The Electric Car is (Almost) Here

2011 Nissan Leaf

Every now and then a car comes along and immediately has a waiting list to get it even before it goes on sale. As I write this, a cute new car called the Nissan Leaf has in excess of 16,000 buyers who’ve put down deposits to own one, even though it won’t be in showrooms until December. Why? The Leaf is electric.

The latter half of 2010 will be a time of much talk and interest in plug-in vehicles, with the much-anticipated Chevrolet Volt coming along in the fall. Technically, the Volt and Leaf are different because the Chevy will have an engine that will extend the range of the car infinitely. The Leaf is battery-only transportation.

I got to take a brief drive in a pre-production Leaf, and by all accounts Nissan did a great job on this revolutionary vehicle. Time and technology have drastically improved EVs. Compared to earlier efforts, the Leaf has better performance, a back seat, luggage space, and a real-world range of around 100 miles. It’s also priced like a conventional car.

How was Nissan able to pull this off? Part of the business plan to build the Leaf was to get into the battery business to help defray one of the major costs of an electric car, rather than count on suppliers. The Leaf is also a global vehicle, and will be built and sold in Japan, Europe and the United States. That helps spread the cost out.

As for the driving experience, I’m happy to say that driving the Leaf is pretty much like driving any other modern car. You push a button, move the “gear” selector into drive, and you’re off. The car has automatic climate control, a navigation system, and will do a top speed of 90 miles per hour. It’s also very quick off the line and very quiet.

There’s been a loud cry for non-polluting vehicles that conserve energy, and battery-powered cars are one solution to that end. For urban travel, they work very well and will be part of a transportation solution in the coming decades.

Nevertheless, there are people who have doubts about electric cars and will often raise questions and arguments against them. With the help of some Nissan engineers I spoke with, I’d like to try to answer some.

“A hundred miles? That’s not nearly enough range.” Really? Are you sure? Most people drive well less than that each day, even here in car-centric Southern California. The Leaf can be charged fully in four to six hours with a 240 volt charger at your home or work.

“Electric cars just move the pollution from the tailpipe to wherever the power plant is located.” Yes, electricity is not a pollution-free source of energy, but neither is gasoline. Nissan’s figures show that even with power made purely from coal (and our power here is much cleaner than that), the Leaf still ends up with a net emissions savings compared to even the cleanest hybrid cars on the road. Producing gasoline also takes energy and causes emissions, so before that unleaded you’re buying even gets to the pump nozzle, it’s fouled the air a little.

“How will I drive an electric car to San Francisco or Las Vegas?” You won’t. That’s not what they’re made for. Much the same way that a full-size SUV was not really designed to transport one person only a few miles.

“If everyone starts plugging in electric cars, the power grid will become overloaded.” Actually, the vast majority of electric cars will be charged in the overnight hours when demand is lowest. The Leaf even has a programmable timer that will let you set what hours charging will occur. Most power companies are also offering off-peak power rates that are lower.

“My electric bill will skyrocket if I have to charge a car every night.” It’ll go up, but your gasoline bill will obviously go down, and probably much more to compensate. According to figures provided by Nissan, the Leaf costs less to run than a Toyota Prius at today’s gasoline prices. For the two to be equal in per-mile cost, gas would have to go down to about $1.10 per gallon, which isn’t likely to happen in our lifetime.

“What about the cost to replace the battery?” That’s a good point, for sure. Testing on the battery system in the Leaf shows that after 100,000 miles of driving, driving range will be down to between 70 and 80 percent of the original figure. That doesn’t mean the battery will stop working, it just won’t work as well. There may also be a trade-in value to the battery once it’s used up for transportation. It should also be pointed out that there is far less maintenance over time with an electric car than a gasoline one.

The price for the Leaf is $33,000 but a federal tax credit takes that down by $7500, so it’s essentially priced like that of a mid-size sedan these days. Obviously the price is attractive enough to thousands of people who are waiting with bated breath to own one.

And if you’re still bothered by this whole electric car thing, there’s a simple course of action you can take: Don’t buy one.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz@pacbell.net.

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