Chevy Volt vs. Nissan Leaf

May 9, 2012

There's a lot of excitement around electric vehicles. But so far sales have not been great.

Michigan Radio’s auto beat reporter Tracy Samilton decided to get some firsthand experience driving two electric vehicles - the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt.

JW: So while we are calling them electric cars there are some fundamental differences in how they work.

TS: The Leaf is a pure electric vehicle it only runs on the battery and when it runs dry you have to recharge the battery to get more out of the car. And the Volt has a battery, and you run on that as an electric car for about 35 miles, and then after that it has a generator that runs on gasoline that provides more electricity so the car can keep running. So Chevy calls it an electric car with extended range.

JW: And after spending that week with the Leaf and the Volt, what did you think?

TS: Well, they’re two totally different cars and I had two totally different experiences as you can imagine. When I got the Volt, that week that they gave it to me I actually have a vacation arranged in Pennsylvania. Well because it has the extended range I could actually take the volt to the camp sight, some 400 and some miles away. And I plugged it into my cabin, which had electricity. You know most of this was done on the gasoline but I was able to get it recharged in my cabin.

When it comes to the Leaf, it’s a different kind of vehicle, I could not have done that.

In fact I even considered driving it to Detroit and back one day for an event. And I was sitting in my car looking at the range, which it was about 100 miles, and the event was a good 45 miles away. So I was doing the calculations in my head and the range I was looking at slipped down two miles and just chickened out because I knew that on the end at the garage there was no place for me to plug in.

And that kind of tells you a little bit about range anxiety and why people are not flocking in large numbers to trade in their regular cars for electric cars because you have to know that you have that range, and that you are going to be able to make it on the range.

JW:These electric cars aren’t selling well. Tell me how the Volt and Leaf are tracking in terms of sales.

You know they have not come out really strong, certainly not as strong as the companies had hoped. In April, I think the Leaf sold about 370 Leafs and the Volt about 1,460. So these are not large amounts of these cars being sold, and I know that last year GM’s CEO Dan Akerson said he hoped to sell 60,000 this year. It’s just not going to happen. People are not buying the cars in high volumes like that.

JW: It is because they’re not all together comfortable with electric technology yet?

TS: I think that’s part of it, absolutely. They’re not sure about whether the technology is as dependable as what they are used to. They know that, for example with a regular electric car it has the range limitation and they may want to go longer distances.

And there is price. And that is probably the biggest thing. These cars are more expensive that a car that gets 40 miles per gallon, which is pretty good. And you can get one of those cars for about $20,000.

When you are talking about the Volt it costs about $31,000, and that’s including the federal tax credit and the Leaf is about $28,000 including the federal tax credit. So really I think the big issue it price.

JW: These cars are being presented as being green cars. What is the environmental impact of these vehicles?

TS: If you’re looking at global warming emissions and the Union of Concerned Scientists took a look at it and found that, in an area say like California if you have an electric car and it’s running off the grid, which uses a lot of natural gas to produce the electricity it’s a lot cleaner than say even a hybrid like the Prius. But if you are running that electric car off the grid in Michigan where most of our electricity comes from coal, they found that it produces about the same global emissions as a regular compact car that gets about 40 miles to the gallon.

So, if you really maximize the potential of electric vehicles to clean up the environment we have to clean up the way we produce electricity.