A week spent with a new 2014 LEAF on loan from Nissan again demonstrated that, for many Americans, the modern battery electric vehicle (BEV) is at least a technically viable option. However, for far more Americans, batteries are not yet a silver bullet.
The LEAF is an excellent all-around car, but it also displays the two main drawbacks of the battery-fueled car – range and cost. Even after subtracting the $7,500 federal tax credit from the $29,860 base price of a new LEAF, it still costs about $7,000 more than comparably equipped conventional compacts like the Honda Civic or Ford Focus.
What’s more, even the well-optimized dedicated EV LEAF only manages an EPA-estimated range of 84 miles. That means that cars like the LEAF Focus Electric and Chevrolet Spark EV need to spend a lot of time plugged in.
BEV advocates claim that unlike mostly nonexistent hydrogen fueling infrastructure, charging infrastructure already exists. Strictly speaking, this is true since any standard 120V outlet can charge a BEV, albeit very slowly. The loaner LEAF arrived with two-thirds charge on the battery and took 11.5 hours to top off.
Assuming you live somewhere with ready access to a plug and a commute of less than 30 miles, this is a perfectly viable option. Longer commutes could be managed with a plug at work. Otherwise, a $1,500 investment in a 240V Level 2 charger is called for. The LEAF also offers support for 400V CHAdeMO quick charging – for which there are just two compatible chargers in Michigan. Even if there were any Tesla Supercharger stations in Michigan, they use a proprietary connector that is exclusive to Tesla.
One night during my loan, I had to drive 38 miles from my home to Detroit, and with only two public chargers within walking distance of Comerica Park, I opted to leave the LEAF at home. While the LEAF’s 84-mile nominal range could have supported the round trip, I decided not to risk getting stranded at night because BEVs remain far more sensitive to deviations from nominal driving than conventional vehicles.
That nominal range is based on EPA test cycles that don’t get much over 55 mph, considerably lower than the 70 mph limit on most highways in America. Within a minute of getting on the highway for the first time, the range estimate had dropped by 5 miles and would have continued dropping faster if I had stayed at highway speeds for any length of time. Because BEVs also rely on the battery to provide heat in the winter, the nominal range during cold weather months drops by 25% to 50% percent depending on conditions and the driver’s willingness to bundle up. Range also drops to varying degrees when running windshield wipers, turning on headlamps, or defogging windows.
Tesla has promised to launch its smaller and more affordable Model III sedan in 2017, with a starting price of $35,000 and a range of 200 miles – which would be a major milestone if the company actually delivers all of that. Unfortunately, based on Tesla’s history thus far, we can probably expect that launch date to slip by a year or more, and that advertised price to be the net cost after the federal tax credit. That base price will probably get you a car with a smaller battery that gives a range of 120 miles to 150 miles. The 200-mile battery will probably only come in a car that costs $45,000 to $50,000. That’s still a big step in the right direction. But even at $35,000, it’s well beyond what many customers can afford, and the bigger the battery, the longer it takes to charge.