I’m a fan of Formula One racing, the kind of guy that has seen every episode of the BBC’s Top Gear … six times. My idea of wealth is having a 10-car garage. It is with a heavy heart that I recognize a sad fact of life: in order to allow the weekend indulgence of driving a fast, gasoline-powered car, we’re all going to have to start driving motors on the weekdays that do not consume fossil fuels. It is thus, ironically, that the widespread adoption of alternative-fuel vehicles will save the enthusiasts’ 500-horsepower sports car.
This doesn’t mean that going to work or picking up groceries needs to be the equivalent sensual experience of being locked in a white, padded room. In theory, in order for alternative fuel cars to take off, they should have as close of a driving experience to today’s modest family hatchback as possible; buyers shouldn’t feel like they are taking a step down in enjoyment for a step up in environmentalism. Alternative-fuel cars should match our current lifestyles and be affordable to boot. It is with this mindset that I attacked a test drive of the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
A Nissan representative came right out and told me that they’re on a mission to win hearts and minds, not necessarily forge immediate sales. Many fear the Leaf is an aggrandized golf cart and that it is not suitable as more than a city runabout. In 2011, it turns out that the former is false, but the latter is true.
The first thing you notice when you get in the Leaf is that it is like every other small, modern, modest family hatch you’ve ever been in. There is rear legroom to seat five and enough room in the trunk for a serious excursion to Costco. Satellite navigation is standard, along with a bluetooth sound system. Upholstery is predictably cloth, but the seats are comfortable enough. The car starts with the press of a button; authentication is handled by the proximity dongle in your pocket.
It is after pressing the starter button that you notice the truth of the vehicle you are in: lithium polymer batteries under the front seats power up the accessories, and the engine is silent. The stubby gear knob allows you two selections of forward drive — regular and “Eco,” which delays the throttle response to ease you into a more relaxed and engery-saving driving style. The electric motor has a nearly flat torque curve, allowing the single gear ratio to move the car efficiently from a standing start to beyond highway speeds (topping at 93 mph). Regenerative braking keeps your mileage up in stop-and-go driving.
So far, so good. The Leaf is definitely not a golf cart; it is a real car. Give it the beans, and you can make the tires squeal briefly. Disc brakes stop you quickly, and the steering is fairly responsive. So what’s the problem? The problem isn’t the car — it’s the context it’s living in.
Gas stations with electric chargers are few and far between. Workplaces, parking lots, and parking garages with chargers are equally sparse. (MIT Facilities did not respond to a request for information about campus charging accommodations.) This functionally limits your range from the Boston area to Worcester and maybe a run to New Hampshire for discount imbibements. The Leaf will not take you to New York City — even one way — unless you are a hypermiler.
Charging from a standard 120VAC 15A outlet is an overnight affair at best. 240VAC chargers can be installed for a hefty fee at your home and can charge the car 80 percent in 2–3 hours. 480VDC chargers can hit 80 percent in 30 minutes, but require the electrical service of a commercial building. In an urban community like Cambridge, where most people park curbside and landlords won’t allow 240V-charger installations, the thought of hundreds of power cables spanning the sidewalks at night seems like an improbable electric future.
The Leaf is a good runabout, a perfect vehicle for companies like Zipcar, and a candidate for future taxis. Environmentalists love the zero emissions. But it is not ready for the masses: the Leaf does not fit the road-tripping American lifestyle. It is also dependent on a clean electric grid in order to fully realize the zero CO2 emissions.
The Leaf is an important stepping stone to the alternative fuel future. But quick-charge batteries and very high power chargers (over 50kW) at every gas station and at home are the only way to make that future electric. There is still some science to be done with hydrogen fuel cell technology, and hydrogen filling stations are almost nonexistent outside of southern California, but the 5-minute fill up time fits the American way. Look for hydrogen to power the roads in 25 years and save the planet — and the gasoline-powered sports car.