Charged Up and Ready to Roll: Volt vs. Leaf

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 03, 2010

The Chevrolet Volt visits the ivy-covered halls of Columbia University. (GM photo)
The Chevrolet Volt visits the ivy-covered halls of Columbia University. (GM photo)

Crunch time is coming and soon EVs will have to do more than look pretty turning on auto show turntables. By the end of the year--in just a few months--the electric cars that have been confined to magazine headlines and topics for discussion on Car Talk will finally be on dealer lots. So a bit of comparison shopping between two environmentally friendly frontrunners might be welcome.

So here they are, the $32,780 Nissan Leaf and the $41,000 Chevrolet Volt, both on the market at the end of the year, and both having gotten as much advance publicity as Lindsay Lohan's jail term. I've driven both, and even managed to peel rubber in the Leaf, which sent company handlers into conniptions.

Both cars are big gambles, and the uncertainty of the early adopter market for electric vehicles is giving automakers agita. After announcing the Volt's price to some shouts of dismay, General Motors promptly racheted up 2012 Volt production from 30,000 to 45,000. The company cited "strong consumer interest," but what do they know--the decision seems to have been prompted as much by President Obama driving it and pronouncing it "pretty smooth" as anything else.

Both companies are talking big but hedging their bets. Both cars come with longer-than-expected eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranties, but the Volt and Leaf will be available initially in only a few select markets where the companies have charging stations and public support. For the Volt, that means California, Washington, D.C., New York, Texas, Michigan, New Jersey and Connecticut. For the Leaf, it's California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Tennessee. Those are the states where lucky buyers might be able to snag a free (yes, free) $2,000 charger through the federally supported EV Project.

Speaking of subsidies, both cars benefit from a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Volt will have a very attractive $350 a month lease price, which is made possible by that tax credit--the value goes to the leasing company. And California has an incredibly generous $5,000 cash rebate for EV buyers, which is one reason I expect probably half the early market for electric cars will be. But expect bankrupt California to shut down that program fairly soon--apply early!

The Leaf will be rolled out in stages--after the first five states, Texas and Hawaii will soon be added; then North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Washington (D.C.), Virginia, Maryland, South Carolina and Alabama in April of next year.

Don't live in any of these places? You're not alone. Tom and Ray don't either. C'mon, how could Massachusetts be any greener than it is? This is the state where even the sports bars have recycling bins. But no matter, both the Leaf and Volt go national at the end of 2011, and probably by that time not only will they be much cheaper but they'll be charging stations on every corner.

The Nissan Leaf: 100 miles, then a recharge. (Flickr photo)
The Nissan Leaf: 100 miles, then a recharge. (Flickr photo)

The Volt and Leaf are both electric cars, but that's where the comparison ends. The high-tech Leaf sedan is powered by a 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack, has a range of 100 miles, and recharges in seven hours on the 240-volt charger you'll undoubtedly have in your garage. The Leaf will come ready to interact with your cell phone and computer to set charging times so you can fill up when the grid is less stressed--late at night.

I drove versions of the Leaf twice, once in California, where I left rubber on the road, and at Bear Mountain State Park in New York. It's quite fun to drive, especially off the line--battery cars have full torque at zero rpm, so they positively leap forward when you press down what used to be called the gas pedal. It runs out of grunt after a while, though, and top speed is just 87 mph. Of course, it's unearthly quiet.

My friend Chelsea Sexton recently drove an almost-ready-for-prime-time Leaf, and she had a similar impression: "The car is quiet and peppy," she said, "manages hills with little effort and has a nicely balanced suspension that is both smooth and comfortable while being responsive around corners and negotiating traffic." She also likes the electronic gizmos. "The Leaf has the best user interface I've seen in an electric vehicle (EV) yet," she says.

The Volt, which I piloted in Michigan and New York, is a similar (and fun!) driving experience because it's essentially a battery car, too. The Volt feels more like a European sports sedan than traditional American family fare--it handles well, and is a lively on-the-road experience. But after the Volt runs through the 40 miles of all-electric range from its 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack, the gas engine kicks in to generate electricity and keep the wheels turning. The result is another 300 miles of driving.

New York's Daily News did a Volt vs. Leaf comparison that lets their PR staff battle it out:

Is the extra $8,000 for the Volt worth it to banish the "range anxiety" that could plague early adopter EV owners? Maybe. The Volt can be your family car, just as useful for the long haul to grandma's house as it is for daily commuting. But you'll probably leave the Leaf home for family vacations, or any trip that involves a lot of highway driving. Interstates kill EV range.

A wild card for all EVs is fast charging, which can take a running-on-empty car to nearly full in half an hour. Fast charging is 480 volts, not for the faint of heart. Get shocked with that and you'll look like Wile E. Coyote after meeting the business end of some TNT. But fast chargers will be certified safe by the time they roll out, most likely at convenience stores and big boxes like Best Buy. The electronics giant is already fielding a fleet of Mitsubishi I-MiEVs for the Geek Squad, and will soon be adding EV chargers (including some fast ones).

The Leaf and Volt have one big advantage over the EV competition from upstarts like Coda, Think, Fisker, Wheego and others--along with Tesla (which capitalizes on the coolness factor)--you've probably heard of them. Nissan and Chevy have huge advantages in dealer networks, advertising budgets and PR clout.

Both the Leaf and Volt are probes into the unknown. Neither company will make these battery-based cars in great numbers until they see the market taking off. And if it doesn't, well they can always go back to what they've been doing forever--making gas guzzlers.

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