Electric car quest: Chevy Volt vs Nissan Leaf

(Part 1 in a series on choosing an electric vehicle)

My next car will be a plug-in electric.  The minivan turned ten recently, and sometime in the next year I will replace it and end my trips to the gas station.

This week I’m publishing a series of posts on available models, battery issues, and the financials of electric vehicles (EV).

Why go for a new, relatively untested technology?  Well, gas is tipping $4 a gallon (and may hit $5 if the strife in Libya continues), my kids are done with bulky car seats, and my daily driving rarely exceeds thirty miles.  I live in California, I tend to be an “early adopter” of new technology, and I’m worried about oil (American dependence on foreign sources, carbon dioxide emissions, and the looming issue of Peak Oil).  It helps that I don’t give a rip about horsepower and V-numbers, and my car-buying budget isn’t super-tight.

In short, I represent the ideal customer for the three new EVs which are hitting the mass market in 2011-2012.  The time is ripe for me to make the switch.  Not only can I find a plug-in electric, I have a choice of vehicles.

I know little about cars except how to drive one, so I can’t educate you about all the car-geek stuff.  These posts focus on what matters to me as a potential buyer.

Plug-in electric cars differ from hybrids (such as the Toyota Prius) in that the engine is entirely driven by electricity, at all speeds and power outputs.  Hybrids switch between gas and electric power.  The electric motor enhances the car’s fuel efficiency, but you still have to take it to the gas station.

The main advantage of a true electric car is the freedom from gasoline.  Electric power is both more efficient and much cheaper than petroleum.  Also, an electric motor does not produce any tailpipe emissions, including CO2, so it’s very clean (although one must consider any emissions produced by the generating facility that made the electricity in the first place).  Electric cars conserve the energy normally wasted during braking, so they are particularly efficient in stop-and-go driving (compared to an internal combustion engine).  I also like the fact that EV’s are very, very quiet.

The main disadvantage of an electric car is its limited range.  Battery technology still needs improvement (see my later post).  Of course, any vehicle has a finite range.  My minivan can go about 300 miles before running out of gas.  The difference with an electric car is you can’t pull into a gas station and refuel in 5 minutes.  You need access to a proper electrical outlet, and you need time, possibly a lot of it.  Someday the infrastructure may exist to overcome this problem, but right now, drivers of electric cars better plan on getting home before the battery runs low.

The Chevrolet Volt2011 Motor Trend Car of the Year tops my list.  After years of hype, after the GM meltdown and bailout, the Volt is finally coming into production now.  A handful of vehicles have been delivered and are on the road in a couple of selected states (including my home state of California).  The car should be easier to get in 2012.

Volt pros:

  • Battery-only range of ~25-40 miles expands to 300+ miles on small gasoline tank.  This eliminates the #1 fear of owning a plug-in: getting stranded away from a power supply.
  • Gasoline never “runs” the engine; it charges the battery (this is different from a hybrid) and the car always runs on electricity.  They call the Volt a “range-extended plug-in electric vehicle with an on-board gasoline generator.”
  • Energy-equivalent fuel consumption of 105 miles per gallon on electric power
  • Seats 4 people, has a hatchback and reasonable storage area for a vehicle its size.

Volt cons:

  • Sticker price of at least $41,000 is a luxury car price, but the Volt is definitely not a luxury car.  (See my later post on the financial aspect of buying/owning a plug-in.)
  • Modest acceleration of 0 to 60 in 8.8 seconds
  • Battery-only range of only 25-40 miles

Nissan is rolling out the Volt’s main competitor, the 100% electric Leaf.  Nissan’s website says they already have 20,000 reservations (which I believe are based on a very nominal deposit of something like $100, so not all those reservations will convert into purchases).  They are currently closed to additional requests.  So even if you want this car, you can’t have it now.  As with the Volt, availability should increase in 2012.

Nissan Leaf pros:

  • Sticker price about $33,000, making it significantly more affordable than the Volt
  • Battery range of 100 miles (quoted as 62-138 miles, depending: see my post about battery range)
  • Seats 5 people (but that must be tight)

Nissan Leaf cons:

  • No gasoline backup to power the battery; once the juice is gone, you have to plug in.  This is bad news if you’re stuck away from home.
  • Nissan’s website declines to state an acceleration time from 0 to 60

Series of electric car quest posts:

Chevy Volt vs Nissan Leaf; the hot electric cars of Tesla Motors: Model S vs RoadsterEV BatteriesMSRP, incentives & leasesChevy Volt test drive

This entry was posted in Electric vehicles & alternative fuels and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Electric car quest: Chevy Volt vs Nissan Leaf

  1. Roger says:

    I think one thing to keep in mind with these electric vehicles is that the batteries won’t last forever. You may not be spewing carbon into the air, but your battery will end up in a landfill in a few years. Also, it sounds like the Tesla isn’t one of your choices.

    • Amy says:

      True. If the EV buyer’s first priority is eco-friendliness, then the issue of the battery should be part of the equation–also for cost, because you can expect battery replacement to be very expensive. I don’t think the battery would go to a landfill, however. In California, it’s illegal to dump even ordinary flashlight batteries into the regular trash. An EV battery would be at least partially recycled. (My post on EV batteries.)

      For my comments on Tesla, see this post. I put Tesla’s Roadster and Model S in a separate category because Tesla is a luxury line, significantly more expensive than the mass-market Chevy and Nissan. As you can read, however, the batteries are WAY better.

      • Amy says:

        A scientist from the Nature Conservancy just posted about this topic:
        How “green” is an EV battery?

      • Bethany says:

        I went to the Nissan Leaf dive event and they informed me that the batteries once no longer effective to drive the car would be used to run generators for hospitals and such. This would keep them out of landfills and once no longer able to be used there they would be recyled and re purposed further.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.