Why Build an Electric Car? Part 3: Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt

Here’s a hypothetical situation that hopefully doesn’t seem too outlandish. Lets say you’re a young professional who is making good money and are looking to reward yourself by buying a new car. You’ve been a car guy/girl your whole life, so you want something sporty that’s nicer than an economy car with aftermarket coilovers. Lets take it one step farther and say you’re also very intelligent and socially aware, so you know what we’ve covered in Part 1 and Part 2 of why we should consider driving electric cars and you’d like to find personal transportation that’s not motivated by the combustion of fossil fuels.

Where does that leave you? As of this writing, there are two middle class affordable mass production electric cars available for purchase at a dealership: the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. I went to my local dealerships as our hypothetical car shopper to see what the buying experience for these electric cars would be like. I wanted to find out about the stuff that went beyond the sales brochure. How much did all the options add to the base price of the car? What kind of maintenance intervals would they have? What are the charger options? What kind of work can I do to the car myself? Most importantly, how well did these dealerships actually know these electric cars? Here’s how our hypothetical car buyer’s shopping day turned out. Just as a note: we’ll be discussing the price of these cars without government subsidies simply because they won’t always be available and because EV’s will have to compete on even ground with regular cars if they’re going to penetrate the US market.

Nissan Leaf

The first car I went to look at was the Nissan Leaf since it has the largest pure electric driving range. The dealership keeps this gray one as a demonstration car to talk to prospective buyers about the Leaf. Production has just gotten to the point where the sales process was shifting from special ordering the cars with a 3 month wait list to actually having cars on the sales floor. This dealership was scheduled to have 3 Leafs for stock the week after I paid them a visit. When you show up to buy an EV, the sales experience for the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are pretty similar. Once the dealership staff has established that you’re shopping for an electric car, they funnel you to the one or two salespeople that have had special training to sell them. When the Leaf was introduced, you could buy it as a base model or an SL. Since then everybody has opted for the SL, so that’s how they’re all being made now. The SL package adds the rear spoiler and fog lights to the base model. The Leaf comes standard with heated seats and steering wheel, bluetooth, navigation, cruise control and a battery heater.

The salesman I spoke with told me that the Leaf was based on the Versa and makes a little over 100 horsepower. Nissan will not sell you a Leaf unless you first install their level 2 charger in your home. It’s 240V based unit that costs $1500 and must be installed by a certified installer. The 24 kwh battery pack takes 9 hours to charge, which is a pretty long time. The new Ford Focus EV that’s coming out later this year has a similar sized battery pack that charges in half of the time. The Leaf and its charger uses the standard public charger plug and the car is also capable of receiving the next most popular plug shape as well. The purchase of the car also includes an emergency 120V charge cable in the trunk. Given the fact that a 240V charger takes 9 hours to charge the Leaf, you can count on waiting for a good long while if you are ever having to rely on the emergency 120V emergency charge cable. The Leaf’s battery pack is EPA rated to give a 99 mile range which will be less during the winter, in hilly terrain or with a lot of highway driving. One interesting thing I found was that the Leaf and the Nissan charger do not have smart charging capabilities. Once the plug is connected, it immediately starts charging the car which can significantly increase how much it costs to top off the battery pack and unnecessarily tax your power grid. You can’t tell the system to wait until there are off-peak power rates (overnight) to charge. The Leaf’s battery pack is warrantied for 8 years / 100,000 miles.

At 35 grand, this demo car’s sticker price is similar to the ones you can now buy at your local dealership. As expected, there isn’t much maintenance required on the Leaf with one exception. The owner’s manual says the brake fluid needs to be replaced every 15,000 miles where a normal car’s fluid would normally be replaced at 60,000 or more. Consumer Reports thinks that the Leaf’s regenerative braking prevents the brake fluid from seeing enough heat to cycle out the moisture that builds up. Brake fluid is naturally hydrophilic meaning that it will draw moisture to itself. If the fluid’s moisture content gets too high, it has to be replaced. The sales guy also said that the Leaf’s tires were a common size that you could get from any tire place. The Leaf comes stock with Bridgestone Ecopia efficiency tires. They help with improving the range at the expense of performance. They’re also pretty expensive as far as tires go.

