I remember attending a show ‘n shine, where a 50’s something Chevrolet had had its roof chopped and channeled, the springs cut to lower the body over the wheels, enormous header side pipes on the outside of the vehicle indicating exceptional horsepower, and a sign posted on the dashboard, which read:
I can’t help but think of that sign in another context, 180 degrees from that 50’s performance Chevy. The Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt promise pollution-free driving, no exhaust fumes, no greenhouse gases, and the ability to charge or fuel your vehicle at home. Kilometres per charge, cost per charge and kilowatt-hours are the buzz words rather than cam timing, rear axle ratios and Hurst shifters.
So, let’s get in the Nissan LEAF.
First, LEAF is a real car, with four doors plus an easy-to-open hatch. The SL model has all the amenities of an upscale near-luxury vehicle, with Navigation, Bluetooth streaming audio, hands-free phone, HomeLink garage door opener, leather seating surfaces and a heated steering wheel.
Now, sit down. The seats are comfortable, with perforated leather so you won’t work up a sweat, and are easily adjusted for height, fore and aft, and seat back angle. Radio, cruise controls and the hands-free Bluetooth phone controls are found on the steering wheel. A slightly below eyeline digital display tells you your speed, and a very colourful, larger display beneath indicates the number of kilometres you can travel until the battery is depleted, the state of the smaller 12V battery, and transmission selection, among other indicators. The navigation system on the centre stack will not only indicate the quickest route to your destination, but also map out an ‘eco’ route that reduces highway driving and maximizes brake power regeneration.
Forward visibility is excellent with a wide, almost bubble-like greenhouse around you, a relatively low belt line, and LED headlights with a pronounced diamond shape to indicate the corners of the vehicle. The wide side glass can be partly covered with sliding sunvisor extensions to keep back the low-lying sun.
Parking is a breeze. The AroundView monitor displays the output of four cameras, one in each outside mirror, one on the rear hatch and one on the nose of the vehicle. The images are sown together to show you exactly where your vehicle is in relation to those around it. When in reverse, a tech-like beeping sound will warn passersby that you are coming their way. A small, 10.4 metre turning circle contributes to LEAF’s maneuverability.
Now. Please shut up. Your faithful scribe is tired of the bitching, complaining and general kvetching about the range of the current crop of electric vehicles. Remember when personal computers replaced typewriters? You didn’t have to load paper into your computer, but put it in a printer to output. And, suddenly, you went from just being able to type, to surfing the web, drawing, designing and a myriad of other functions. As the late, great Steve Jobs said, or at least, approved of the slogan, much to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere, the personal computer forced you to ‘Think Different’.
So, let’s Think Different about an electric car. Once per week, or so, you go to the local filling station and put somewhere between $50 and $100 worth of gas in your vehicle to go somewhere between 300 and 600 kilometers. Instead, with LEAF, you drive 100 plus kilometres to the grocery store, to school and office, music lessons and baseball games, and on returning home, you plug-in your vehicle to charge. It takes less than 60 seconds to connect it to charge by the time you unhook the power supply and plug it in, even less time if you remember to open the charge port door before you get out of the vehicle. Nissan has even anticipated that issue, by putting a charge port door release button on the keyless remote.
Need to check on the state of charge? Fire up the iOS or Android app for LEAF. Request a status report from the on-board CARWINGS system, which will show you the estimated time it will take to completely charge. It’s a hot day? Ask LEAF to start cooling the interior for you in advance of getting in the car. Want to delay charging until the electrical rates are more economical? Schedule it with the app. Think Different.
Instead of filling up the tank one per week to put 500 kilometres of fuel into your car, you put 100 kilometres of usable fuel in your electric LEAF overnight, ready to go the next day. Cost of a fill up? My local utility charges 6.7 cents per kilowatt hour for its overnight rate. The battery in LEAF is 24 kW. If the battery is completely depleted, that’s $1.61 to fully charge LEAF, which is approximately 155 km of use. I currently spend $80 to fill my larger sport utility with an average of 400 km between fill ups. That same 155km costs me $31 in fuel.
No, the premium that you pay for an electric car will not be covered by the fuel savings.
Or, will it?
