Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Somebody kill the electric car. Please.

Can you get it without the
self-satisfied little graphic?
There's something I'm not understanding here. I just got through reading Jerry Garrett's review of the new Nissan Leaf in the NYT.  Maybe it's my math. Maybe it's that I'm missing a fundamental point. But why is this, the first (if you believe Nissan's press releases and ignore the existence of the Tesla) all electric car in America, supposed to be the answer to our global warming prayers?

In the first place, it's ugly. That seems like a shallow place to start. And it's only my opinion. But it's the nicest thing I can think of to say about this beast, and my leadership coach in college said you should always start off with a positive thing. And that's the best I can do.

In the second place, the max range that Nissan promises for this go-cart is 100 miles on a full charge. We all know that the little MPG sign taped to the back right rear windows of cars in the show room is a lie. So according to Garrett, he was getting between 66 and 88 miles max range on an overnight charge. Since it takes, according to the owner's manual, 21 hours to fully charge the thing, that sort of rules out using it to drive to work every day. Unless you live really close to work, in which case, why not take the bus? It also rules out taking it on any long trips...unless you're willing to make the same kind of progress our Conestoga-driving ancestors made as they approached the Donner Pass. Nissan sells a Fast-Charge, 220 V package for a mere $2,200 more that lets you zip charge the thing in only 8 hours. Only. But this comes with a warning that the lithium ion battery life is shortened charging it this way. Don't be in such a hurry!

Fuel costs are somewhat cheaper. Figuring my current utility rates, it would cost only about $3 to "fill up" the Leaf. It currently costs about $35 to fill up my hybrid Camry, but at 36 mpg I get about 420 miles per tank. I'd have to recharge the Leaf 5 times to get that many miles out of it (at a total of over 105 hours of plug time), or $15. Okay, still a lot cheaper than my hybrid. But I have a friend with a Prius who swears she gets 50 mpg so that equivalent fuel cost on the Leaf would go up to about $21 against the Prius.

If I decided to trade in my Camry for a Leaf, I'd have to crunch the numbers some more. I've been driving my car about 500-800 miles per month (depending on how many trips I make down to see my daughter in college). That means about 6-9 full charge cycles a month (126-189 hours plugged in). Of course, I wouldn't be going to see my daughter since I wouldn't have enough to get home on. And there's no backup gas engine as there is on a hybrid. You run out of juice, you either get towed home or find some kind stranger to let you plug into his outlet for a day and a night (there isn't a nationwide network of charging stations in place yet). A whole new modern life worry.

Garrett also pointed out in his review that the "Charge-Remaining" meter on his Leaf is highly approximate. So it may say you have another 20 miles left, but that could mean 40 miles, or 1 mile. Do you feel lucky? Huh, punk? To tell the truth, in all the excitement I forgot to count.

Here's something else that bothers me about this car. All of the promotional photos of it have a graphic on its side panel that smugly states "Zero Emissions". My first question is, can I get one of these without that please-kick-me sign? Or do they all come with it? My second question is, how do you figure zero emissions, Nissan? Just because something isn't coming out the tail pipe doesn't mean megatons of coal aren't being burned, spewing carbon out of a smoke stack somewhere. I recently read the incredible statistic that 69% of American's electrical generation still comes from fossil-fuels. So when I plug in my Leaf (6-9 times a month), consuming an additional 144 - 216 Kw hours a month I wasn't burning before, increasing my average monthly electric bill by 25%, how is that zero emissions? It seems like I'm just buying another three refrigerators, a couple of dishwashers,and a 50 inch flat screen and adding them to the grid. This isn't green at all. This is just another out-of-sight-out-of-mind shammy green marketing gimmick. I'm saving the planet by driving a Leaf! Get out of my way, you bicycling feeble-would-be tree-hugger!

Nissans says it expects to sell a million of these this year. To whom?

My leadership coach also said it was good to end your review with a positive bit of criticism. Did I already say it's ugly?