Did We Err On The Leaf, Or Is GM Volt Boosterism Bashing It?

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Brian Carolin and John Voelcker with 2011 Nissan Leaf

Brian Carolin and John Voelcker with 2011 Nissan Leaf

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Last week at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, we announced that the 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car was the winner of the GreenCarReports 2011 Best Car To Buy award.

That same week, a flurry of other media outlets almost uniformly gave their "car of year" awards to the 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car.

Among those giving laurels to the Volt were Motor Trend and Automobile magazines (owned by the same publisher, we note), and Green Car Journal, which runs the Green Car of the Year awards in the U.S.

In the States, we were essentially the only media outlet to give the nod to the Leaf, though over in the U.K., The Green Car Website did name it their "Green Car of the Year."

We're confident in our choice, which is based on the candidates' overall scores in full reviews published by our largest sister site, TheCarConnection. But we're left wondering what we see so differently than anyone else.

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

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As a car, the Leaf has more room inside, carries a fifth passenger, and weighs less than the Volt. It's also more than $8,000 less expensive.

We explained our reasons for selecting the Leaf, among them that it's a real car, the first highway capable, high-volume, full function battery electric vehicle on sale in this country since ... well, since 1930 or so.

The 2011 Leaf also has the lowest carbon footprint of any car in almost every state (only the 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid may be a shade better in those few states with exceptionally dirty power grids).

And we think the range issue--Nissan quotes up to 100 miles, the EPA's formula says it's 73 miles--won't be important for the early adopters or any household that buys a Leaf as its second or third car.

Electric-car owners in Japan, it turns out, spent a couple of weeks worrying about range and then adapted to it and used the cars quite happily, especially when they were reassured that sufficient public charging points were nearby--even though, data shows, they almost never actually used those charging stations.

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010

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In our awards judging, the Volt came a very close second to the Leaf, mind you. It was significantly ahead of the other three nominees: the 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid sports coupe; the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, that make's first one; and the 2011 Lexus CT 200h, a sporty hybrid compact hatchback.

We were scratching our heads over the Volt sweep when a colleague suggested that perhaps other media outlets felt it was time to reward GM for building the world's first series hybrid, reaching far ahead with a technologically innovative car, and ... by the way ... making a damn good car too.

We're not sure we buy that. These kinds of awards usually take several months to put together, requiring drives by several editors, interviews with the company, and ideally, long-term test cars (not possible for either the Leaf or Volt this year, since they're only now entering production).

But we did wonder what you, our readers, think. Does the Volt award by largely Detroit-based publications indicate a desire to compensate General Motors for taking risks, building better cars in general and, lately, staging a successful and oversubscribed initial public offering of its stock?

Might there even be some hometown boosterism? (None of those media outlets are based in Tenneesee, where Nissan is.)

Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Comments (37)
  1. Not even boosterism. It makes sense that publications headquartered in places like Detroit would absorb the same mindset as Detroit automakers, and would tend to believe the same things that led GM to make its decisions about what kind of car to build. So if GM executed it well, they would be more likely to approve of that than some range-limited furrin thing. (Whereas plausibly a publication whose editors walk or take the subway might be more open to the idea that you don't need four hours driving range for a daily commute.)

  2. Here's the answer to your question:
    Those awards came from highly-reputable well-known mainstream automotive institutions
    This site: who ever heard of it?
    Don't worry, no-one cares.

  3. John: the report from Japan on range anxiety potentially being less of an issue than feared will probably be the deciding factor on whether the Leaf or the Volt will be the Model T of EV. I would buy a Leaf, based on price, as a complement to our new Ford Flex. But for single-car owners who may need the Volt's extended range on occasion, I can see them opting for that compromise.

  4. awards, aschmards - whether we are talking about hollywierd and the oscars, the best car, etc. - it is all about politics.
    and in this case, money.

  5. The Volt could be used as a first car, but the Leaf could not -- at least not by many in the U.S. It could also be adapted to virtually any source of energy capable of charging a battery. Not that I am opposed to the Leaf, but the Volt has a much broader appeal.

  6. John,
    Early adopters don't count if no one follows. Nth cars don't typically get pride of place in the garage. Japan isn't America; its drivers more closely parallel Manhattan commuters from off-island.