If we look at a vehicle, similar in size to LEAF, say, Nissan’s JUKE, equipped with leather and navigation, JUKE is almost $11,000 less expensive than LEAF. Transport Canada states that the approximate fuel cost per year for JUKE is $1918. If the annual cost of LEAF is $208 to drive 20,000 km, then the payback is about six and a half years. In the interim, the cost of gasoline will likely rise, as will the cost of electricity. I also haven’t budgeted the cost of installing a Level 2 charger in the home, but then again, I haven’t taken into account longer brake life and lack of oil changes for LEAF, either.
I certainly noticed how many gas stations I passed while driving the LEAF. I also noticed that I didn’t have to worry about fuelling the vehicle before going out in the morning; it was always ‘full’ from overnight charging. You can’t drive from Toronto to Montreal in a day in a LEAF. Then again, you can’t carry 2,000 lbs of bricks in the back of your existing car from the brickworks; you’d need a pickup truck for that. My point being, certain vehicles have specific uses, and LEAF is an exceptional urban runabout.
The latest United States Environmental Protection Agency standards for fuel economy have changed how LEAF’s range is calculated. On a full charge, the EPA calculates the range at 75 miles, or 120 kilometres. On a full charge, LEAF displayed a range of 144-155 kilometres. Punch the ECO button, and gain another seven kilometres of range. Put the vehicle in B mode to increase power regeneration on deceleration, and watch how slowly the range decreases. The range depends on your driving style, ambient temperature, whether you’re running the climate control and radio and other items. LEAF even features an outstanding Bose audio system, engineered to consume less power. The algorithm that LEAF uses to calculate the range ‘learns’ how you drive over time to best guide you. The LEAF I drove had 400 kilometres on it, and the algorithm will take longer than that to customize the vehicle to your personal habits. It appears to me that the 120 kilometre EPA range is extremely conservative.
LEAF is literally a blast to drive. It has three driving modes: D, for normal driving, ECO, which reprograms the throttle for better fuel economy, and B mode, which provides aggressive brake energy regeneration. You can almost drive the LEAF only with the throttle, as the B mode gives you so much braking performance. This will also add to the life of the brakes.
Range was never an issue while I had the vehicle. I charged the LEAF overnight on a dedicated 110V circuit. I ran LEAF with B mode almost always on, and ECO occasionally. A 28 km run downtown in city traffic used an indicated 37 km of charge. With normal errands, I had difficulty getting the number of kilometres left on a charge below 90.
This is where you hang on. To start LEAF, press on the brake, and hit the push button ignition. The result? The instrument panel lights up, and the navigation system comes to life. No driveline vibration, no noise, no sound. LEAF’s single speed gear reduction is incredibly smooth. Put the transmission in drive, and step on the throttle. Peak torque occurs at zero RPM, which, in the city, gives LEAF exceptional stoplight performance, as a BMW M6 found out this past weekend. And an Audi S5. Perhaps I better stop here. Of course, once at speed, LEAF can’t keep up with these types of vehicles; we’ll just pass them again at the fuel pump.
Let’s see how LEAF makes out against the Volt.
As you’d expect, near luxury prices bring near luxury features. Volt has OnStar, LEAF has CARWINGS telematics. Bluetooth wireless streaming is standard, along with automatic climate control. However, the differences between the two vehicles at the price point offered are pronounced:
LEAF doesn’t offer a gasoline engine for extending its range. Volt will travel about 60 kilometres before the gasoline engine fires up to charge the battery. LEAF will travel two and a half times farther on a single charge. The staggering difference in amenities offered by LEAF versus Volt likely accounts for the recent price cut for Volt in the United States. No word if that price cut is coming to Canada, (GM currently offers a $5,000 incentive, while the MSRP stays at $42,000) but even if it does, LEAF will still hold a sizable value advantage.
The rest of the story demonstrates LEAF’s exceptional front and rear headroom. And while both vehicles have a rear hatch, LEAF’s usable cargo area is larger than Volt’s. Volt has a little more width which it puts to good use for more shoulder and hip room.
The question you will have to ask yourself is, do you want to be gasoline free? LEAF won’t be for everyone. Neither will Volt. But we are in exciting times with these two offerings in the marketplace. With more models coming on stream, consisting of a mix of hybrid, Diesel and all electric in the near future, we will indeed need to get in, sit down, shut up and hang on. It’s all about choice, and it appears that the driving public will have that in spades.