The main thing that I didn’t like about the Leaf is that you can still feel that it’s based on the Versa even though you have to pay over twice as much for it. The passenger compartment is roomy like it is in the Versa, but it’s plain to a fault. Some of the interior plastics are made from recycled material, but the effect is made less impressive by the fact that the inside of the car is a bland sea of beige. The blue and white LED gauge cluster is on par with what you would see on a smart phone or a tablet which is really cool and therefore out of place in the otherwise sterile interior. Sitting inside the car gives you same feeling as sitting inside a hospital examination room. Everything is light colored and smooth like it was intended to deflect stains and be easy to clean. It’s almost as if the interior was purposefully designed to illicit no emotional response whatsoever. The effect is pretty uninviting.

The Leaf isn’t looking too appealing for our hypothetical car shopper figuratively and literally. It has a good electric driving range, but it does a poor job hiding its compact economy car roots. For $35,000 you get a car that feels like a Versa, and looks like a Versa that melted in the sun a little bit for improved aerodynamics. That’s not to say the Leaf is a bad car. It’s a great car for people who want nothing but an efficient transportation appliance. The problem is that it’s a terrible car for people who love driving. There is no sport trim package and Nissan doesn’t offer any factory backed suspension upgrades like lowering springs or a stiffer rear anti-sway bar. In fact, a quick internet search shows that nobody makes suspension upgrade parts for the Leaf. That just goes to show that the typical Leaf owner isn’t concerned with improving the car’s handling. Between the economy car feel, bland interior and muted driving dynamics, the Leaf is too much of a compromise for our hypothetical car buyer to be purchasing at a new car price.

Chevrolet Volt

The next stop for our EV research day is the local Chevrolet dealership to look at a Volt. This dealership had one Volt that they kept at the as a demo car and one salesman specially trained to sell it. It was a smaller dealership but they had also just gotten an additional Volt for stock that was red with a tan leather interior. Production and distribution of Volts is high enough that chances are you’ll be able to find a Volt in stock at a dealership near you. Unlike the Leaf, Chevrolet will gladly sell you a Volt even if you don’t have a charger installed at your house.

The Volt and the Leaf are the only mass produced cars that fit the budget of our hypothetical EV shopper until the Ford Focus EV and Honda Fit EV hit the market at the end of this year. Even though the Volt and the Leaf classify together as electric vehicles, comparing them is not quite apples to apples. For starters, there’s more than a $6,000 difference in their manufacturer’s suggested retail prices, so you could say they’re in different price brackets. The design philosophies for the two cars are fundamentally different as well. When you purchase a Leaf, a large majority of your dollars goes towards a large battery pack to give you a pretty extensive electric driving range. The Volt is different because it’s technically a hybrid.

The salesperson at your local Chevrolet dealership will tell you the Volt is a pure series hybrid where the wheels are driven only by the electric motor and the gasoline engine is only there for mobile recharging. In reality, the Volt has 7 different drive modes which include a highway mode where the gasoline engine helps drive the wheels. The combined drive mode is more efficient at uninterrupted highway speeds. The computers aboard the Volt automatically keep track of the engine and oil health. They’ll tell you when the oil needs to be changed since you can’t judge it’s health by the car’s mileage like on a normal car. Also, if you manage to operate the Volt for 6 months without activating the gasoline engine, the computers will start it up and let it get to temperature to keep things from getting stagnant. The engine, battery pack and electric traction motor are all designed to use GM Dex-Cool coolant and the use of regular coolant in the system is not recommended. The engine is technically supposed to use GM’s Dexos oil as well, but the salesman told me that it was OK to have the Volt’s oil changed at any regular oil change facility.

The trade-off for mobile recharging with gasoline is a shorter electric range.  The EPA rates the Volt’s electric range at 35 miles compared to the Leaf’s 99. You most likely won’t get the same range in either car, but at least you can compare how they performed on the same test cycle. The 2011-2 Volt uses a 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack which has been increased to 16.5 kwh for 2013. As with the Leaf, the Volt uses the standard plug shape that public chargers use and comes with an emergency 120V charging cable. You can buy electrician installed chargers that range from $250 to $450 from a company approved by Chevrolet. The battery pack takes 8 hours to charge on a 120 volt charger and 3-4 hours on a 240 volt charger. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt does have the capability to smart charge. The on-board computers will wait to request power from the charger until a specified time. That way you can take full advantage of your power company’s off-peak charge rates. The Volt’s battery pack has the same warranty as the Leaf at 8 years or 100,000 miles.

