2011 Nissan Leaf vs 2011 Chevy Volt: Strengths & Weaknesses, By The Man Who Owns Both

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with charging station visible; photo by George Parrott

Enlarge Photo

Many comments are appearing on the internet taking enthusiastic positions for either the new 2011 Chevy Volt or the 2011 Nissan Leaf.

It seems most readers are in one "camp" or the other.

In our household, after studying the technical strengths and features of both cars as they moved from concept to production, I ended up ordering...one of each!  

We had been driving a 2006 Toyota Prius and a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, enjoying the technology and economy of those designs since mid-2006.  Our Prius had around 64,000 miles and the Camry Hybrid had just 40,000, so we didn't need to replace them. But I enjoy new "toys," and cars are almost the ultimate consumer toy.

Our 2011 Volt arrived on January 13, delivered to our house by the Chevy dealer in Fairfield, California, 40 miles from our home. I couldn't find a closer dealer who would sell the Volt at MSRP and order it with the configuration that I wanted.  We now have 2300 miles on the Volt, including two road trips of 200 to 300 miles, and considerable general driving.

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with roof solar panels visible; photo by George Parrott

2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevy Volt, with roof solar panels visible; photo by George Parrott

Enlarge Photo

Our computed overall gas mileage is right at 107 mpg, which is way better than even the newest Prius might achieve.  The Volt has been a true attention-getter in parking lots, and hardly a trip goes by that someone does not remark on it.  

The ride and interior is more European than Japanese or Detroit in feel, and the dual display screens are almost hypnotic.  The seats are quite comfortable and the optional heating is nice on cold mornings; the range of height adjustment for shorter drivers is much better on the Volt than the Leaf. The GPS mapping appears totally up to date, and the Onstar feature and traffic updates work incredibly well.  In the Sacramento metropolitan area, we got the Coulomb chargepoint and installation free with a DOE/Volt program.

2011 Chevrolet Volt cabin

2011 Chevrolet Volt cabin

Enlarge Photo

On the negative side, the Volt lacks passive locking/unlocking which was standard on our Prius and Camry Hybrids and is fitted to the Nissan Leaf, and it does not have a rear window wiper (which the LEAF includes) for the frequent rainy days here in Northern California.

The 2011 Leaf, which arrived on February 17,  being fully electric, has a much larger battery pack and a daily range of nearly 100 miles between charge sessions. We're actually getting almost that with totally local driving, but any freeway time at higher speeds reduces the LEAF range markedly.  

Another negative on the Leaf is the smaller range of seat height adjustment for short drivers, along with the frustration that the GPS map software is at least five years out-of-date for our neighborhood.  A further frustration for early Leaf adopters is that the "Carwings" service, which is supposed to show charging stations regionally, is not functional at all for the first three months of delivery and is only "promised" to be updated quarterly.  

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

Enlarge Photo

Nissan's "customer service" at the corporate level seems somewhat disconnected from really providing the support advertised for this cutting-edge vehicle.  

On the plus side, the Leaf has room for five passengers, and the rear seat is quite comfortable with very good visibility.  The proximity locking/unlocking is most appreciated, as is that rear window wiper.  I even like the "mouselike" shift controller and the light colored fabric interior.

It would be hard to be a Leaf one-car family, but we will use the Leaf for all our shorter local errands and my wife's regular daily commute. The Volt will complement the total gas-free economy of the Leaf for infrequent longer trips, and for my less regular work commuting.  

Switching from the Prius and Camry Hybrids, I project that our annual car upkeep costs (fuel, and regular service) will drop from around $2600 a year to around $300 a year.


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Us

Comments (42)
  1. Great article. I wonder if the cars have similar electrical efficiency in terms of KWH/100 miles.