  7. Paul,
    I've lived in upstate, western and SE MI...western NY...Las Vegas...Houston...central WI...northern FL. In every one of those places, I've averaged from two to four dozen MID-WEEK trips of 100+ miles. Very often while running A/C or fighting winter cold, icing and fogging. AMERICA doesn't live in Westchester County or Downstate CT or Alexandria VA.

  8. Dan,
    You GET it; it amazes me how very few do, though. "It could also be adapted to virtually any source of energy capable of charging a battery." "ANY" By ANYONE. As soon as they're available. (Remove IC engine, add new generator and software.)

  9. Dan,
    You GET it; it amazes me how very few do, though. "It could also be adapted to virtually any source of energy capable of charging a battery." "ANY" By ANYONE. As soon as they're available. (Remove IC engine, add new generator and software.)

  10. Motor Trend and Green Car Journal are headquartered in California, not Detroit. I'm not sure about Automobile. So what local 'boosterism' could there be? It's simple. Most of us are interested in electric cars but not willing to make sacrifices like driving range. The Volt is perfect for my daily driving since it can go up to 50 miles on electric power. And I don't have to worry about needing to go further and getting stuck because its gas powered generator can create all the electricity I need for any length trip. Don't worry about erring in your decision to make the Leaf a Best Buy. It seems to be a great car, too, just not for me or many others.

  11. I think the answer--JayZ's impolite answer aside--is that we're awarding a green award, while most of the others are giving a "car of the year" award. That means green isn't the only, or even the biggest, factor.
    Not sure about that other green-car outlet. You'd think they'd vote for the more oil-free choice.

  12. I like Marty's post. I also like your choice. And your justification or reasoning.
    Car of The Year is a complex idea. I differ with the others in that the all electric is MY idea of the COTY. We need a big change.

  13. I am a Volt fan (living in Japan currently), and applaud the LEAF, too, but the VOLT, I think, is best as the #1 "American" Car of the Year, because it's truly a new breed of vehicle, that can satisfy all the sedan needs of the average "American" family, and still get them to Grandma's on the holidays, 700 miles away, all the while getting 40+ MPG on that trip and 93MPG equivalent for the shorter Mon-Fri commutes after a full night's charge.

  14. Contrast that to the American surburbanite, who routinely puts in 100+ mile days for dropping off the kids at school or soccer 8 miles away, driving to that awesome new Trader Joes 7 miles the other way, driving back to pick up the kids, driving them home, immediately heading to lunch with friends at the Mall 10 miles down the freeway, driving to the other Target store across town (20 round-trip) when the one close to home is out of that one thing they have to have, and then head home just long enough to freshen up, while the spouse hops in to pick-up a few things, and then everyone piles in again to take the family out to dinner and then for ice cream and then to the movies, and finally home: final mileage 120 miles in a day or more.
    The LEAF really only works for a Mon-Fri commuter car for most American folks, with the need for another full-time family car power by internal combustion (or wishfully a PHEV?)

  15. I'm currently living in Japan. They love tiny cars (who wouldn't with fuel at about $8 a gallon?), and hi-tech: the Leaf falls into that. For Tokyo drivers, the cars remain parked most of the time, in favor of the incredible train system and subways.
    For Japanese surburbanites, they still do very little driving past going to work and back, and stopping at Lawson or Family Mart for some food on the way home. Kids walk to school, kids walk to sports practice (or ride their bikes). There's none of the "bogey-man" fear factor here that motivates American mothers to drive the kids everywhere, including to school. Each country is different, and requires different vehicles to accomplish their tasks, with different urban geography and layout.
    (These three posts are in reverse order, unfortunately)

  16. The $8K cheaper comment is only true if you are buying. If you are leasing, which is likely what most will do due to federal tax rebates considerations, the Leaf is likely the better deal since it leases for the same price as the Leaf, but is more car. And most people don't carry five in cars of this type so I consider the two rear bucket seats in the Volt to actually be a plus over the one flat 3 person bench seat in the Leaf.

  17. The $8K cheaper comment is only true if you are buying. If you are leasing, which is likely what most will do due to federal tax rebates considerations, the Leaf is likely the better deal since it leases for the same price as the Leaf, but is more car. And most people don't carry five in cars of this type so I consider the two rear bucket seats in the Volt to actually be a plus over the one flat 3 person bench seat in the Leaf.

