Everyone able to use earrings has heard about the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf. And they’ve heard the foaming stream of breathless commentary emanating from automotive experts, from Chevrolet, and from Nissan. The modified noun “plug-in hybrid” is being thrown around like a beanbag in a kindergarten, and comparisons between the two vehicles are as common as the coin toss in football season.
The briefest of summations describes the Volt as a plug-in hybrid and the Leaf as an all-electric vehicle. In truth, both owners can plug into a socket with the same feeling of self-satisfaction. Both cars can use standard wall plugs or higher voltage dedicated rechargers. But depending on the car and the socket, different results ensue. The magic number for recharging seems to be the same as for sleeping: eight hours. The Leaf has a 50% larger battery than the Volt, which means to hit this goal, a Leaf owner will need a special 200v charging appliance costing around $2200 on average, $1000 of which will be paid by the Leaf owner’s fellow taxpayers. Alternatively, with its smaller battery, the Volt owner can plug into a 110-volt wall socket and still wake up fully refreshed.
The Leaf uses only batteries for power while the Volt relies on a hybrid layout. Hybrid, in this instance, means that an internal combustion engine rides aboard the Volt and can recharge the batteries while under way but doesn’t actually drive the wheels. The Leaf, not unexpectedly, has a shorter cruising range (100 miles) than the Volt (a claimed 300 miles when using both forms of power, 40 miles on electric only).
Both the Volt and the Leaf qualify for a $7500 government tax credit. This makes the Leaf’s announced $33,600 price drop to $26,100, assuming the buyer owes more than $7,500 in federal income taxes. GM, every bit as forthcoming about the cost of the Volt as it was about fudging the facts on its recent “loan repayment,” has not released an actual MSRP. Prevailing punditry fixes the price at $32,500, but suspicion is rampant that this price includes the $7,500 tax credit, meaning that the Volt could cost $40,000.
The Leaf holds four adults, and the Volt can seat four. Nissan estimates that it would cost around $3.00 to charge the Leaf for another 100 miles. Chevrolet estimates that, using the engine to recharge the Volt’s batteries, it will get 230 mpg. The Volt, as noted, will go 40 miles on a single charge; anything over that requires underway charging and therefore produces tailpipe emissions. The Leaf of course is a zero-emissions vehicle, once charged.
The Volt has a non-controversial appearance, by no means unattractive, while at least one blogger (Chris Paukert at autoblog.com) described the Leaf as the lovechild of a Nissan Murano and a catfish. As we who live in the south know, the only things uglier than catfish are the leggings-clad fat women found at Walmart, so this seems a tad harsh. That said, if you saw the front end of a Leaf peering at you from within a fish tank, it would not look altogether out of place.
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Even if the fish tank had lobsters in it, would you be tempted to reach in and pluck out the Leaf? Or would you opt for the Volt? Or would you say the hell with it, let the globe look out for itself, and take Honda up on its recent $199-per-month lease deal and drive away, suffused with guilt, in your new Civic. You could do a three-year lease for about $7,200 and have nearly nineteen grand left over (based on a net price of $26,100 for a Leaf).
I did my best to take an objective look at the Volt/Leaf choice, and I would point out that I conquered Hybridphobia years ago when I spent a surprisingly pleasant week putting 450 miles on a Toyota Prius. The Prius was better than I expected on the Interstate, and once I got over the sinking feeling that comes when your car’s engine shuts down at a traffic light, I was comfortable with the car. I even reacted with equanimity when the floor mat came at me with a Ginsu knife, subduing the attacker by dumping a Starbucks latte on it.
So much for a conventional hybrid; what about the all-battery version? Being honest, I show symptoms of Range Anxiety akin to those that might be triggered by some cowboy suggesting we sing show tunes around the campfire on Brokeback Mountain. I am just plain uncomfortable with a cruising range of 100 miles, never mind that it would be more than sufficient for my needs on most days. My occasional need to travel 400 miles in a day would render the Leaf a poor choice for me, unless and until a charging-station infrastructure springs up in south Mississippi between my garage and the Gulf Coast. Which I suppose could happen, given the relatively reasonable cost of the devices.
So am I a candidate for Volt ownership? That depends on whether the rumored price tag of $32,500 is before or after you other taxpayers help me out with my effort to save the planet. And it further depends on whether I think I can believe anything General Motors tells me. The car is nice looking, however, and there’s no reason to suppose it won’t meet the higher build-quality standards GM has exhibited of late.
A circumstance that militates against my rushing to buy either of the cars is my belief that there are no free energy lunches. That is, the power to recharge the cars must come from somewhere. And even if it's from the air, there are to my knowledge no unsubsidized wind farms. On the favorable side, most charging would be done in off-peak hours, which ought to have a positive effect on energy-use efficiency.
The argument that there is less overall energy use when you drive a hybrid or an all-electric car, no matter what your charging source, appears to have merit. So, even though I don’t know precisely what my own source would be (we have both coal-fired and nuclear generating plants here in Mississippi), I’ll concede that my use of either the Volt or the Leaf would be a positive thing.
But would I actually do it? Probably not, because I don’t like the way the numbers add up. My family consists of two persons, and we already have two vehicles, one a 2006 and one a 2008. It’s too early to scrap either of them, and we do not have the storage space for a third automobile. If I traded in my 2006 Toyota Avalon at either a Nissan or a Chevy dealer, my new environmentally sensitive Leaf or Volt would come complete with a free loofah and a rubber duck.
Our combined mileage these days is maybe 10,000 miles per year, which means that I’ll have my AARP Platinum walker long before my fuel savings would justify spending somewhere between $26,000 and $40,000 on an alternative-propulsion car.
Yet, given that we are a two-vehicle family, it might be interesting to sell the Avalon, keep the Dodge minivan, and add a Volt or a Leaf to our small fleet, which would thereby be hedged against Range Anxiety. Absent something I might learn on test driving the two, I’d vote for the Leaf.
Besides, I like catfish.