Here we go again.
General Motors and Nissan are the vanguard of the looming EV revolution. The Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf take different approaches to automotive electrification, but they are equally historic. GM and Nissan have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing these cars, which makes them supremely important to the automakers.
11 Trailblazing Electric Vehicles
But they are equally important to the electric vehicles that will follow in the next few years. EVs almost certainly will remain a tiny part of the automotive market for years to come, but their success could hinge on the Volt and Leaf. Those two cars will be many consumers’ first exposure to cars with cords and will go a long way toward shaping perception of the technology.
There is a tremendous sense of déjà vu in all of this. General Motors built the pioneering EV1, widely considered an EV benchmark, in 1996. Nissan was the first to use lithium-ion batteries when it built the Altra one year later. Ford, Honda and Toyota also built electric vehicles that were highly regarded by the few people who drove them. And yet they didn’t catch on.
So what’s different this time around?
The 2011 Chevrolet Volt. Photo: General Motors
First and foremost, automakers are embracing the technology. Back in the 1990s, they grudgingly developed electric vehicles to placate the California Air Resources Board and its zero-emissions vehicle mandate. They could build electrics, they just didn’t want to.
“There’s a lot more momentum,” said Chelsea Sexton, a longtime EV advocate and past director of Plug-In America. “Last time around, a lot of the automakers were dragged kicking and screaming into it. This time around everyone realizes they have to do this, and most of them want to do this.”
That’s not to say the government isn’t still pushing the industry. Many automakers have conceded that electrification of some kind — hybrids, plug-in hybrids or battery electrics — is the only way they will meet tightening Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency standards. Ford, for example, has said 25 percent of the vehicles it sells by 2020 will be electrified. The current rule requires automakers to achieve a fleet-average fuel economy of 35.5 mpg by 2016, and there is talk of increasing it to as much as 62 mpg by 2025.
Yet there is a sense that the government is a partner, not an adversary, this time. The Barack Obama administration has set aside $25 billion to spur the development of electric vehicles. It also has allocated another $2.4 billion for battery and EV component manufacturers and $4 billion for smart-grid projects. Electric vehicles also qualify for a $7,500 federal tax credit, and several states offer further incentives.
Consumer attitudes have changed as well. There is mounting concern over our dependence on oil, climate change and the threat of riding fuel prices. “Electric vehicles could still fall flat on their faces two years from now, if gas prices stay at $2.50 a gallon,” said Aaron Bragman, an industry analyst with I.H.S. Automotive. “But I don’t think anyone in the industry expects gasoline to stay at $2.50 a gallon.”
For these reasons and more, a small but growing number of consumers are interested in plug-in hybrids and electrics, even if they often are confused by the technology. A recent survey by the Electric Power Research Institute found many people think EVs have less range — and higher costs — than they actually do. For that reason, just 4 percent of respondents said they would consider a battery-electric vehicle within the next two or three years.
A report by J.D. Power and Associates predicts global sales of 3.9 million hybrids and 1.3 million electrics in 2020. Together those vehicles will account for 7.3 percent of all vehicles sold worldwide, up from 2.2 percent this year.
The Nissan Leaf, a battery electric with a claimed range of 100 miles. Photo: Nissan
The Volt and the Leaf go on sale in December. Neither General Motors nor Nissan will comment on how many they’ll sell in 2011, but both are believed to have received enough interest to sell every one they build. Granted, we’re talking very small numbers. GM plans to build 10,000 Volts in 2011. Nissan has the capacity to build 50,000 next year.
Those are tiny numbers in the auto biz, but these cars aren’t about sales. They’re about showing what’s possible. They’re halo cars, like the Corvette ZR1 or Nissan GT-R, that highlight each company’s technical prowess. This is especially true for GM, which completely missed the boat on hybrids. While the company is by all accounts fiercely committed to the Volt, building it was in no small part about showing up Toyota.
“Toyota has been seen as the leader in hybrids, and GM — among others — has been seen as backward,” said Mike Omotoso, an industry analyst with J.D. Power and Associates. “The Volt will definitely help GM move ahead. The Prius has been around for 10 years, and so it’s seen as old news by consumers. In the short term, GM is moving head in the technology race.”
The Leaf is hugely important for Nissan’s image and long-term goals, because CEO Carlos Ghosn has made it clear electrics are the future. Toyota risked a lot with the Prius and saw the gamble pay off big. Ghosn expects to do the same. The company already plans an electric Infiniti sedan we could see by 2013.
The Leaf is Nissan's big bet on EVs. Photo: Nissan
Just as these cars are important to the companies that build them, they are important to the electric cars that will follow. If they succeed, they will encourage other automakers to amp up their electric plans.
More importantly, though, consumers will base their impressions of plug-in cars on the Volt and Leaf. If the early adopters rave, people will be more likely to check out an electric. But if either car fails, it will be that much harder for those that follow.
“A lot is riding on what happens over the next year or two,” said Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and GreenCar.com. Cogan’s been following the electric and alt-fuel scene since 1992. “These are two very high-profile vehicles for a new direction in automobiles. If they are successful, if people like them, this will pave the way for other models to follow.”
The cars are solid. We’ve driven both during various stages of their development and were impressed. The cars are fundamentally different in their approach, so you can’t directly compare them.
The Volt has a claimed range of 25 to 50 miles (depending upon driving style). When the battery goes dead a small gasoline engine drives a generator to keep the electricity flowing to the wheels. GM calls it a range-extended electric vehicle, though according to the Society of Automotive Engineers’ definition, it is a plug-in hybrid.
The Leaf is a battery-electric vehicle with a claimed range of 100 miles and a recharge time of about seven hours at 240 volts.
Drivetrain differences aside, the two cars offer all of the comfort and convenience you’d expect of a compact car. It’s easy to like both cars.
A lot of people whine about the price of the Volt — $41,000 before the $7,500 federal EV tax credit — but the lease makes it more affordable.
The Leaf, at $32,780 before the tax credit, is competitive with the Toyota Prius.
Consumers still have a lot of questions about cars with cords, not the least of which are how much they cost, how far they’ll go and how they’ll charge them when they aren’t home. But the cars are generating a lot of buzz among consumers and within the industry. And that, more than anything, is what’s different between then and now.
“There was a lot of excitement in the 1990s, but it was segmented,” Cogan said. “It’s much broader this time. I don’t want to diminish the excitement felt in the 1990s, but there is a feeling that this time it’s real. This is not a test.”
Top photo: The Volt plugs in to charge up.