CNBC Explains

So how much would buying a Tesla really cost you?

The price tag for a Tesla goes up quick
The price tag for a Tesla goes up quick

Tesla Motors' rise as a competitive automaker selling exclusively electric powertrains — with an alluring, even sexy, aesthetic — has come amid a flurry of electric vehicle (EV) models from traditionally internal-combustion automakers.

Now Tesla is bringing an SUV to market, the Model X. But with a base cash price of $70,000 to $75,000 for Tesla's Model S, its cars have always been positioned for the luxury car market more so than for the mass market, limiting excitement among average car buyers.

When Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted out a rough estimate for Model X pricing on Sept. 30 — and then added that lower-price versions were also on the way — a "regular guy" tweeted back, "Good, some of us are middle class. Well, lower middle class, OK, dirt poor and I'll get a Tesla in 30 years used at this rate."

Read MoreApple hired Tesla engineers we fired: Elon Musk

Tesla can't compete on cost with other EVs from the major automakers — the Nissan Leaf ($29,010), General Motors' Chevy Spark EV ($25,995) or even the BMW i3 ($42,400).

It hasn't aimed to (at least, not yet), but it is still important to think about a Tesla Model S purchase — any EV purchase — in terms that go beyond the sticker price.

The Hot Wheels Tesla Model S
Source: Mattel

A federal EV tax incentive, a state tax credit, sales tax exemptions, toll reductions, estimated gas savings and even choosing an option like rear-wheel drive over all-wheel drive can together take a bite out of Tesla's price tag.

The federal tax credit of up to $7,500 is available, based on an individual's year-end tax bill. This means that if the buyer of an eligible EV owes $2,500 in income taxes, their tax credit for the vehicle purchase will be $2,500. An additional caveat of the federal tax credit is that it is a one-off — only the original buyer purchasing a new EV can receive the tax liability reduction.

"It is hard to say without knowing someone's financial background if they will be eligible or not. But most folks are eligible for the full $7,500 credit on the Model S," said Will Nicholas, Tesla's Northeast regional sales manager.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk speaks during an event to launch the new Tesla Model X Crossover SUV on September 29, 2015 in Fremont, California.
Tesla vs Apple: Talent war or sour grapes?

State incentives

State incentives come in two forms: indirect, such as HOV lane access and toll reductions and income-tax credits, or sales- and excise-tax exemptions and cash rebates. In all, 19 states offer some form of incentive.

The indirect incentives such as HOV lane access and reduced tolls are offered across many states, including Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, Utah and Washington, D.C. Cash rebates have been offered in six states — California, Connecticut, Texas, Delaware, Massachusetts and Tennessee — and range from $2,000 to $2,500. They are often offered on a first-come-first-serve basis, and funding levels that remain for purchases today can vary.

For example, in Delaware 69 percent (or $151,800) of the rebate funds remain for disbursement. They are also subject to expiration of legislation — the Texas program ended this past summer — as well as politics. Tight budgets at the state level and a more contentious atmosphere in state budget houses has led some EV incentives enacted in recent years to be suspended or scaled back.

Tax credits can be larger than rebates — Colorado offers a $6,000 credit.

It's essential to figure out if you will be able to use the full amount of federal and state income-tax credits at year-end. If your tax situation will not allow you to use these credits, it's a major blow to the argument for buying an EV, because it doesn't bring down the price of the car by enough, said senior consumer advice editor Philip Reed.

But the incentives can also get pretty tricky — especially the bigger ones. Louisiana, for example, offers a tax credit of up to 36 percent (it used to be 50 percent) for the incremental cost associated with buying an alternative fuel vehicle, but it's specifically for the "alternative fuel property" in the car, not the price of the car itself. For EV buyers, that means Louisiana's big tax credit is based on the EV battery system cost, and that is typically the most expensive part of the car.

But it's important to remember that there is no 36 percent tax credit on the $75,000 Tesla price tag. Tesla still estimates that a Louisiana buyer will save up to $8,000 from the incentive. Louisiana offers a more standard 7.2 percent credit for an alternative vehicle purchase, up to $1,500 (that used to be $3,000).

Tesla executives have been cagey in the past on exact battery cost but have said that for the Model S it's roughly one-quarter the base price, and it is trending down as battery manufacturing scales up.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia offer incentives for the installation of residential EV charging stations. Oregon, for example, offers a $750 tax credit; in California, rebates of up to $500 are available on the purchase of a home system.

One of the most up-to-date sources on all state-by-state incentives is the website of EV charging infrastructure company ChargePoint.

The only Model X pricing information so far was courtesy of Musk's Sept. 30 tweet, which indicated the Model X would be about $5,000 more than the Model S.

Tesla promises that buyers of the Model X will be able to capture the same federal and state benefits.

"The Model X will be eligible, and we anticipate taking the Model X through all the NHTSA safety and the EPA emissions and mileage programs," Tesla's Nicholas said. "Elon's statement that the base Model X will cost about $5,000 more than the base Model S is all we will confirm right now as the price."

There is also, of course, the estimated gas savings, which can reach as high as $1,000 per year, according to many online calculators. And it can be even higher in high-gas-tax states like California. Tesla — using the average distance a person drives and the cost of the electricity to fuel a Model S — estimates that over five years, one would save between $8,000 and $12,000.

