© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
Last updated: September 20, 2010 5:50 pm
Patrick Wang and Ken Muir are both electric car enthusiasts. But when it comes to buying one, Mr Wang, manager at a search-engine marketing agency in San Francisco, and Mr Muir, a quality engineer in nearby San Jose, are heading down different paths
The two men’s choices encapsulate what is shaping up as a fierce and closely watched battle between the first two electric cars aimed at the mass market.
While both the Leaf and the Volt are loosely described as electric cars, there is a key difference.
The Leaf, due to go on sale in December in the US and Japan, will be powered entirely by a battery. Nissan claims that it will have a range of 100 miles before it needs recharging.
The Volt, more accurately described as an extended-range plug-in hybrid, will run on battery power alone for 40 miles. After that, a small petrol engine will provide power to the generator, giving it a total range of about 340 miles.
Existing hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, use a battery and an internal-combustion engine in tandem. The battery, which is much smaller than that on the Volt and the Leaf, is typically recharged with energy from the brakes.
The Volt is designed to address what the industry has termed “range anxiety”, widely seen as one of the biggest hurdles facing widespread acceptance of electric cars, especially given the initial scarcity of battery recharging stations. The vast majority of early buyers are expected to recharge their cars overnight at home
“Range anxiety is a big issue for me,” admits Mr Wang. Although his daily commute is no more than 15 miles, he periodically uses his car for out-of-town family visits. “I need to make any round trip in a day without having to find a charging point.”
He was initially concerned about buying a car from a Detroit-based company with a less-than-stellar image for quality and reliability. But, he says: “It’s a very cool technology. I’m willing to trade a bit of innovation and excitement for a little bit of risk.”
Mr Muir says that he and his wife like both the Leaf and Volt technologies, “but we strongly prefer a zero-emission option”.
The couple estimate they have made only seven road trips of more than 100 miles over the past three years. Furthermore, unlike Mr Wang, they own a second car, a hybrid Toyota Highlander sport-utility vehicle. “We could accomplish a good 80 per cent of our transportation in the Leaf”, Mr Muir says.
While the Volt may have the upper hand in easing anxiety about range, the Leaf could cause less financial anxiety.
The Volt carries a price tag of $41,000, well above the Leaf’s $32,780 recommended price. GM hopes to deflect attention from the price gap by promoting a lease option of $350 a month over 36 months.
Both vehicles’ retail prices come down considerably, however, as they qualify for government subsidies – in the US, a $7,500 federal tax credit. Some US states have also pitched in to encourage electric-car purchases. California will offer a rebate of up to $5,000 per vehicle. Tennessee – where Nissan has its North American head office – announced earlier this month that it would provide a $2,500 rebate on the first 1,000 electric vehicles bought in the state.
GM has not been shy about bashing the competition. Joel Ewanick, North American marketing chief, said recently that “if you go after a mass audience, you have to give them that peace of mind to know that they won’t be stranded. People are looking for a real car, not just an electric car”.
Other critics have questioned Nissan’s claim that the Leaf has a 100-mile range. While the battery could last longer under ideal conditions, the range could be significantly curtailed by cold weather, stop-and-start traffic or when power-hungry functions such as the heater or air-conditioning are running.
Nissan rejects the criticism and says the two vehicles are like apples and oranges: “Leaf is a 100 per cent electric, zero-emission product while Volt is a very nice gas-burning hybrid and only partial zero-emission.”
The two carmakers can quibble all they like but ultimately the customer will decide as the vehicles start selling from dealer forecourts in 2011.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.
Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in