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Chevrolet Volt vs. Nissan Leaf: Compare Cars

2017 Chevrolet Volt
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2017 Chevrolet Volt
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2017 Nissan Leaf
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2017 Nissan Leaf
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By John Voelcker
Senior Editor
October 7, 2016

For the last five years, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf have been the two best-selling plug-in electric cars in the U.S. 

This year, however, a new last year Chevy Volt faces off against a Nissan Leaf that looks identical to earlier models but offers a new and class-leading range rating of 107 miles--up notably from last year's base model 84 miles. The new Volt delivers more electric miles too: 53 of them, per the EPA, against the 38 miles of the preceding model.

So which one should you buy (or lease)--the extended-range Volt, or the updated Leaf with more driving range?

(A note: we've changed our vehicle ratings and rankings system.)

MORE: Read our latest 2017 Nissan Leaf and 2017 Chevrolet Volt reviews

Leaf sales have flagged over the past 18 months, and the added range is expected to boost them to some degree. The new Volt, meanwhile, is sleeker, better-equipped, faster, quieter, and more powerful. 

The two cars take different approaches to driving on electricity from the power grid, but there are many similarities. Each powers its front wheels mostly or entirely with an electric motor. Each has an onboard charger, so owners can plug the cars into charging stations or wall sockets to recharge their lithium-ion battery packs.

Both are five-door hatchbacks with compact-car footprints, though the Leaf has more interior volume than its size might indicate--and the Volt has less. The Leaf can seat five adults in a pinch, while the Volt has four seats and a fifth "seating position" that's really only a padded hump on the battery pack, with a seat belt but no headrest. It's fine for a short trip with a lithe teenager, but you wouldn't want to try to put a larger adult back there.

The Nissan Leaf is a simpler and more straightforward proposition that's far easier to explain than the Volt. It's a "pure" electric car, powered only by its battery, while the Chevy requires more context--which its maker has notably failed to provide to the mass market so far. The Volt runs entirely on battery power for about half the Leaf's range. Then it switches seamlessly over to run as a hybrid for another 300-plus miles, at a fuel economy of 42 mpg combined.

The design of the Leaf has always been polarizing, with some saying it's distinctive and futuristic while others deem it ugly, sometimes vociferously. It's an upright car with a drooping and curvaceous nose, swept-back headlights, and high vertical taillights. The new Volt is much sleeker and appears lower than the Leaf (and than its predecessor), with a steeply raked windshield, angled accents lines, and a hatch that's almost horizontal, ending in a high tail that's well integrated into its fastback shape.

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

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2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015

Enlarge Photo
2016 Nissan Leaf

2016 Nissan Leaf

Enlarge Photo
2016 Nissan Leaf

2016 Nissan Leaf

Enlarge Photo

On the road, is hushed inside until about 40 mph, when wind and tire noise start to filter in. Behind the wheel, everything works smoothly, quietly, and as predicted, but there's little feedback, leading some to call it "appliance-like"--not as much of an insult in our eyes as to others. The new Volt is remarkably smooth and quiet even when its range-extending engine has switched on--significantly more so than the previous generation, which was still very good compared to hybrids like the Toyota Prius. But for handling and roadholding, the Volt is the more rewarding of the two, with a sportier feel than the Leaf.

With exactly half the electric range of the Leaf, the Volt's 53 miles may sound minimal. But based on data from the previous Volt, Chevy projects that nine out of every 10 trips in the new Volt can be conducted entirely on electricity--at a cost half that of gasoline, or less. Since 78 percent of U.S. drivers don't exceed 40 miles a day, overnight recharges for a Volt mean it could effectively run months at a time as a purely electric car--never switching on its gasoline engine, for gas mileage close to infinity.

Leaf drivers still have to think about how they drive and how they use their electric car. The new, longer-range battery gives the Leaf an effective driving range of somewhere between 70 and 110 miles. It'll be higher if drivers accelerate slowly and smoothly, do more miles at local speeds and less on the highway, and don't use the Leaf in very hot or very cold weather.

A majority of Volt owners recharge their car overnight on plain old 120-Volt power. But an overnight charge for the Leaf requires the use of a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station. The Volt's onboard charger is 3.6 kilowatts, while that of the Leaf is 6.6 kW. In practice, that means that a full recharge for each car will take about five hours at 240 Volts.

The base Nissan Leaf S model stickers for around $33,000; the Volt is about $1,000 more. Fully loaded models of each car can add another $10,000. Each qualifies for a Federal income-tax credit of $7,500. On top of that, California gives a purchase rebate of $2,500 on the Leaf and $1,500 on the Volt, and other markets like Colorado offer even more. At the time of publication, however, a new Leaf gets single-person access to the state's High-Occupancy Vehicle lanes, while the supply of stickers for plug-in hybrids like the Volt is now exhausted. Many other states, regions, and companies offer other financial incentives and perks too.

Choosing between the Volt and the Leaf means thinking about how you plan to use the car. With either vehicle, there's more to the story than price and performance alone. A Leaf with 107 miles of range (that magic three-figure number) is not only a great commuter car, but can now handle side trips and unexpected errands with less range anxiety. It's got five plausible seats and more cargo space.

The Volt, on the other hand, is better to drive and simply eliminates any range anxiety--while providing most of its miles on grid power anyway. In the rare cases in which its engine turns on, it gets 42 mpg--better than any non-hybrid on the market--and our test drives have indicated that its looks win wide approval. The Volt is the best of both worlds for drivers who cover more miles or have less predictable trip patterns. For those reasons, it comes out ahead on points.

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Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway
42 (2016) N/A
EPA MPG Equivalent - Combined
106 112
Front Leg Room (in)
42.10 42.1
Second Leg Room (in)
34.70 33.3
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