But there's a big caveat there in the Tesla calculation "fine print." It assumes an average price for premium gas of $3.90 per gallon over the next five years. Today that figure is actually $2.80.

The Department of Defense's eGallon calculator estimates that an electric car's per-mile fuel cost is currently $1.22 per gallon, but that is also based on the premium gas average price per gallon. The standard gasoline national average is currently $2.31.

Reed said that the fueling cost can be entirely wiped out with a home-charging station and residential solar panels. "Once you get an EV, you get interested in solar." Reed said that while many EV owners remain reluctant to upgrade from plugging into their existing household current to a dedicated charger, it is often less expensive than anticipated — as low as $500 — and eligible for federal and state tax credits.

Tesla's options add up quickly, however, and what was going to be a $70,000 purchase can become more than $90,000 by adding only a few features. Purchasing the Range Upgrade to boost the maximum range requires upgrading to the 90 kWh battery, a $13,000 increase over the 70 kWh battery. Adding the Autopilot Convenience Features, Smart Air Suspension or Ultra High Fidelity Sound options each add another $2,500, easily pushing the cost beyond $90,000.

Most of the other popular EV models, from BMW, Mercedes, Nissan and Chevrolet, have price tags tens of thousands of dollars below Tesla.

Earlier this week, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas stated the Model X's initial price would be $120,000 to $130,000 and the sticker shock would hurt sales. While Tesla early adopters don't tend to settle for the base model, that "sticker shock" implies many nonstandard options being selected: the Model X Signature edition, fully-loaded, carries a $132,000 price tag, according to Tesla.

An easy way to reduce the cost of a Tesla is by selecting the rear-wheel drive option, instead of the standard all-wheel drive, for a Tesla Model S 70D. That lowers the EPA estimated range by 10 miles, but at 230 miles of range, this amounts to an imperceptible difference in drive experience and $5,000 less in the car's price, so it's a good option for the cost-conscious looking to snag a Tesla. Even without a state tax credit, Tesla estimates the "true" cost of a base Model S at $52,500, but that does include its gas savings calculator assuming a major recovery in the price of oil.

Do incentives entice buyers?

Outside of California and Georgia — No. 1 and No. 2 in EV sales last year — states that offered the most incentives in 2014 were not necessarily selling the most EVs. Among the top 10 states for EV sales in 2014, only California, Georgia and Illinois offered rebate programs, and in Georgia and Illinois both programs ended earlier this year.

Buyers find state incentives to be an added benefit rather than the selling point for electric vehicles. Georgia was an exception to the rule as consumers paired the state's generous tax credit with local access to the Leaf from Nissan's manufacturing plant in Tennessee. Nissan anticipates that Leaf sales will slow now that the credit has expired.

States, such as Washington (state sales-tax exemption), New York (no incentive), New Jersey (sales-tax exemption and HOV lane access) and Florida (HOV lane access), continue to steadily grow in EV sales without remarkable incentives.

Reed said that there are many ways to answer the question, "What are you paying for?" when it comes to an EV, and it's important to remember that for many people it isn't just about the money. "People make decisions based on emotion and justify with logic," Reed said. In the case of EVs, many people hate the feeling of being "held hostage" to oil companies, don't like the volatility in gasoline prices or the experience of filling up at a gas station.

Reed said when he first leased a Leaf and was driving by gas stations, he kept thinking it might be time to fill up, but once he overcame that entrenched thinking, it was liberating. While recent data from shows that EV sales have slumped and traditional SUV sales surged amid low gas prices, Reed said, "I'll never go back."

By Michael Sheetz, special to

Lease or buy? Maybe lease ...'s Reed used to drive a Nissan Leaf and now drives a Toyota Rav4 EV (2014 model), but he didn't own the Nissan and he doesn't now own the Toyota. Reed says leasing is often a better decision than buying in the EV market, for multiple reasons.

The range on most EV models is so low — and the technology accelerating so quickly — that it does not make sense to make a long-term commitment. Think of wanting to upgrade your smartphone every two years. Manufacturers know this and offer attractive leases. Reed said for models like the Leaf, car shoppers should be looking for a lease in the low $200/month range.

Because the federal and state tax credits go to the owner of the car — in the case of a lease, the finance corporation — dealerships reduce the price of the lease. Reed had to put $2,000 down on his Rav4 EV lease, and he immediately got $2,500 back from California's EV rebate program. The Rav4 EV he leased had a cash price of $50,000, which was reduced by $16,000, to $36,000, with lease incentives . And the car buyer has to wait until the end of the year to use tax incentives, while lease payments are immediately lower.
"Most people I talk to in the EV market are leasing," Reed said.

Excluding Tesla, lease penetration in the EV market is 75 percent in 2015 (it was above 80 percent in 2013 and 2014). In 2011, leasing represented just 27 percent of the market.

A Rav4 EV lease payment is going to be much higher than a Leaf lease — Reed is paying $400 monthly — but he said it was the sweet spot for him because of the Rav4 range of 150 miles, acceleration and the car's size.

Drivers need to consider their mileage habits. Leases typically come with a limit of $12,000 miles per year for three years. You pay for something you don't use if you fall short of the mileage. And if a driver goes over the mileage limit, there will be penalties, but Reed said that might be a situation in which one decides to buy the car at the end of the lease term.