Consumer Reports: Electric cars face off

February 28, 2011 1:40:28 PM PST
Electric vehicles are being touted as the car of the future. The Nissan Leaf has just arrived in showrooms. And the Volt went on sale a few months ago.

At the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, testers have checked out the Volt, which has a backup gasoline engine, and the Nissan Leaf, which is 100 percent electric.

Range (how far an electric vehicle can go on a charge) is a big issue. Testers have found that cold weather is a problem. The Nissan Leaf can go about 100 miles on a charge in ideal conditions. But in Consumer Reports' experience, driving in cold weather can easily shorten that to about 65 miles.

The Chevrolet Volt, in low temperatures, has trouble fully heating the car. It can go anywhere from 25 to 50 miles before the gasoline engine kicks in, which can take the car up to 300 miles. But the added gasoline engine makes the Volt expensive, and on long drives you may use more fuel than you would in a conventional hybrid such as the Prius.

As for recharge time, the Volt takes about 4 to 5 hours using a 220-volt charger installed in your home. The Nissan Leaf takes about 8 hours on average.

The Leaf is less expensive, costing about $35,000. The Volt is about $45,000. But even with federal and state tax credits, Consumer Reports says that neither is likely to save you money.

Consumer Reports says that electric vehicles have come a long way. But they have a long way to go before they're ready to replace the average person's primary vehicle.

If you're interested in a car that will be kind to the environment and save you money, Consumer Reports recommends the Toyota Prius.

Consumer Reports has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor appearing on this Web site.

Statement from Nissan regarding Nissan Leaf:
The distance one can drive the vehicle (range) varies considerably depending upon available charge, weather, temperature, usage, battery age, topography, and driving style. Vehicle range depends on a number of factors. When the Li-ion battery is new, the estimated vehicle range with a fully charged Li-ion battery is approximately 100 miles based on the EPA laboratory test commonly called the LA4 mode drive cycle. This test represents city driving conditions. Your actual range can vary, either initially or as the battery ages and with use over time. The majority of drivers will experience vehicle ranges between 62 - 138 miles based on the many factors that affect vehicle range. Here are some examples:
Hope this helps.

Ideal driving conditions: 138 miles
Speed: Constant 38 mph
Temperature: 68 degrees
Climate control: Off - Driving on a flat road at a constant 38 mph means less air resistance, and therefore less energy use. And at 68 degrees, there's no need for climate control, extending the range even further. The result: a range boost up to 138 miles.

Suburban driving on a nice day: 105 miles
Speed: Average 24 mph
Temperature: 72 degrees
Climate control: Off - The average speed in this scenario is 24 mph; common when commuting and running errands. The ambient temperature is 72 degrees and the climate control is off. Not using the air conditioner and driving at slower speeds mean less energy use and a little extra range.

Highway driving in the summer: 70 miles
Speed: Average 55 mph
Temperature: 95 degrees
Climate control: On - Averaging 55 mph on the highway, in 95 degree weather, with the air conditioning on high may produce range figures like this. Higher speeds require more energy to overcome air resistance. Running the air conditioner means energy that could be used to increase range instead goes to cooling the car.

Cross-town commute on a hot day: 68 miles
Speed: Average 49 mph
Temperature: 110 degrees
Climate control: On - Driving from a rural area into the city at an average 49 mph with the a/c on high may produce this range. Under these conditions, climate control combined with higher-speed driving produces increased energy consumption, hence the effect on range.

Winter, urban stop-and-go, traffic jam: 62 miles
Speed: Average 15 mph
Temperature: 14 degrees
Climate control: On
Though the average speed is only 15 mph with stop-and-go traffic, the 14-degree temperature means the heater is doing a lot of work so you spend considerable time and energy heating your car rather than moving forward. Despite these conditions, it would still take more than 4 hours to run out of charge!

Statement from General Motors regarding Chevy Volt:
Cold weather performance is going to be a struggle for any electric vehicle. The Volt does have cabin comforts you wouldn't find in a comparable vehicle. They include XM Radio, 5-years of OnStar, the ability to charge at home, and a more refined driving experience.