Two of the most anticipated cars in recent memory look to launch not with a bang, but in eerie, battery-driven silence. We're talking about the 2011 Nissan Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt, and with all the hype that these two cars have received they aren't really sneaking up on anybody - even if they do run whisper quiet.
It's natural for the Leaf and Volt to be lumped together (we did as much in an earlier article) - both possess advanced battery technology, represent the first production plug-ins meant for a mass audience, and are scheduled to be released at about the same time. They both have slick commercials rolling all over the airwaves (sorry folks, a polar bear hug is not included with a Leaf purchase) and matching warranties (8 years/100,000 miles on battery components). But there are a few significant differences that will make or break either car in the views of some buyers, and that's what we'll focus on.
Let's start with the basics. The Leaf seats five and is powered by a 24kW lithium-ion battery pack which produces 107-horsepower and a top speed just shy of 90 mph. Under a full charge, expect the Leaf to have a range of around 100-miles, with that number fluctuating due to conditions and style of driving.
The Volt seats four passengers and features an advanced battery/gasoline engine system (just don't call it a hybrid... ok it's sort of like a hybrid) with a 16kW lithium-ion pack which outputs up to 149-horsepower and pushes the Volt to a top speed of 100 mph. On a fully charged battery, expect to get around 40 miles of driving, after which the gasoline fueled range extender will activate and recharge the battery as you continue to drive. This system means that the Volt is not limited to the range of its battery - when the batteries and fuel run down, you just fill up at a gas station and hit the road again.
Recently, there has been some controversy over whether or the Volt is considered an electric vehicle or a hybrid, since GM recently disclosed that the gasoline "range extender" actually helps to drive the wheels at speeds above 70 mph. But the debate about semantics has wrongly overshadowed the fact that this makes the Volt even more energy efficient, which helps the Volt's bottom line fuel efficiency.
The range extender represents the largest difference between the two vehicles: while the Leaf is the only true zero-emissions EV of the two, it also means that range will always have to be a consideration. When the juice runs out, you'll have to find a plug or call a few friends with running shoes to give you a shove. With the Volt, you don't get the zero-emissions label that the Leaf has and you get less than half the electric range, but with the range extender you don't have to worry about charging up on the go or the length of trips.
Both cars make sense under different circumstances. For someone like me, who often makes trips back and forth between San Francisco and Los Angeles, it doesn't make much sense to pick up a Leaf since it would take about four full charges to make it just one way (assuming you can find a socket to hook up to). Additionally, the Volt also makes more sense if it's going to be the only car you own - it would be hard to live with a range limited car as your only vehicle.
On the other hand, the Leaf is a true zero-emissions vehicle which will appeal more to environmentalists. One hundred miles is more than enough range to use the Leaf as a daily driver on all but the longest commutes and it will save you a bundle at the pump. Furthermore, if the Leaf is the second or third vehicle in your stable and can be used to drive around town and handle shorter excursions while the other cars handle longer trips, then the Leaf suddenly makes a lot of sense as well.
The Leaf has been priced at $32,780, and the Volt at $41,000. However, the Leaf and Volt each qualify for the largest federal tax credit available on green cars which effectively knocks $7,500 off the MSRP. The better option might be to lease while all the kinks in the technology are worked out, and both of these vehicles are available for $350/month lease for 36 months.
For more information on the Leaf and Volt, head over to NewCars.com.