In many ways, the Leaf is similar to the Chevy Volt and then again, it's not. At this point in the EV game, Nissan and GM are the only serious EV contenders from a mass-market standpoint. The Leaf runs only on lithium-ion batteries that charge by plugging into a charger, either at home or at a public station. The Volt can do that too, but it also has a gasoline engine that can be used to make electricity when the batteries get depleted. That means the Volt has a much longer range and can more easily function as an "only" car. But the Leaf never uses a single drop of gas, and for many that will be a point in its favor. Although the Leaf itself produces no emissions, the power plant that generates the electricity it runs on clearly has its own environmental impact. No matter how you look at it, there's no free ride.
The Leaf's most significant functional drawback versus any gasoline-powered car is that the range is just 100 miles between charges. But this is a real world 100 miles based on the stringent LA4 emissions test cycle that puts the car in a variety of situations, not just low speed driving. That means the range could be as high as 140 miles at low speed in cooler climates, or as little as 70 miles of high speed driving in extreme heat. To help ease consumer fears of getting stuck with dead batteries, the standard Nissan navigation system includes a range graphic. It shows a radius on the map for an estimated one-way range with another, darker circle in the middle of that showing a round-trip range. The navigation system can also be used to locate public charging stations. Aside from the worry about running out of juice, the Leaf's modest cargo area is another drawback versus similar gasoline powered cars.
For some the Leaf's nearly $33,000 price tag will be a significant stumbling block as well. Nissan will also lease the Leaf for $349 per month (which, curiously, Chevrolet will match for the Volt despite it having a retail price of about $8,000 more). However, the Leaf's suggested retail price is not really the price you'll pay. Government incentives can greatly reduce the cost. The first 200,000 Leaf owners will qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, provided they meet income requirements to qualify. On top of that, many local jurisdictions are offering tax credits or rebates as well. California has a $5,000 state rebate and if you live in certain counties with poor air quality you can get another $3,000 back. Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and other states offer rebates or tax credits too. In real-world terms, the average Leaf owner will likely end up paying between $20,000 and $25,000, or about the same price as a Honda Insight. But the Leaf will be much cheaper to operate, roughly $400 per year for electricity depending on when you charge and where you live. A year's worth of gas for the Insight would be nearly $1,000.
Soon, Nissan's revolutionary yet remarkably normal Leaf will have lots of competition, but when it goes on sale at the end of 2010 it should have a corner on the mainstream EV market. The perfect storm of early adopters, hard-core greenies and penny-pinchers is already working in the Leaf's favor and that hype will ultimately help all electric cars gain mainstream acceptance.