Chevy Volt Versus Nissan Leaf: Let the Race Begin

Chevrolet started rolling the first Volts off the assembly line and onto car haulers on Dec. 13, sending them off to anxious customers who have been waiting months for their electric car, or advanced hybrid or whatever you like to call the Volt. That same day, Nissan delivered its first Leaf electric car to a customer in San Diego. Normally, handing over the keys of a new model’s first buyer is about as scintillating as ribbon-cutting ceremonies photographed in community newspapers.

In this case, the first deliveries kicked off a closely-watched sales race that will begin to answer some big questions about fuel-efficient technology and what consumers really want. General Motors has argued that the Volt is the way to go. You’ll never get stranded in a car that recharges the battery using a gasoline engine. Nissan differs, of course. As long as there’s a tailpipe, it’s not the genuine green article. As an aside, Toyota’s Prius is no longer in the conversation. Unless the Leaf and Volt end up with major quality or performance problems, Toyota has dithered away its position as the unquestioned technology kingpin.

Which car will win? The Leaf is the cheaper option, costing almost $33,000 before federal tax incentives, compared with $41,000 for the Volt. But I think the Volt is a better proposition for most consumers. Nissan says the Leaf can go 100 miles on a charge. But if you drive a pure EV hard on the highway, where the regenerative brakes will do less recharging, you can get a lot less. If the driver has a lead foot or if the weather is especially cold, that will also drop the car’s range. For consumers with a short commute—and if they only drive to work and back everyday—it’s a great option. For the rest of us, that just won’t do. The Volt can go 379 miles on a tank of gas and a full battery charge.

There’s something else about the Volt. If you strip away the green allure and techno-geek appeal, it’s just a really good car. I tested it out last month. It’s smooth, quiet and handles nicely. The Volt is not a car for smoky burnouts, but it has a nice amount of zip. Its interior has a certain Star Trek appeal. The flat control panel that turns on the audio or environmental control with a touch, as opposed to pushing a button, is very avant garde. The two video screens provide all kinds of information and the graphics that show the flow of power from the engine to the battery to the wheels and motors is nicely done. There is one flaw. GM has a ball on one screen that moves up and down and when you’re driving most efficiently, it hovers in the middle. It was confusing. But overall, the car has the kind of futuristic feel you’d expect from this kind of car.

I have not tested a Leaf. But I have driven a Mini E and felt the specter of range anxiety. I got the car with a full charge, which means it should go up to 156 miles. Like any electric car, it can be considerably less if you drive it more on the highway when you use more power and the regenerative braking system does less recharging. I drove it until the battery was down to 83%. The next day, I had a 10-mile trek of mostly suburban streets and it got down to 67%. The battery still had plenty of juice. The real problem is that you can’t just drive all day without planning out your trip and when you will recharge. You have to plan around range and allow some leeway in case you get fewer than 100 miles. That gives the Volt or any other hybrid a huge advantage for most car buyers.

This gets hotly debated in the green blogosphere. I think the Volt will be more successful. Now, let’s sit back and watch.

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