  2. I don't fully understand your question about electrical efficiency in terms of KWH/100 miles.
    If car can go 107 miles with a gallon of gas or diesel it uses to produce the electric energy, your answer is right there.
    Hopefully, the masses will have the brains to accept it and get rid of Arab's oil polluted emissions as those cars reduce emission from 70-90%

  3. @Stefan M
    For a long time the efficiency of a vehicle has been measured in MPG. In fact, that is a big topic of discussion at Green Car Reports.
    Now that we have electric cars, we need to switch to electrical efficiency. We need to know how many miles the EV can go per KWH of electricity. After all, an inefficient EV will still pollute the atmosphere, if not from its tail pipe, then from somewhere else. Also, while I appreciate that the author has solar panels. I seriously doubt that they cover the electrical load of the house and two EVs. I know my solar panels would not.
    John C. Briggs

  4. John,
    Our solar panels produced 1200kW MORE than our house consumed and all that production was a PEAK time and maximum $$ credit back to us. We ended the year with a hypothetical "credit" of plus $438 rather than any annual bill for our electricity use. With "time of use" metering, charging both EVs during the $ 0.06 (or less/kW) midnight to 7 am period, and projecting nightly charging of less than 25kW/night, this comes out to be around $400/year added to our previous year's pattern of use. Hence at least for that projection of added use, we end up still with ZERO annual electrical use charges (though we must still pay a "connect fee" of a bit under $13/month to be part of the grid).
    A 37-40 mile range on the Volt appears to be drawing about 13kW to recharge, and the LEAF now records that we are closer to 3.0 miles/kW. Basically it is a wash as to which is "most kW efficient" in terms of our records so far.
    My wife is still clearly struggling with "range anxiety," as today she was called to jury duty, and I plotted on mapquest the distance from our house to the county courthouse; it was 25 miles one-way, and she would NOT use the LEAF for that roundtrip. The Volt is much easier to start with, since there is never a worry about being stranded with it.

  5. I wish people would take more care with units, especially in distinguishing power from energy. What do you mean "solar panels produced 1200 kW MORE than our house consumed"? Do you really have a megawatt solar array? If you meant kWh (kilowatt-HOURs), then over what period of time was that? A month? A year? It can be very confusing.

  6. It would be helpful if you disclosed efficiency of plug miles separate from gas miles. Your unknown mix of CS and CD use producing 107 "mpg" is no more instructive than the infamous 230 mpg claim by GM.
    By you method, one need only pick a period of CD mode only use to get infinite "mpg."
    In the alternative, present mpge, such that the electric use is at least accounted for. Some of us lack your solar panel advantages.

  7. Hear hear! Mileage claims for plug-in hybrids that exclude electrical energy are both misleading and uninformative. Gasoline and electricity are apples and oranges, and their consumption should always be specified separately.

    We should also lobby the EPA to jettison its arbitrary and meaningless "MPGe" figures. If the car uses electricity I want to know how many miles it goes on a kilowatt-hour, because that's how electrical energy is measured. And those kWh figures should specifically reference the AC input to the EVSE if that's what they are.

  8. Ksstathead,
    I think I have just above answered your "efficiency question." But to be more detailed, the Volt for us is getting between 38-39.5 mpg for it's fuel driving time. I understand your need to know that figure, if you don't have the support of home solar panels. But "time of use" metering for EV households, available from almost every utility, gets the midnight to 7am charging rates typically down to UNDER $0.065 per kW, so a "worst case" charge cost for the 37-40 miles of California driving we are getting with the Volt would be $0.75. It is pretty hard to find ANY fuel driven vehicle today which can transport several people 35+ miles for under 80 cents !
    Clearly however, if MOST of one's driving was more than around 60 miles a day, then a Prius would be a better dollarwise choice for daily transportation costs and maybe even for "clean air concerns too." For us, coming from a Prius, there would have been no way, over 2200 miles or so to average 107 mpg with the Prius.

  9. While I applaud the writer's desire to be on the cutting edge of green transportation (and to be in the 1% of the global population who can make such dual purchases)...one has to wonder about the actual cost/energy/resources it takes to replace two perfectly good, and relatively new, vehicles with these two purchases?
    Seems like purchasing these new cars, no matter how efficient, puts the writer in the negative, environmentally speaking. The environmental cost of their production and shipping has to be taken into account.
    Nice effort, though.

