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Leaf's limited use may come cheaper than Volt

Posted by Bill Griffith  February 22, 2010 02:09 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/

Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of product planning, stands next to the Leaf’s home charging station, which can recharge the Leaf’s batteries in eight hours.

BROOKLINE—The past and future of the automotive universe met at the Larz Anderson Museum earlier this month, where Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan, presented his company's 2011 Leaf, the all-electric vehicle scheduled to go into production this fall.

The Leaf is guaranteed to get you noticed, since the car has no tailpipe and no emissions.

Unlike the Chevy Volt, which has an onboard engine to recharge its battery pack and give the vehicle extended range, the Leaf is all-electric, created in the zero-emissions vision of Carlos Ghosn, Nissan president and CEO. Both the Volt and Leaf are expected in showrooms by the end of the year with the Volt being significantly more expensive while having a "use-it-like-a-regular-car" advantage.

Auto industry analyst Philip Gott of Lexington's IHS Global Insight predicts that electric vehicles — plug-in hybrids and battery powered — will account for almost 20 percent of the global market for light-duty vehicles by 2030.

John Wolkonowicz, a senior auto analyst at IHS, looking specifically at the Leaf, sees problems to be overcome.

"Many people who will want to buy one live in the city. They live in condos and apartments," says Wolkonowicz. "That creates a 'Where to charge it?' dilemma. I don't quite see the demand for them. Carlos [Ghosn] sees it differently. He may be a little ahead of his time and trying to speed up the learning curve."

The Nissan people indeed see it differently.

"Seventy percent of drivers commute fewer than 40 miles per day and 95 percent go fewer than 70 miles per day," said Tracy Woodard, Nissan's director of government affairs. "For many, this car will fit their needs."

Nissan officials are preparing for sales of 50,000 the first year, many of which they anticipate going to current hybrid owners who will want to "move up" on the green scale. Woodward says all buyers will be eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit. Those who have garages and install a home charger (Nissan is partnering with AeroVironment for a home 220-volt system) are eligible for up to another $2,000 tax credit.

The 220-volt charger can be programmed (via a remote control) to come on during off-peak hours and delivers a full charge in eight hours. In a pinch, a 110-volt line will do the job in 16 hours. Fast-chargers (440 volts) can do an 80 percent charge in 26 minutes. Electric vehicle planners envision a network of those fast-chargers in parking garages, workplace and shopping-center parking lots, and, yes, even at dealers and gas stations.

"The fast-charge unit looks a lot like a gas pump," says Nissan's Perry. "You realize that most gas stations now make their money at their attached mini-mart. What better for them than to have you plugged in for a half-hour and buying coffee and a sandwich while you wait?"


(Bill Griffith/

Nissan expects to sell 50,000 Leafs during the first year, and will even offer it as a Hertz rental car in 2011.

How much for a charge? "Check your electric bill and see what you pay for a kilowatt hour," says Perry. According to Nissan, the wide range around the country is between 3 cents and 26 cents. Multiply your cost by 24 (for a 100 percent charge for a totally depleted battery) and you have your cost per 100 miles. Using a 20-cent per kWh rate, and my questionable math skills, that would cost $4.80 for a full charge (24x20) or the equivalent of 55 miles per gallon, figuring gas at $2.65 a gallon.

Perry says Nissan also will provide roadside assistance and envisions motoring-aid companies such as AAA having fast charge units on their trucks.

Nissan says top-speed will be set at 90 miles per hour on the Leaf. It was set at 3 mph on the prototype that's on tour because the car is one of only two in existence.


(Bill Griffith/

For that reason, we can't tell you how the Leaf drives but Nissan says it will feel like driving a normal compact sedan with sprightly acceleration thanks to the inherent high-torque characteristics of electric motors. It will be priced as a compact sedan, too, with final details to come in April. "The Leaf has the same basic footprint as a Prius," says Perry, "but it has better head, leg, and knee room because there's no transmission." The battery pack lies flat beneath the front seats and rear foot wells, a low placement of weight that helps stability and handling.

The battery packs are predicted to retain 70 to 80 percent capacity for 10 years; after that, they can be recycled for raw materials or used in massive energy-storage banks in wind farms and other alternative energy sites.

An overlooked benefit of EVs is their impact on manufacturers' mandated fleet mpg averages.

"You won't see those averages accomplished by a gas tax at the state or federal level," said IHS Global's Wolkonowicz. "You saw what happened when Governor Deval Patrick tried to raise the gas tax in Massachusetts. The politicians now are leaving it up to the manufacturers to get the job done."

For Nissan dealers, the Leaf doesn't appear to have major service needs, and service is a big part of dealership income. Instead of oil changes, maintenance will be for wear items such as brake pads, wiper blades, tires and struts and, eventually, battery packs.

Nissan, with a $1.4 billion government loan, is building a production facility in Smyrna, TN, that will employ 1,300 people and be capable of producing 150,000 Leafs a year and 200,000 battery packs. That's the future Perry is envisioning.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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