Volt v Leaf: Brothers in Arms?

Billed equally as ‘game-changers’ by their respective manufacturers, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are two of the first fully loaded ‘real’ electric cars to reach the market. We tested them to see how they have fared since their release and how they cope, or not, with our needs.

In many ways the Leaf is braver than the Volt - proud to be different rather than hiding it

We know they're not, of course, precisely the same type of vehicle - while the Leaf is a pure electric car, the Volt is technically a plug-in hybrid. Its wheels are motor-driven - running from a battery pack - yet it additionally has a 1.4-litre petrol generator that charges the batteries and boosts the motor when required. The efficiency of this set-up, however, isn’t great and that's perhaps why Chevrolet are currently considering upgrading it to a 2-litre turbocharged diesel unit.

At a glance, both vehicles could easily be mistaken for conventional fuel cars (the Leaf is actually based on the Nissan Tiida), but one would struggle to describe either as pretty. The Leaf’s front graphic is at best inoffensive, yet it’s a strangely beguiling machine, and one that quite easily worms it way into your affections in short order. One doesn’t notice the enormous bonnet-length headlights until they are caught at a certain angle, protruding noticeably from the body. They are designed to deflect air around the door mirrors, which is no easy task, and one of many examples of Nissan’s fastidiousness. At the other end of the Golf-sized chassis are curved LED lights that climb to roof level. With blue hints throughout, particularly in the headlights, there’s plenty to catch the eye in terms of surface detailing but there’s no getting away from the slightly stubborn proportions.

The Volt is far brasher than the Nissan with chrome wheels – chrome being a running, Americanised theme throughout - and an aggressive, Transformers-style front graphic. The front features a fake radiator grille with cooling for the conventional radiators being mostly through the lower black vents. The headlights are also sleek and far more comfortable (and conventional) than the Leaf’s, but are also focused and assertive. For all this shock-and-awe, though, the Volt just isn’t adventurous enough. General Motors played it safe, and it may be conventionally better looking that the Leaf, but it's also charmless in comparison. GM recently hinted that the next generation Volt will be more “monochromatic” and road-hugging. More of the same then.

The Volt makes an immediate visual impression, but interior ergonomics are awful

Driving the Leaf through the new Exhibition Road streetscape in London, it’s hard to express how comfortable the car feels in itself. It may be the flag-bearer of a new generation of electric cars, and as such subject to constant attack, but the car itself seems blissfully unaware. The mix of traditional London with a cutting-edge modern road layout bears comparison to a traditional car with cutting-edge technology driving it. Silent, economical, high-quality, modern, intuitive, fast and torquey... it’s hard not to fall in love straight away.

The interior is calm, functional, almost ‘Zen’. Predominantly cream with grey highlights and a touch of chrome/silver, all the functional areas are brought out in black. Basic information is displayed in a slim panel above the steering wheel while all secondary information is shown below in the large digital instrument panel - which is attractive highlighted with a blue glow - following the exterior theme. The central dash panel has simple controls surrounding a 7” touchscreen and drive selector is a kind of stubby spring-loaded affair that, although simple to use, is initially counterintuitive - pushing forward for reverse.

There’s no point making any bones about the Leaf’s rival, though. Inside the Chevy is an ergonomic disaster disguised as a semi-premium saloon. For starters there are only four seats instead of the Nissan's five and surprisingly there's also a gearstick, something even the much-maligned G-Wiz doesn’t possess. While the Leaf takes a more modern approach, it seems Chevy are lulling their customers gently into the electric car transition. The dashboard is what nightmares are made of: shiny white plastic from earlier this century scattered with every button they could possibly find on the shop floor in a barely discernible order. Worse still, the buttons are half-way between touch and push - they don't move, but sometimes need more than a touch to operate, apart from when you brush by one and turn the electric seat heater on at full blast. The array is baffling, and duplicates part of the touch screen’s functionality while the main instrument panel is crowded by largely useless icons that have no need to be visible all the time.

Next year's Leaf will be lighter, go further and will start at around £21,000

Driving the Volt, however, is on the whole an excellent experience. The steering is reasonably well balanced with adequate turn-in, and unless one is really powering forward, the engine is unheard from. When it cuts in it normally sounds a little like a fridge but under increased power the revs can increase. Acceleration is superb. The only downfalls are the brakes, which are hampered by a thoroughly obtrusive regeneration system - often braking far too hard for a moment, which is, to put it lightly, unpleasant.

Although reasonably refined with the petrol generator in action, it’s when the Volt is operating as a pure EV that you realise you’re in something quite special. Silent and spacious with the feel of a modern saloon car, yet electric, it’s a very different experience to that of driving an electric hatchback. The Volt has more to offer, though, and it comes at the expense of the Leaf.

With a 60-mile drive planned from London, but thanks to a severe lack of convenient charging points, the car had only 36 miles left. One would have expected Nissan dealers to be equipped with fast charging points, but the three London dealers we tried ranged from complete ignorance to slight bemusement. The only other option would have been a services car park but due to the lack of a fast charge cable this was not possible. We eventually settled for an overnight charge. One-nil Volt.

"The Leaf is wonderful, but it's like a new baby. You have to prepare for it"

A day later the next '108 miles' are our oyster. Driving the Leaf at length is a real pleasure. The only criticism is the incredibly light and numb steering. The brakes aren’t perfect, but considering they’re handling the regenerative power they can mostly be forgiven. They are also considerably more feelsome than the Volt’s. Other than that everything feels quite natural, robust and well conceived. The Leaf also exudes a quality from the driver’s seat that conventional cars twice the price can’t match.

After only a few miles the range begins to plummet. We switch into Eco mode and stay there for most of the remainder of the trip. The car becomes a little sluggish, but not uncomfortably so and it pushes the range up by a small percentage. However, with 31 miles to go we have a range of 50 miles left. Mathematically this is somewhat concerning. We've used up 58 miles of range covering around 26 miles, possibly suggesting a true remaining range of 23 miles. Fortunately the range meter has stabilised, and we arrive with 19 miles range left, almost exactly as forecast. This is comfortable in retrospect, but enough to cause the dreaded 'range anxiety' for most of the trip. Charging the car works out at roughly 35p per hour but this drops to around 20p off-peak, giving a total cost of around £2.65 for an overnight charge. The Leaf is cheap to charge, and has almost double the electric range of the Volt. One-One.

Generally, then, the Leaf is wonderful, but it's a little like a new baby. You have to prepare for it, put things in place and alter your life accordingly, perhaps being forced to stay in during the evening more than you’d otherwise like to. Had I taken the Volt I could have collected it then and there and driven it to the ends of the Earth, blissfully free of any range anxiety. The Leaf wasn’t prepared to fit in with my life due to the constraints of today’s infrastructure, yet were I to choose one it would be the Nissan every time. For me it's a far truer ‘electric car’ than the Volt. The Nissan's departure from tradition is only a little further yet it feels far less synthesised, is free of petrol, and has five seats. And of course it costs a little less to buy new, too.

Today, if you want a practical mid- to long-range car for reasonable money, pure electric is still not quite viable. Being a nascent technology, the infrastructure and battery developments are not yet adequate despite the gallant efforts of companies such as Ecotricity. The Volt is a clever crossover which caters for the here and now and is a completely useable electric car. But give the Leaf three to five years, a new increased range battery pack and an adequate infrastructure and the Volt will be dead in the water. Or petrol.

Two-One Volt. But not for long.


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