The problem with any kind of new automotive technology is that it’s difficult to project a residual value after three years of ownership. Take the 2011 Chevrolet Volt for example, which is the first modern application of a serial hybrid design in an automobile. Variations of the technology have been used for years, in things like diesel-electric submarines and locomotives, so the technology has long been proven as robust. GM warranties the batteries in the Volt for 8 years and 100,000 miles, and even they admit that their lifespan projections are very conservative, even under the worst conditions. Still, since there’s never been a another modern vehicle like the Volt, it’s difficult to estimate what one will be worth three years down the line.
Kelley Blue Book has done so, and claims that a 2011 Volt will be worth $17,000 in 2014. If you base the residual value on a purchase price of $41,000, that represents a depreciation of over 58 percent in just 3 years, a number more typically associated with high-end luxury cars. On the other hand, if you factor in the $7,500 federal tax credit to the purchase price, the depreciation becomes a much more palatable 49 percent. That’s better than a 2011 Toyota Prius, which KBB expects will depreciate by 54 percent over the next three years. Their value projections assume that the cost of fuel will hold steady at $4.00 per gallon over the next 36 months, which is the topic of an entirely separate debate.
In the meantime, here’s some advice for early adopters of new automotive technology: unless you’re buying a car like the Volt as an investment, and intend to keep it in a hermetically sealed garage to preserve its value for future generations, leasing is probably a better option than buying until the actual residual value is established.