  18. I drove both the Volt and the Leaf, one after the other, at the Santa Monica Alternative Transportation Expo. The Chevy Volt had much more power in all-electric mode and I believe had better suspension and driving dynamics. It also has a sophisticated climate system for keeping the expensive lithium batteries comfortable for a long life. The Nissan Leaf doesn't even have a fan, let alone liquid cooling or heating of the cells. Time will tell if Nissan will have to replace battery packs en masse before the warranty expires. Last and not least, the Volt eliminates range anxiety. I currently drive an EV and have driven them off and on for about 25 years. Yes, they do sometimes run out of juice and sometimes at times and places that are not just inconvenient, but down right dangerous! The Chevy Volt will always take you back to your own wall outlet, so you don't have to be stranded somewhere. Until the 350 mile, $5,000 battery pack is invented, I vote for the Chevy Volt.

  19. @Doc Rings: Even if a typical "American suburbanite" drives 100+ miles per day, s/he often does it in multiple vehicles. Chevy will tell you (ad nauseam) that 74% of U.S. vehicles cover less than 40 miles/day. And Nissan will tell you that more than 90 percent of U.S. vehicles cover less than 100 miles per day. The average U.S. household now has more than 2 cars, so I suspect many households will be able to swap out one vehicle for a plug-in like the Leaf.

  20. @Tom: Fair point: The Leaf's price advantage evaporates if you lease. The 2011 Leaf costs $349/month to lease, with a $1,999 down payment, and the Volt is $350 a month with $2,500 down.

  21. I am a fan of both cars and happy to have the options, but they do clearly serve different needs regardless of their similarities. I would say you got the pick right, based on your criteria and considering your audience. However, I also understand the other media outlets choosing the Volt. Despite its many similarities to other hybrids, it is truly more of a "bridge" to the world of EVs and in its way a technological marvel.

  22. You didn't err on the Leaf, it is a great car and its EPA fuel efficiency rating which frankly shame the Volt, are proof of that.

    Don't get me wrong, the Volt is better tailored to the US market and will have a better chance of persuading American buyers to at least partly electrify their drive. But the Leaf will sell much better in Europe and Asia and therefore will have much bigger global sales.
    I congratulate you for not following the crowd and not just looking at these cars from an American consumers' perspective, who of course, require greater driving range and don't suffer from sky-high gasoline prices as we do in the UK. Well done for considering them more on a global scale and focusing on the environmental credentials.
    I know I'm biased as we awarded our prize to the Leaf too, but you are right about the Leaf's weight, space and price being better along with its eco-credentials.

  23. it would seem like it might make more sense to talk about a car of the year, after it has already been out a year.
    at this point, all this hullabaloo on all these sites is just advertising noise.
    it certainly is not based upon the car being driven by consumers for a year.

  24. I have been in love with the Leaf since the first introduction of the concept. However, I feel I'm part of the largest economic group (Middle Income), and there is no way I can afford to put out the price of a Leaf for use as a second car. That kind of money has to be reserved for my primary transportation that can take an occasional 500 mile trip. My choice has to be the Volt, even at $8000 more. I think you were wrong in choosing the Leaf.

  25. Simple answer.
    The Leaf is butt ugly.
    Yeah it is aerodynamic but still ugly.
    The Volt is aerodynamic but still pretty cool looking.
    The Leaf was designed by some engineers for efficiency and the marketing people watched.
    The volt was design by marketing people (Lutz) with engineering support.

  26. The Leaf will go down in history as the first of a new generation of mass produced practical EV's, a concept that will go on to dominate the market. The Volt will go down in history as one of the last excesses of the ICE age: overweight, overcomplicated, overpriced. A transitional product with a niche role at best. Only clueless ICE age dinosaurs would vote this car of the year.

  27. I'm not in the market for a car so in that sense, my opinion doesn't count. If I was buying, I'd buy the Leaf and a very small trailer with generator if I needed more range. Cocconi had that idea a long time ago. His trailer was single wheel and easy to back up.

  28. Why not be happy for the Volt, its a great car too.
    You should be happy the Volt won then the BMW M3?
    The Leaf is a nice car, but it has limitation that would prevent a mainstream publication from even nominating it.
    For myself Im buying the Volt over the Leaf for 4 reasons.
    1. Cold weather preformance, the Leaf's air cooled batteries wont preform well when left out all day unplugged below freezing
    2. Range 73 miles isnt enough for me I need 100 miles all the time
    3. My current car is past end of life, I cant buy a second car to have a backup car for the Leaf.
    4. The Leaf isnt available in my home state, the Volt is.

