It wasn’t too surprising to hear the Chevy Volt was initially more popular among Toronto Star staff invited to take test drives of the two Project Green vehicles. After all, the electric Volt, with its gasoline engine providing backup,promises never to leave you stranded. And it is comforting to see the dashboard display promising 500-plus kilometres before a fill-up or recharge becomes necessary.
But after back-to-back long weekends trying out both vehicles, I decided that, personally, the solely-electric Nissan Leaf was the more compelling ride, for several reasons.
First, while sports car fans will probably disagree, I found the Volt’s low-profile shape a little claustrophobic (I’m only 5-foot-5), and my 6-foot-3 husband found it downright uncomfortable. I was disconcerted by what felt to me like poor sightlines in the rear and in the front when turning corners.
The seat gave me lower back pain after 20 minutes. The dash display in the more spacious-feeling Leaf was more intuitive and the controls easier to use — ironic, since it would seem to be the more revolutionary of the two cars. And there was deeper cargo space in the Leaf’s rear hatch.
But the biggest drawback just might be that gas engine business.
The Volt starts out in full electric mode. As the charge dwindles, gas engine automatically fires up — not to run the car, like a hybrid does, but to recharge the battery. It continues to cycle on and off to keep you going for another 500 km or so.
Sounds great, right? Sure, on a long trip. But — and it’s a big but if you’re really committed to zero tailpipe emissions and cheap commuting — what if you’re routinely using the car for shorter runs? Say, my husband’s daily 90-km round trip commute.
The Leaf promises 160 km at full charge (though that may be closer to 120 if you’re driving at expressway speeds or, so I've heard, in more extreme temperatures). Jeff could get to work and back daily without a recharge. The Volt, however, goes into gasoline mode after less than 70 km, meaning he’d be burning at least some gas every day.
(And by the way, the Volt requests premium gas.) One of my test runs took me from home in Oakville to an appointment on Eglinton East. From there, I decided to do a little exploring on a subject I’ve edited many news stories about, by checking out the future route of the Eglinton LRT all the way to Kennedy station. Then I rolled down Kennedy and, since it was a gorgeous day, rambled east to Bluffers Park.
By the time I’d cruised through the park and was headed back toward Oakville, the gas engine had rumbled (well, quietly vibrated) to life. At trip’s end, the monitor was telling me I’d averaged 2.1 litres/100 km for the trip. Okay, that’s sterling by normal mileage standards, but it’s still using fossil fuel on a 106-km run I could have done solely on the Leaf’s battery charge. Given the two cars are similar in price, the everyday operating cost advantage definitely goes to the Leaf — at least as long as the hydro bill for an overnight charge stays dirt cheap compared with the equivalent in gasoline. But which of the cars you might prefer will ultimately depend a lot on your own driving requirements and tolerance for a little “range anxiety” on unfamiliar trips, at least until quick-charge stations become as ubiquitous as gas stations.
Doreen Martens, City Team Editor