here is the no B.S. answer to your question. tier 1-3 ships take absolutely no time to reach and max out. in less then a week you could have a pretty good selection of ships with decent progression to play with and not have to spend 1 penny for it, even have some fun in vet matches once in a while. no queue problems in recruit or vet fleets.
tier 4 is where you really need to pay for elite status. the last 2 patches they nerfed XP payouts. this latest patch 1.9.5. i really feel like im getting less xp then before. 1.9.0 i could earn over 10k xp in a match without elite with a good game, 1.9.1. with elite status 5k ship xp average with 10K payouts max when i get a good game. hardly ever do i break 10k xp. now 1.9.5. current version, with elite it's hard to earn over 5k xp per match. without elite status your lucky to get 5k xp, usually 1k-3k xp payouts. when 1 mod in tier 4 costs 14-30k each.... your looking at some serious time investment.
DO NOT BUY HERO SHIPS!!!!!! they are the biggest scam in the game. ask around why. there is talk they will adjust hero ships to give only free xp but that's not the case now, so dont buy one. only subscribe to elite status if your going to give them any money. i would highly suggest the 14 day or 30 day only, after that your going to be pretty burnt out, only 2 game modes available and they get repetitive fast, unless your a diehard.
pretend legendary t5 ships don't exists right now. t4 is endgame, if you really want to play legendary fleet, level a dread or the potato healer. people run around with starling missiles that do 60k damage which pretty much 1 shot anything less then a dread. artys, vets, destroyers, tacts are target practice, especially if you got 2 people shooting starlings, 120,000 damage instantly if they are on comms coordinating.
if you see a group of people with SOS in their name just back out of the match before it starts and save yourself some time. if your on a team with them you pretty much fight for their left over xp and if your against them prepare for a beatdown that you cannot overcome, they have enough ships they can counter anything you can throw at them and they are very well coordinated, rarley will you ever just go up against just one of them. better use of your time just to find a new match then try and compete with dreadnought super-lifer die hard fan boys that have a 1-2 years more time than anyone else.
hope to see ya in game!