  29. Boosterism? LOL. GM has been skewered by car mags for years - and by EV blogsites like this one. Difference is that the car mags are focused on the car and therefore are open minded enough to extend credit where credit is due.

    And to that end, GM allowed journalists to live with and hammer the hell out of the Volt to see just what it is made of. Nissan did not allow such independent appraisals of the LEAF, and frankly I'd say GreenCarReports failure to criticize Nissan for that is what really smells like boosterism - LEAF boosterism.
    Apparently EV blogsites such as this one just can't seem to shake their hatred of GM for 'Killing' the Electric Car.

  30. Kent, you're wrong. GM only provided the Volt to two magazines for any extended period of time. Everyone else got the same driving opportunity in the Volt as they did in the Leaf -- with the Leaf's being shorter, obviously. I did both of them, as did John Voelcker.

  31. Marty, I was maybe not precise, but I was not wrong. GM did allow journalists extended time - maybe not all, but Motor Trend's were among them. And for you to say 'everyone...got the same driving opportunity in the Volt as they did in the LEAF' with the caveat 'with the LEAF's being shorter, obviously' - is contradictory.
    You and your colleagues continually dump on GM motivations with your mocking tone (boosterism, oversubscribed IPO, etc.). But even worse, your failure to call out Nissan on their Soviet-style control over the LEAF not only undercuts your blogsite's credibility, but the credibility of your 'Car of the Year' award as well.

  32. Kent, your only peg here is the actual range of the car. Nissan didn't prevent anyone from emptying the car of its energy, and neither did GM. That's not contradictory. The only reason the Volt merits more study at the edges is because of the end-of-range interaction of electric and gas-engine power. The Leaf just runs out of battery. My laptop does that. I know how that works. Case closed. When you suggest "Soviet-style" management of press events, you've obviously never been engaged in one to recognize those that really are run with Politburo efficiency.

  33. GM spent a billion dollars to build an " all electric only" car that could blow the 'Leaf- Blower'( which has to be used as second car) away even today, and nobody showed intrest in the EV1.
    So you guys got it wrong on the Volt,ok,everyone makes mistakes. When the Volt 2.0 comes out you may convert from your asian car affinity. Ahh how many Prius' where just recalled, hundreds of thousands, not for the brakes,thst' s so yesterday,the water pumps this time.
    The Leaf-Blower is a high end golfcart , GM has" been there and done that", Leaf-blower cost less because it does LESS, does AAA come and tow you home when it battery hits E ?

  34. John, you did it right. GREEN can give the best car award only to Leaf. It is the greenest.Volt is only half green.Nissan showed they could build the first usable production EV in the world when GM failed in the first attempt with EV1. But that do not take away the credit for GM which has also showed courage in coming out with an alternate Hybrid car slightly different from what Toyota did more than ten years ago

  35. The Leaf is not NEARLY the car the Volt is. Thanks for helping our economic competitors. Next up for you--"BYD produces the best vehicles ever, please stop buying american. Oh, but keep paying my paycheck." Economic traitor you are--you're being used by the foreign companies and their political partners and you don't even know it. Shameful.

  36. Traitor you are,dont take a Japanese parochial view of economy, that is not good for US.
    GM would have gone down long ago but for the Asian market.Last your Chinese bought more GM cars than US citizens bought.In India one of the best car awards was given to GM Cruze last year. GMlaunched Cruze in India first than it launched in US.
    You know how Volt is built today.As production begins, the battery cells will come from South Korea. The electric motors (there are two) are made in Mexico.The gas engine is from Austria. What you say about those things ?
    Parochial view of technological assessment will harm US interests. You must try to understand how and why economical problem started in US, I will give a few reasons, over spending,too much optimism and short sightedness of people like traitor you are.
    Next year Nissan make Leaf from US, LG will start its battery plant in US and give employment to thousands of US citizens. Will you then buy those products.
    Common boy, think big.US economic problems has affected equally to all countries, like a cascading effect. Every one is trying to survive the onslaught.Technological assessment is one thing and patriotism is another.

  37. Had the opportunity to check out the Volt in Orlando recently. Jaw-dropping awesome. Great concept, amazing technology, fantastic quality. This looks to me like the future....and I like it.

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