Back-to-Back Drives in the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf

Back-to-Back Drives in the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt take different approaches to
environmentally friendly motoring, and they look about as dissimilar as Laurel and Hardy. But how do they compare on the road? While Nissan and Chevrolet have recently allowed some journalists to drive their vehicles at separate events, I had the opportunity last week for a rare back-to-back turn at the wheel.
The location was Hell, Mich., some 65 miles northwest of Detroit. The occasion was a comparison drive of 2011 models being considered by the 50 automotive journalists who select the North American Car and Truck of the Year. Both the Volt and the Leaf are among the 14 semifinalists for the 2011 award.
Nissan and Chevrolet clearly had much different ideas about their exterior designs. Nissan favored whimsy, while Chevrolet went after a smoother and more energetic look that it presumably deemed more suitable for a vehicle with a name as dramatic as Volt.
There are distinct prices differences, too. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, starts at $41,000; the battery-electric Leaf at $33,600. Both cars qualify for federal tax credits of up to $7,500 and potentially for state and local incentives as well.
The cars are about the same overall length: 177.1 inches for the Volt and 175 inches for the Leaf. Empty, the Volt weighs almost 3,800 pounds. Nissan has yet to release the weight of the Leaf. Both have front-wheel drive.
Hell was not chosen for its charming Halloween-friendly name, but because it is surrounded by challenging two-lane roads. On those roads, the Leaf and Volt each felt quite at home, even traveling at brisk speeds. The Leafís steering is lighter and has better feel than the Voltís, although the electric Nissan is hardly awash in feedback. The Leaf was quicker to head into a turn, and the Volt felt more nose-heavy. There was more of a pause before the Volt began to change direction.
One significant factor in the handling dynamics may be the carsí different weight distribution. Brian Brockman, a Nissan spokesman, says the Leafís front-rear weight distribution is close to the ideal of 50/50. A General Motors spokesman, Nick Richards, said the Volt carried about 60 percent of its weight up front, which would make it somewhat front-heavy.
Both carsí bodies felt solid, perhaps partly because their large battery packs provide some additional bracing for vehiclesí structures. Even under hard cornering the body lean on each is nicely controlled, a benefit of the weighty batteries sitting low in the vehicles.
The grip is more than adequate, although their low-rolling resistance tires ultimately provide less cornering grip than a conventional tire. The ride quality of each car was adequately comfortable even on a broken surface. The feel of the Leafís brakes was better than the Voltís, on which the pedal felt too soft.
The electric motors in each car provide instant as well as relatively strong and steady acceleration, a reminder that under the right circumstances electricity can be a great playmate.
Chevrolet says the Volt will go from zero to 60 m.p.h. in about 8.5 seconds. Nissan has not released a zero-to-60 time, but a writer for Green Car Advisor recently reported clocking the Leaf at 7.7 seconds.
Chevrolet says the Volt can go up to 50 miles on a charge. Nissan says the Leaf will go up to 100 miles. Those distances seem feasible with gentle driving, which is not what happened in Hell.
Of course, a benefit of the Volt is that once the battery is depleted after some hearty, dynamic frolics, the Chevrolet can continue on with its gasoline engine providing the electricity. For the time being, with a general lack of electric-car infrastructure, the Volt provides its own.
The Leaf is a pure electric car, which may give it environmental bragging rights among those who abhor fossil fuels, but there may be a penalty for extended goofing around: you could end up walking. Once the battery is depleted, the Leaf becomes yard art until it gets a good, long suckle at an electric outlet.
But what the electric tour of Hell showed is that when it comes to ride and handling, these are real cars with different dynamic natures. The Volt is a pleasant cruiser and commuter, while the Leaf is more lively and may appeal more to a driving enthusiast, albeit a driving enthusiast on a leash.
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