Not all electric cars are the same.

Buyers can now choose between "pure" battery electric vehicles and a car with a combination power train termed either a range-extended electric vehicle, which uses a gasoline engine to generate electricity to run the car, or a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) that adds plug-in capability to a conventional hybrid vehicle, a la the 2011 Chevrolet Volt.

The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the major focus of the excitement for pure electric cars, though the Tesla Roadster has been on the market for two years as well.  

At $109,000 or more, the Tesla is out of the reach of most car buyers, but it has gotten highly positive reviews for its sporty performance and battery range (from 150 to more than 300 miles depending on driving style and other circumstances).

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

Battery electric car enthusiasts epitomize the absolute clean of zero emissions and zero oil consumption in their vehicles.  The paucity of charging stations, and the limited range of the reasonably priced Leaf, seem to be trivial and easy to ignore.

In part, debate between proponents of the two vehicles can be viewed as a battle between the "fully green" Leaf and Chevy Volt buyers, viewed as somehow tainted.  The 2011 Volt, to its credit, has received "Car of the Year" awards from several national media outlets.

The Volt uses an electric motor that provides virtually all the power to move the car with a small 1.4-liter gas engine to generate electricity after the initial battery charge is depleted (in 25 to 40 miles). Critics charge that GM "misrepresented" the Volt as electric car, since under some conditions the gas engine contributes some torque to help drive the car.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

So the 2011 Chevrolet Volt still burns gasoline, getting 34 to 37 miles per gallon once the battery is discharged. So why not just get a 2011 Toyota Prius, which is rated at 50 miles per gallon? The Volt may also suffer from that final barb: "It's from General Motors, and they killed the electric car," as if nothing GM can do should be able to reclaim our respect.

GM has effected an remarkable rollout with the Volt. It has done massive volumes of road testing, and once production began last November 2010, cars flowed smoothly off the line and almost 1000 Volt vehicles actually reached customers by the end of February2011, with more than 300 deliveries in its first month on sale, last December.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

So what are the rational tradeoffs between a pure battery electric vehicle like the Leaf, versus plug-in hybrid or range-extended electric designs?


2011 Nissan Leaf ($32, 780): Totally zero emission, less expensive, Japanese build quality, better dealer experience, five passenger capacity, proximity locking/unlocking, and rear window wiper is included.

2011 Chevrolet Volt ($41,000): No worries about range, no special charger needed, available in volume early, optional leather and heated seats.


Nissan Leaf: Limited range, expensive battery, questionable interior fabric on seats, no heated seats option. 

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

Chevy Volt: May still buy some fuel, must maintain engine, more expensive to buy, holds only four passengers, may not qualify for electric-car parking and other plug-in state and local incentives.

The 2011 Leaf wouldn't be an adequate only car for most of us. But for almost all of us with two-car families, the Leaf would likely be a very reasonable second car.  For the one-car household, the Chevy Volt easily serves both daily economy and clean-operation goals, and can be the long-range touring carriage as well.  

At some point electric-car designs may become a single vehicle solution. But until we see electric range of 250 miles or more, the pure battery electric car will remain a commuter or city car and plug-in hybrids will be the most practical solution to our 21st century vehicle needs. 

By next year, there will be new plug-in alternatives from Toyota (the 2012 Prius Plug-In Hybrid and also the RAV4 EV), Mitsubishi (the 'i' battery electric car), Honda (the Fit EV), Ford (the 2012 Focus Electric), and perhaps Volkswagen and Coda as well.


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