2016 Chevrolet Volt, first drive in California, July 2015Enlarge Photo
For the last five years, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt have been the two best-selling electric cars in the U.S. Sales of the battery-electric Leaf are now slightly higher than those of the range-extended electric Volt, but the two cars showcase very different approaches driving on electricity from the power grid.
For 2016, however, the game has changed. An all-new Chevy Volt faces off against a Nissan Leaf that looks identical to previous models, but offers a new and class-leading range rating of 107 miles--up significantly from last year's 84 miles. The new Volt, too, delivers more electric miles: 53 of them, per the EPA, against the 38 miles of the first-generation model.
The added range is expected to boost Leaf sales, which have flagged over the last 18 months. And the new Volt, which is sleeker, better-equipped, faster, quieter, and more powerful, should do the same for Chevrolet--although it's only available in 11 states for a short 2016 model year, with a national rollout coming early in 2016 for the following model year's car.
While they're two different approaches to driving on electricity, each car powers its front wheels mostly or entirely with an electric motor. Each has an onboard charger, so owners can plug them into charging stations or wall sockets to recharge their lithium-ion battery packs.
The Nissan Leaf remains a straightforward proposition and easier to understand in some ways than the Volt. It's a "pure" electric car, powered only by its battery, while the Chevy requires more explanation. It 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 41 mpg combined.
The Leaf has the footprint of a compact car, but the interior volume of a mid-size vehicle--and it can seat five adults at a pinch. The Volt has less interior space, and while it has a fifth "seating position," it's basically 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 look of the Nissan Leaf is polarizing; some consider it ugly, others futuristic. It's a more upright car, with a drooping and curvaceous nose and high vertical taillights. The new Volt is now much sleeker and appears lower, with a steeply raked windshield, angled accents lines, and a hatch that's almost horizontal, ending in a high tail that's still fairly well integrated into its fastback shape.
On the road, the new Volt is remarkably smooth and quiet even if its range-extending engine is switched on--significantly more so than the previous generation, which was still very good compared to hybrids like the Toyota Prius. The Leaf, too, is hushed inside until about 40 mph, when wind and tire noise start to filter in. But for handling and roadholding, the Volt is the more rewarding of the two, with a sportier feel compared to the Leaf's remote feel behind the wheel and generally appliance-like driving experience.
While 53 miles of electric range may not sound like much, Chevy says data from the previous Volt and its projections show 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. For the 78 percent of U.S. drivers who never exceed 40 miles a day, recharging a Volt every night could effectively run it forever as an electric car--never switching on its gasoline engine, achieving gas mileage close to infinity.
Leaf drivers 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, perhaps more if drivers accelerate slowly and smoothly, and don't use the Leaf in very hot or very cold weather.
Most Volt owners recharge their car overnight on 120-Volt power, while an overnight charge for the Leaf pretty much 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, which retains the old 84-mile battery pack, starts just under $30,000; the Volt starts almost $4,000 higher. 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, many states, regions, and companies offer other financial incentives and perks. In California, it's a purchase rebate of $2,500 on the Leaf and $1,500 on the Volt. Only the Leaf earns single-person access to the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane, though.
With either vehicle, there's much more to the story than price and performance alone. Selecting the one that's best for you will depend on how you plan to use the car.
A 107-mile Leaf (that magic three-figure number) is not only a great commuter car, but can now handle sudden side trips and unexpected errands with far less range anxiety. It's got five plausible seats and more cargo space.
The Volt, on the other hand, is better to drive and it simply eliminates range anxiety. In the rare cases the engine turns on, it gets 41 mpg--better than any pure gasoline model on the market--and its looks won wide approval in our first test drive. It's the best of both worlds for drivers who cover more miles or have less predictable trip patterns.
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