  10. I seriously doubt he simply crushed his two perfectly good and relatively new previous vehicles. I assume he sold them to someone else who is now benefiting from the energy and resources that went into their manufacture. So I can't understand your concern.

  11. Thanks, George. So 75 cents/6.5cents/kwh =11.54 kwh/charge. At 37 miles, that is 321 wh/mile. At 40 miles, 288 wh/mile.
    That and your 38-40 mpg CS mode should let readers do the math. Your electric cost at 6.5 is far better than I pay and vastly cheaper than some pay.
    Most helpful. Happy to hear positive reports. I suppose both up front and per mile cost concerns are not at the top of the list of many early Volt buyers. So, thanks for humoring me.

  12. His trade-ins didn't get crushed; they are still serving the same use for the world, just for someone else. I have cost and efficiency concerns about the Volt, but I cannot share your concern here, Dave. In the bigger picture, the Prii have displaced some older FSP, smog belching monsters. It is all good.

  13. Unlike YOU, I can't afford ANY car, much less a new hybrid or electric, and certainly not FOUR of them. Your story not only doesn't help me, it makes me angry. Who the hell can afford to live like you?? Do you make that much money writing for GreenCar, or are you in debt to the gills??

  14. @Keith... Uh, anger management or reality check time, perhaps? It's not anyone else's fault you can't afford new vehicles, so if you're not interested in the subject of new vehicles, how about taking your bitterness elsewhere and allowing the rest of us to discuss things like adults...?
    Also, two does not equal four; he sold two cars to buy two others. He never bought four, other than over a 4-5 year span.
    Thanks, George. Have a Volt on order and a LEAF or Focus Electric to follow...?

  15. I'm sure the tax credits help tremendously in purchasing these vehicles. Glad we could help!

  16. Lots of sour grapes in here. LOL
    I can't afford one either but if others that can keep buying, maybe the price will come down.
    Also, if your going to complain about the tax credits, go whine to the Oil Companies that get Billions in subsidies.

  17. I don't know if the oil companies get subsidies or not; it probably depends on how you do the accounting. But I don't really care because, either way, electric vehicles deserve subsidies for the time being because of their enormous benefits to society as a whole. They represent the only viable way to get transportation off of its nearly total dependence on petroleum.

    Developing and deploying any new technology takes time. But given the huge environmental, political and social costs of burning petroleum, time is the one thing we don't have in abundance. So almost anything that can speed up the arrival of the EV is worth it.

  18. @Dave: According to M.A. Weiss et al., in their 2000 report from the MIT Energy Laboratory, On the Road in 2020: A Lifecycle Analysis of New Automotive Technologies, fully 75 percent of a vehicle’s lifetime carbon emissions come from the fuel it burns over its lifetime, with another 19 percent coming from the production of that fuel.
    Extraction of the raw materials that make up the vehicle adds another 4 percent, and only 2 percent of lifetime carbon is due to the manufacturing and assembly process. While hybrids may be slightly higher in raw materials and assembly, due to their added battery pack and electric machinery, the difference in overall lifetime carbon between hybrids and conventional cars is negligible.

  19. Keith, et al,
    There are many, many cars that I/we cannot afford either. I subscribe to Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Road & Track, Automobile, and Autoweek and have for many, many years. I "lust" for a Ferrari, but that will never come to a reality, but after 40 years of professorial career (and no kids) there are many "toys" that I/we can afford. Keeping relatively new cars in our garage also frees us from ANY worries about real repair costs, since the cars are in full warranty. ALL of our friends know about my chronic car shopping, and I am regularly consulted for other's car buying and several of our friends and extended family members just wait for us to put our current cars up for sale.
    Since our first Prius in 2004 we have committed ourselves to driving as green as possible and to configuring our home to be as green as possible as well. Last year we removed all of our home's outside lawn and replaced it with low water adapted plants and drip watering; we reduced our monthly water use by 70% over the previous year with that change. The house is also solar hot water system equipped and that reduced our annual gas bill by about 50%.
    By the way, our major local TV station, KCRA Channel 3, did a 6pm evening news piece on our house and cars last week.

