2015 Chevrolet VoltEnlarge Photo
Together, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf are the two best-selling plug-in electric cars in the U.S.--and have been since both cars went on sale in December 2010.
Each of them powers its front wheels mostly or entirely with an electric motor. Each of them has an onboard charger, so owners can plug them into charging stations or wall sockets to recharge their lithium-ion battery packs.
Despite those similarities, though, the Leaf and the Volt take different approaches to driving on electricity from the power grid rather than exclusively on gasoline from a pump.
And selecting the one that's best for you will depend on how you plan to use the car.
The Chevy Volt gives you a rated 38 miles on electric power, then seamlessly switches over to a gasoline range extender to give you limitless range. But it's only got four seating positions, and it provides less room for cargo than the Leaf.
While the Volt is rated at 38 miles, by the way, a battery-pack upgrade for 2015 may actually give 40 miles or more. Chevy didn't bother to retest and recertify the Volt this year.
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 Nissan Leaf makes a great commuter car, but its rated range of 84 miles will pose limitations if it's the sole vehicle in a family household. On the other hand, it has five seats and more storage space--and mechanically, it's far simpler than the Volt.
Recharging today's Leafs is quicker than when it was launched. A full recharge of 2011 or 2012 models took 6 to 9 hours using the Level 2 charging station, but an uprated onboard charger since 2013 has cut that time almost in half. Still, a Leaf relies entirely on its battery pack.
For the 78 percent of U.S. drivers who never exceed 40 miles a day, a Volt that's recharged nightly could effectively run forever as an electric car--never switching on its gasoline engine, achieving gas mileage close to infinity.
But unlike the Leaf, after the Volt's 35 to 40 miles on electricity, it'll run for another 300 or so miles on gasoline. Spend 5 or 10 minutes filling the tank, and it'll do another 300 miles. In gasoline mode, the EPA rates it at 37 mpg--not as efficient as the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, which is rated at 50 mpg but only offers 11 miles of electric range.
The Nissan Leaf remains a straightforward proposition and easier to understand in some ways than the Volt.
Leaf drivers will have to think more about how they drive and how they use their electric car. Its battery gives the Leaf an effective driving range of somewhere between 60 and 90 miles, perhaps more if drivers accelerate slowly and smoothly, and don't use the Leaf in very hot or very cold weather. On medium-speed flat roads, without using air conditioning, heat, or the radio, some drivers may net a total Leaf range of more than 100 miles on a single full charge of the battery. That's rare, though -- a range of 65 to 80 miles is about right in typical mixed use.
The Leaf's more upright lines are polarizing; some consider it ugly, others futuristic. The Volt, with more steeply raked windshield and rear window, a high cowl, and a low roofline, is racier looking but still distinctive.
Both the Leaf and the Volt come with connectivity features that allow drivers to find nearby charging stations, or to access the charge level of their car's battery remotely--even by smartphone. Both also offer navigation features and audio systems integrated into the charging experience. Nissan added a rearview camera system to the Leaf's standard kit for 2014.
At the moment, the Volt and Leaf qualify for tax and other incentives to attract buyers beyond hard-core early adopters. There's a Federal tax credit of $7,500 available to first-time buyers of either car. 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 single-person access to the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane for both cars.
The most basic 'S' model of the Leaf now carries a base price of $29,830, meaning that after all the incentives in California, it could run less than $20,000. The Volt starts at $35,000. In general, though, plug-ins remain pricier than gasoline cars of the same size and capacity. The hidden bonus is that running on electricity usually costs only one-fifth to one-third as much per mile as burning gasoline.
So the right choice depends on what the buyer prioritizes. Some drivers don't want to use any oil, period--but others can't fit their daily driving needs into 100 miles, or may not think they can.
Other factors affect how you'll use these vehicles too: The Leaf does better in the number of passengers and volume of stuff you can carry. The Volt seats four and has only a shallow load deck; the Leaf seats five and its more upright styling and vertical hatch give it more cargo space.
With either of these vehicles, there's much more to the story than price and performance alone. They're a perfect example of different strokes for different folks, and each is finding its niche among the burgeoning array of plug-in vehicles.
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