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All-electric car hits the real world

Nissan aims to deliver the first all-electric car to a retail customer in Victoria within the next few weeks after 18 years of development.

Nissan aims to deliver the first all-electric car to a retail customer in Victoria within the next few weeks after 18 years of development. The 2012 Nissan Leaf and its new owner will be pioneers, taking their first kilometres toward a cleaner future in a world still dependent on oil.

But while the future might be greener from this point on, the Leaf debut is tempered by the limitations of electric technology as it applies to vehicles.

While it may be true that electric vehicles will make tailpipes, spark plugs, oil changes and gas stations instantly redundant, the biggest hurdle - one that's on everybody's mind - is the range.

Chevrolet addressed that fear in its recently released Volt. Like the Leaf, the Volt's range is dependent on its battery. But it also carries a bit of legacy technology along - a gasoline engine. When the battery is almost depleted, the gasoline engine starts up automatically and recharges the battery - an elegant solution to range anxiety.

"Range anxiety" is the new buzzphrase with electric cars. Low on fuel in a gasoline-powered car? Just pop into the nearest gas station, a fixture found around the world. Low on your battery? If you can't get home in time, it may mean an expensive ride on the back of a flat-deck tow truck.

For its launch, Nissan has made it clear its cars will only be sold to buyers who live within 65 kilometres of a Nissan dealership that is qualified to service the Leaf. There is also a questionnaire to make sure a buyer's commute doesn't exceed the Leaf's 160-kilometre estimated range.

If a driver runs out of juice, only he or she is to blame. The Leaf is equipped with more than one screen that gives maximum distance, a countdown clock and the vehicle's maximum and minimum range as concentric circles extending from the vehicle's position.

The vehicle's computer will instantly give the driver the location of the nearest public charging station - which are few and far between right now.

For the majority of commuters in Victoria, the Leaf's estimated 160-km range is more than adequate. It is certainly better than the Volt's advertised 80-km range - although with the range-extender engine and a full tank of gas, Chevrolet says the Volt can be driven up to 600 kilometres.

Keep in mind that the Leaf's range is calculated on Transport Canada's city driving course; highway driving is not factored in. According to Nissan, the Leaf's range will drop to around 110 kilometres when driven at a constant 90 km/h.

However, that estimate is for a vehicle operated in optimum conditions. For about half the year, the weather in most parts of Canada can be described as less than optimum.

It's no secret that the main challenge to any battery's longevity is the cold, as any car owner in Canada can attest. Because the Leaf is about to face its first winter, there are no solid numbers to report. Some experts have speculated an all-electric car battery can lose up to 30 per cent of its range on winter days.

Humans typically put a larger load on the heating system in the winter. The process is simple in a conventional car - just tap into the coolant. Internal-combustion engines produce heat naturally so winter comfort for occupants does not require any extra expenditure of energy.

In an all-electric vehicle, heat has to be produced because an electric engine does not produce much heat. The heater in the vehicle must then be run off the battery, which affects mileage.

The engineers' solution is to include a heated steering wheel and seats. The theory is that direct heat to the body is more effective than warming the air. Also, the climate-control system can be turned off entirely.

Range in winter? Right now, nobody is speculating. Because the Leaf will be plugged in at night anyway, the idea is that the Leaf will pre-warm itself on cold mornings, reducing the need of using battery power to heat the car's interior.

But as we have had no real-world experiences yet, any range estimates are just that - estimates.

The Leaf has two models - the base SV and a better-equipped SL. We drove a Leaf SL, which is equipped with a quick-charge port, a small solar panel on the spoiler, fog lamps, cargo cover and Homelink.

The differences in trim between the Volt and Leaf are immediately evident. The Leaf stands head and shoulders above the Volt, with betterquality materials and trim. Unfortunately, the cloth seats are finished with a warm, fuzzy trim that definitely would not be the first choice for owners with small children or dogs that shed.

The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope. The driver's seat height is adjusted by a bottom that tilts up and down. The front of the seat bottom remains the same. The rear headrest partially blocks rearward vision.

But switch on the car, press the accelerator and all of the vehicle's shortcomings go out the window. When left in drive, the Leaf is more than adequate.

It is fun. With a full charge when I picked up the car I didn't worry about range, just how it drove.

In an electric car, power is instant - and exhilarating. While it is not marketed as a sports sedan, it certainly feels that way if one puts the pedal to the metal. Of course, anybody who buys a Leaf isn't about to pretend it's a sports car, but the power reserve is necessary if one is to merge with traffic on the highway. Nissan claims the Leaf's top end is 144 km/h.

Once at speed, the driver can put the Leaf into Eco mode. This sucks the fun out of the car, but it is just the thing for maximizing the range of the battery - just the thing for über-green econo-freaks who can use the information as trivia at parties.

The Leaf comes standard with a standard charging port (which hooks up with a home charger) and a trickle port adapter (which plugs into any standard electrical outlet). The SL model adds a quick charge port (which gives owners an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes).

The home charging port charges the car overnight, in seven hours. The trickle charger takes 18 hours.

People opting for the quick-charge port are looking to future-proof their cars. Few quick chargers exist today. The hope is businesses and employers install these high-speed, high-voltage chargers in convenient locations, thereby extending the range of the all-electric car.

It is easy to compare the new Leaf to gasolinepowered cars that were just coming to market 100 years ago when gas stations were scarce, but hay, oats and water for horses were easy to find.

While it may take hours to charge at home, the payback is satisfying. Nissan estimates it costs an average of $300 of electricity to drive the Leaf a year. And of course, there is the satisfaction of knowing it releases no emissions in use.

But that satisfaction is tempered by the fact some provinces, including B.C., aren't providing incentives for people to switch.

The first purchasers of the Leaf are early adopters and probably won't bat an eye at the $38,395 sticker price. However, if one lives in Ontario and Quebec, the Leaf is eligible for provincial rebates of $8,500 in the former and $8,000 in the latter. This effectively means residents in Ontario can purchase a Leaf for $29,895. This fact will mean more sales and probably faster implementation of an electric-vehicle infrastructure in the East.

The story is similar in the U.S., where the Leaf is eligible for federal tax savings of $7,500. But so far B.C. residents get no incentive to go totally green.

The electric car faces stiff hurdles in the coming years - in affordability, market acceptance, the charging infrastructure, improvements in battery technology and improvement in its range - but there is no turning back the clock.

The Volt and the Leaf will soon be joined by an electric Smart car. Other manufacturers are close behind. Even the Toyota Prius, the leader in gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, will be offering an allelectric version in the near future.

It is a future that looks a lot cleaner and greener than the past 100 years of the gasoline-powered vehicle.

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Type: All-electric four-door hatchback, front engine, front-wheel-drive

Engine: Electric synchronous motor, 80 kW (110 hp), 210 lb.-ft. of torque

Transmission: Single speed direct drive

Dimensions (mm): Length, 4,445; width, 1,770; height, 1,550; wheelbase, 2,700

Curb weight (kg): 1,521

Price (base/as tested): $38,395/$41,290 (includes $1,895 freight and PDI)

Options: SL package (includes quick charge port, a small solar panel on the spoiler, fog lamps, cargo cover and Homelink) $1,000

Fuel Economy (L/100km): not rated yet

Warranty: Three years/60,000 km basic, fiveyears/100,000 km, electric components eightyears/160,000 km