  20. @John
    But what gain can we expect on the conventional car footprint face to new EV in the future ? the best case of lagacy car equal to the worst one for EV...

  21. Why not recycle an older vehicle into electric? A VW beetle fully restored with electric conversion will cost you around $18k or less if your handy. These new cars must cost at least double that. Personally I'll keep driving my 1960 porsche which I've had for over 30 years and still getting 30mpg.

  22. As an engineer I have seriously considered converting a gas car to electric, and I may still do it someday for fun. But I'm just not impressed by most EV conversions. Most have old brush-type DC motors with reliability problems. They have primitive controllers that can't even do regenerative braking, squandering one of the EV's biggest features. Conversions invariably use wet-cell lead-acid batteries with poor range, limited lifetimes and regular required maintenance (watering).

    Conversions can be fun, but OEM EVs are the way to make them happen in the real world.

  23. i choose chevy volt. absolutely.

  24. I drove the GM EV1 for 5 years so I already knew a pure electric would meet my needs. So I bought a Leaf without even looking at the Volt.

    But I'm still happy that the Volt is out there because pluggable hybrids address the range anxiety that keeps so many prospective EV drivers from buying pure EVs.

    But once they do buy a pluggable hybrid, most will go for months without running the gasoline engine. They'll suddenly realize that range just wasn't the big problem they thought it would be - especially if L3 charging becomes real. So next time they'll decide to get rid of the engine and buy a pure EV.

    The pluggable hybrid is the perfect "gateway car" to the pure EV.

  25. Newer cars vs "recycle an older car into electric."
    One of THE issues with us to keeping newer cars is SAFETY FEATURES. I have had friends "t-boned" and saved only because they had door reinforcements and side airbags. My wife was read-ended at a stoplight coming at the end of an offramp by a big pickup, without really good rear "crush zones" we are sure she would have been seriously injured. I was the "first responder" at a drunk driver incident where the guy went off the road into a tree and put his passenger through the windshield. The list can go on....
    In one of our earlier vehicle shopping times, I really like the then current Acura TL, but at that time, it did not offer side air bags. For me/us that was a dealbreaker; we got the VW Passat for our next car from that shopping.
    Besides safety issues when converting an older car, there is all the potential repair and simply wear and tear concerns. Shocks, brakes, steering assembly parts, even the belts and hoses on a conventional car all weaken and wear with time. For at least some of us, these "issues" also offer a rationale for going with a new and "no worry" car over hanging with the older vehicle. Dollars and cents, keeping and converting older cars comes out apparently ahead, but factoring in the "risk" and the personal hassle time....it might not?

  26. Bravo for all the green decisions you have made. I almost got a prius but someone told me that the road noise was bad, so I am still driving my old car. Do you notice road noise in either of your two new cars?

  27. This was exactly the kind of rundown I have been looking for; a real life look at these two EV options from a real life car consumer. Thanks George. I've been watching these two and leaning toward the Volt as we're a one-car couple and plan to stay that way. I liked the Volt immediately when I saw it in prototype phase (I was lucky enough to travel to Detroit to do so and to interview Tony Posawatz about the car: http://www.butterscotch.com/show/Getting-Up-Close-And-Personal-With-The-Chevy-Volt Note, not my best work ... at least I hope it's not ;-)
    On another note, I was asked recently if I thought EVs were just opening up a new world of problems. Even charging on the grid, we can assume that charging will be in off-peak hours. Here in Ontario, Canada, we recently had to PAY the US to take excess energy out of our grid and dispose of it as we were over capacity. If most charging happens in off-peak, there's plenty of room for EVs within current infrastructure.

  28. Bravo for all the green choices you have made. I considered buying a prius but someone told me that the road noise was bad. Have you noticed road noise in your cars?