The area where the Volt really outshines the Leaf is interior and styling. The Volt shares the same chassis as the Chevrolet Cruze, but that fact isn’t something that immediately jumps out at you when you look at it. The Volt is distinctive enough that nobody would blame you for thinking it was an entirely different car. That goes a long way in preventing you from feeling like you paid over $40,000 for an economy car. The exterior styling of the Volt is cool in a high-tech gadget sort of way. It has a draw like the newest gadget or phone on the shelves at Best Buy. The appeal carries through to the interior where features like the two-tiered dashboard and silver plastic accents emphasize the sharp, high-tech theme of the car. The plastic trim that connects the dashboard and the door panels gives a nice contrast in both color and texture. The interior was also a comfortable place to be with decently bolstered and heated leather seats and plenty of head and leg room for all four passengers. The well appointed interior and stylish exterior is similar to what you would expect to find on a sport luxury car, but it doesn’t come cheap. The audio system with DVD navigation is a $1995 option, the leather $1395, the silver “Viridian Joule” paint $995, rear camera and park assist $695, polished aluminum wheels $595 and the Bose premium speaker system added $495 to this demo car’s $46,674 sticker price.

The Chevrolet Volt is a thoroughly executed car. Even though it shares underpinnings with a compact car, GM has done enough to make it feel like you are getting more than that. They’ve done their homework in terms of knowing what kind of customers the Volt appeals to. The people who are buying Volts now are early adopters who aren’t afraid of new technology. They’re the people who are willing to take a risk on unproven technology because it thrills them to be the first to have it. Owning a Volt right now is like being the first person on your block with a Blu-Ray player while all your neighbors are still watching their lame standard definition DVD’s. In that sense, GM has hit the mark with the Volt. It’s sharp and exudes a high-tech feel like any cutting edge electronic gadget does. The series hybrid electric drive train is a ground breaking piece of technology and it’s wrapped in appropriately stylish sheet metal. The interior also contributes to the coherent futuristic theme and it’s a comfortable space to spend time in. Like the Leaf, there are no factory sport suspension options or add-ons. The Volt does have a Sport mode, but it doesn’t change power output or suspension dynamics. It only remaps the throttle pedal output to give you quicker response to your requests for acceleration. That being said, the Volt handles at an above average level for a car intended for the general public. The handling is relatively crisp and body roll is minimal due to the weight of the battery pack being built into the floor. It’s just competent enough for you to find its handling limits without it being a chore or a risk. Unfortunately, cool new technology is never cheap. Adding on the well appointed options bloats the Volt’s price tag over $6,000. The demo car I looked at was fully loaded, but most Volts are probably being made with many of these same features. Chances are finding a base model Volt with the $39,145 M.S.R.P. will be pretty tough, if not impossible.

Which One To Go With?
So which one of these cars will our hypothetical middle class young professional car buyer go with? Like I mentioned earlier, comparing the Leaf and the Volt is not a direct side by side comparison. There’s a $6,000 gap between the starting prices of the Leaf and the Volt that grew to $11,000 once both cars were set up with useful options. That changes our comparison from “Which car is better?” to “Is the Volt $11,000 better than the Leaf?” The answer to that question is yes, it is. The fact that the Leaf can provide a 99 mile electric range is impressive, but the car is a let down in almost all other areas. The styling is weird, the interior is bland and the driving dynamics are boring. The Volt has a shorter EV range, but it can do mobile recharging with gasoline. I’m all for the complete transition to electric vehicles, but a plug-in series hybrid like the Volt is a very practical and realistic intermediate step until the charging infrastructure and battery technology is in place for using EV’s everywhere. The Volt isn’t going to wow anybody with it’s performance credentials, but it will impress a lot of people with its overall high tech feel and build quality. That makes the Volt worth the extra money over the Leaf for a car that you’ll have to live with everyday.

So our hypothetical buyer would definitely choose the Volt over the Leaf, but does that mean the Volt is a definite buy? That depends on how strong his or her conviction to go green is compared to their love of performance cars. $46,674 will buy you a lot of car. To put things into perspective, the sticker price of a well optioned Volt is more than that of a Ford Mustang Boss 302 with the Recaro package. The Leaf is too much of a compromise and the Volt is a bit pricey. Is there another option?

One thought on “Why Build an Electric Car? Part 3: Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt

  1. Pingback: Honda Fit EV – Translogic | FluxAuto

Comments are closed.