual value, you can purchase the car at the predetermined price, making yourself some extra money. If the value is lower than the residual, you can return the car or renegotiate.
I know a relatively large number of electric vehicle owners. Most or all of the ones who got the vehicle new leased it. The rest bought used vehicles coming off lease, which can also be a good deal.
Electric does make a difference when considering whether to lease or buy. The make/model is something to consider. The state you live in also makes a difference.
If you are purchasing a small electric compliance car (like the Fiat 500e), leasing is almost always a better deal. These cars are often only available in certain states (California and Oregon), and the lease deals available are very enticing. For example, the Fiat 500e is often available at well under $100/mo in a three-year lease with $0 down, while purchasing it would cost far more ($30k, minus credits/rebates = $20k), even when considering the residual value.
If you want to own a Tesla Model S, I recommend purchasing a used car -- the market is somewhat flooded with used Teslas because some owners like to upgrade to the latest and greatest features and take a pretty big loss on their "old" Tesla. You can save a lot of money on a pre-owned Model S with relatively low miles, and the battery packs have been holding up well.
If you have your heart set on a new Model S, I would treat it like any other vehicle and do the comparison of lease vs buy. One thing to keep in mind that buying a Model S before the end of 2016 will grandfather you into the free supercharging for life, which makes the car more valuable in the future.
Right now (2016/2017) there is a $7500 federal tax credit when buying an electric vehicle. If you lease, the leasing company gets the credit, not you. The cost of the lease should indirectly reflect this credit, however.
Some states have additional incentives. California has a $2500 rebate, for example, that you can receive even if you lease the vehicle.
To summarize: a small compliance car often has very good reasons to lease. An expensive luxury car like the Tesla can be looked at like any other lease vs buy decision, and buying a used Model S may save the most money.
I would like to add that from my own research, a pro to leasing over buying a new vehicle would be that with the lease the entire 7,500 federal incentive is applied directly to the lease, or so they say. If you buy a new car you get a 7,500 federal tax incentive also but if you dont have 7,500 bucks in taxes this wont be as much value. It doesn't sense to me to buy used since you dont get the tax incentive and also if you're in california the 2,500 rebate only applies to buying new or leasing 30 month or longer.
I have coworker who reported that he leased a Nissan Leaf from 2013-2016 and was offered $4000 off the contracted purchase price at the end of the lease due to a glut of other lessees turning in for a lease on the newest model with greater range.
It's not clear that this experience will be repeated by others three years from now, but there is enough uncertainty in the future electric car market that it's quite possible to have faster depreciation on a new vehicle than you might otherwise expect based on experience with conventional internal combustion powered vehicles. Leasing will remove that uncertainty.
Purchasing a lease-return can also offer great value. I looked at the price for a lease return + a new battery with the extended range, and it was still significantly cheaper than buying a completely new vehicle.
The good news about maintenance is that there's much less scheduled maintenance because the cars are mechanically much simpler. See the official service schedule. Most of it is just "rotate tires / replace cabin air filter". The brake and suspension systems are very similar to those of a normal car and require comparable maintenance. The bad news is the battery will decay over time and is a major component of the cost of the car. From that link:
In the UK, the LEAF’s standard battery capacity loss warranty is for 60,000 miles or five years
So you should factor your warrantied battery lifetime into the depreciation calculation. I don't think there are going to be many ten- or twenty- year old electric cars from the current crop in 2030 or 2040 as they're still improving dramatically year-on-year.
(Slightly too long for a comment, slightly too short for a proper answer)
Edit after six years: it seems electric cars have held both their battery lifetimes and their residual values pretty well, helped by a shortage of new cars over the coronavirus period. The Nissan Leaf was one of the first brands to appear in the UK; here's a 2011 (eleven years old!) one selling for about a quarter of its new price. The seller claims "eight bars left" (out of 12) on the battery, representing about 60% of the original range.
I might be missing something, but I always understood that leasing is about managing cash-flow in a business. You have a fixed monthly out-going as opposed to an up-front payment. My accountant (here in Germany) recommended: pay cash, take a loan (often the manufactures offer good rates) or lease - in that order. The leasing company has to raise the cash from somewhere and they don't want to make a loss on the deal. They will probably know better than I how to manage that and will therefore be calculating in the projected resale value at the end of the leasing period. I can't see how an electric car would make any difference here. These people are probably better informed about the resale value of any type of car than I am.
My feeling is to buy using a loan from the manufacturer. The rates are often good and I have also got good deals on insurance as a part of that package. Here in Germany the sales tax (VAT) can be immediately claimed back in full when the loan deal is signed.