  29. I'd love to get a Volt, but unfortunately the dealers seem to be stuck in the 60s when it comes to being helpful & informative, (see the movie "Tin Men" for a sample of 60s sales philosophy).
    I called three Chevy dealers here in the SF Bay Area and got widely varying & vague responses on when I could get a Volt -- "maybe in July" was about as specific as I could get. Also, none of them could give even the faintest idea of how the $7500 federal tax credit works. Is it a $7500 deduction off of taxable income -- which would result in an actual tax savings of at most around 30% or about $2500 -- or is it an actual reduction in tax owed, which would be a true savings of $7500. "Consult your tax adviser" was the universal response.
    Given that this is a huge selling point for these cars, why can't Chevy train its sales people to give a straight and simple answer to this question? I do have an accountant, but it's not his job to sell Chevy Volts.

  30. Tax credit on tax you owe.

  31. It is a tax CREDIT, which means a taxpayer should get it all back IF he owed at least $7500 in federal taxes. It is not a simple answer however so it is somewhat understandable that a salesman would ask a buyer to consult a tax adviser. For instance, if you pay less than $7500 in taxes, can you get the remainder of the credit the following year?

  32. Based on my experience, it is MUCH more financially sound to LEASE rather than buy the Volt. For the LEAF it is more of a tossup. Leasing the Volt, the $7500 Federal Tax Credit is automatically wrapped into reducing the lease cost along with another $2000 credit from GM. Finding a GM dealer who will order or sell you a Volt at MSRP is a challenge. We got ours from Fairfield Chevrolet (between SF and Sacramento) (salesman Danny Austin), and they were incredibly responsive, attentive, and helpful. My understanding is that the $7500 is a direct CREDIT against the bottom line of all federal taxes one owes, but I didn't want to have to wait 12-14 months to have this apply, since my Volt delivery was in January rather than December of 2010.

  33. George:

    How did you get the credit of $2000 from GM, could you please give the details of this credit how to get it.

    I bought Volt in May19th.

  34. Any idea how far the leaf goes at pure highway speeds?65mph

  35. LEAF hiway range at a constant 65 mph is (probably) around 70 miles AT BEST. Turning on the heater drops range by about 10 miles from that. Cold temperatures (below about 40 degrees F would also compromise the range by maybe another 8-10 miles.
    I spoke today (Thursday 10 March) with a "East Coast auto writer," and he commented to me that he took one of the early press LEAF cars and ran it with heater on and in the cold of the "Upper Midwest," and he saw a total range of about 55 miles....

  36. Thanks George. I live in the Pacific Northwest, while we don't see the snow that the east coast does winters (well... October - April) runs between 35 - 45 degrees. Cold enough that I'd want a heater on. My commute is 30 miles too work, 20 of that his I-5 (65mph) the other 10 is backroads (40mph) I don't see any stop lights along the way. Home of course is the same. I wonder if the Leaf could do it? I'd assume that it's range would get shorter with a few years on it. It sounds like I might not be 'leaf-able' (tm) :)
    How does the heater work? A typical car is based off the engine cooling system. Is the Leafs heater basically my toaster? That would explain why the heater sucks down the power.

  37. Barb,
    The Prius is a bit "light and bouncy" with rough surfaces and freeway speeds; it is not as smooth riding as the Camry Hybrid, but it does still ride quite well, and unless one is migrating from something pretty new and at least mid-size, you probably will think the Prius rides well and quietly (if not really "quietly" then at least rides very acceptably).
    We really like our two Prius cars (2004 and 2006) and we promoted that Prius to everybody else in our extended family. In my wife's family now, her Dad has a Prius, and both of her brothers also have the Prius. Doesn't that tell you that we have been VERY impressed and pleased with that technology?

  38. Sage...
    Well the LEAF would do the job for you, but not leave much room for side trips I suspect. By the end of this year, there are supposed to be numerous chargepoints all through Oregon and Washington, so you might also be able to take advantage of those for some extra range. Even 15 minutes on a L3 charger can give the LEAF about 25 additional miles range, so any available QC charge station would answer your concerns completely. Yes, the range is projected to degrade a bit over the LIFE of the battery, but as far as I can tell now, nobody really knows what that rate of loss will be but estimates have been presented.
    The heater is, as you presume, basically like a toaster, so it does drop range by about 10%; I suspect the AC is more energy efficient than the heater, but we have not actually tested that at all.
    Barb, NOISE concerns with the LEAF and Volt:
    None, really. The Volt is very solid and firm riding on the freeway; we just 30 minutes ago returned from a roundtrip from Sacramento to SF (just over 200 miles total) with the Volt, and enjoyed the excursion to connect with my wife's family there in the "South Bay." The LEAF could NOT have made that trip smoothly with the range issue, but for all of our around town miles with the LEAF, it rides smoothly and there is little "road noise." We used the LEAF to go to dinner in downtown Sacramento last night after my wife had used it for her own daily errands earlier on Friday.

  39. Does any know if there will be a vehicle that will handle a wheelchair. Right now I have a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Of course, it is almost 12 years old, has a 4.7 liter 8 cycinder in it, and only gets 22mpg at 65mph. In the city the mileage drops to just over 16mph. We need something that can handle traveling well, as we sometimes will put 1300 miles, or more, in a short trip to see family. It would need to ride well, being comfortable to sit in, and carry enough luggage for a week, plus room for a power-type wheelchair, while still maintaining highway speed. I so dislike being a safety hazard to others while I am driving.
    It's all well and good to be green. But it feels like all of us that drove large cars because we have to are scorned. Basically, I think that the physically handicapped are ignored by car manufacturers and that the earth/green-minded, health conscious conservationists look down to us because we drive such huge vehicles. I've/We've been seriously considering buying a large 'converted' van (one of those almost-RV's) for us to use for our traveling about. That way, we would be able to have room for passengers, instead of it being just the two of us.
    Any ideas or comments? Please feel free to contact me. Thank you. Have a great day!

  40. @David Whitmore,
    Sounds like you might be a PERFECT candidate for the incoming PRIUS V. This new Prius derivative, coming in the next 3-4 months, is an enlarged version of the proven Toyota hybrid with a higher profile and a more mini-van squared off rear. The US version will be a 5 passenger with carrying capacity double the classic Prius. We have gotten a 46" flat screen TV IN THE BOX in the back of our 2006 regular Prius, so I strongly suspect this new PRIUS V would meet your space needs. The projected EPA mileage for this new model appears to be around 40 mpg, so that is better than ANYTHING else that could serve your needs. Freeway speed should be no problem, and IMHO, I would project that keeping your speed to 65mph this PRIUS V technology would likely give you more like 44 miles/gallon or better maybe.

  41. @David Whitmore,
    Sounds like you might be a PERFECT candidate for the incoming PRIUS V. This new Prius derivative, coming in the next 3-4 months, is an enlarged version of the proven Toyota hybrid with a higher profile and a more mini-van squared off rear. The US version will be a 5 passenger with carrying capacity double the classic Prius. We have gotten a 46" flat screen TV IN THE BOX in the back of our 2006 regular Prius, so I strongly suspect this new PRIUS V would meet your space needs. The projected EPA mileage for this new model appears to be around 40 mpg, so that is better than ANYTHING else that could serve your needs. Freeway speed should be no problem, and IMHO, I would project that keeping your speed to 65mph this PRIUS V technology would likely give you more like 44 miles/gallon or better maybe.

  42. Is it possible to drive the Volt only with the electric motor for short runs? If this is so what is the range? I was told by Chevy that even their larger hybrid suvs could do this.

Commenting is closed for old articles.

Get FREE Dealer Quotes

From dealers near you

Find Green Cars


© 2015 Green Car Reports. All Rights Reserved. Green Car Reports is published by High Gear Media. Send us feedback. Stock photography by izmo, Inc.