By Jim Mateja, Special to Tribune Newspapers
December 24, 2010
The attraction of a battery-powered electric car is that it doesn't consume one drop of gas, drain the planet of petroleum, or produce harmful exhaust people inhale.
Nissan has created an electric that's on sale now, the 2011 Leaf that boasts "100 percent electric" and "zero emissions" in big letters on its body panels.
We tested the 2011 Leaf, which starts at about $32,000 minus a $7,500 alternative fuel vehicle government credit, and while you don't burn gas or pollute the air, you still must be prepared to make a few sacrifices.
Battery-powered cars, for example, don't like cold weather. That's why Arizona, California, and Hawaii are among the first states to get the Leaf. Minnesota, North Dakota and Illinois have to wait. And the Cubs probably will win a World Series before you see battery cars sold in the Arctic.
Leaf is equipped with lithium ion batteries that boast up to 100 miles of travel before needing to recharge. Leaf quickly proved why warm-weather states are at the top of the list, snow belt states typically near the bottom.
The temperature was 27 degrees and the mileage range gauge said the fully charged batteries had 98 miles of potential use. We hopped in, pushed the start button, turned the gear shift "dial" to "D", and drove to pick up granddaughter at school, where the mileage range read 91 miles after the 2.6-mile trip. After idling in the parking lot with the heater on for 15 minutes waiting for her, the mileage range read 70 miles. And we still had only traveled 2.6 miles.
Unlike checking the fuel gauge in gas-driven cars, you keep an eye at all times on the various gauges in Leaf that tell you how far you've gone and how far you still can go before needing a lengthy recharge.
Later that day, with the temperature down to 22 degrees we slipped in the car for an extended drive. The range gauge said we had 70 miles "in the tank" while another pinpointed on a map the towns we could reach in 70 miles, and more importantly, the towns within 35 miles that we could reach and still get back without a recharge.
Another gauge shows why Californians get the car first and Chicagoans wait. The gauge said we'd lose 30 miles of range by turning on the heater and defrosters — obviously the preferred choice at 22 degrees. So we did and range not only fell from 70 miles to 40 miles, but gloves and hat were soon required.
Leaf can be programmed to heat the cabin while the batteries are recharging to ensure warmth when setting out in the morning. Once no longer plugged in to a socket, you are on your own — either turn on the heater or add a thicker coat and gloves.
Another gauge tells how long recharge will take based on the amount of energy exhausted. The gauge said with only 40 miles of range left, recharging back to 100 percent power would take 2 1/2 hours at 240 volts or 8 hours at 120 volts.
Recharging, of course, is a big drawback. Nissan boasts Leaf's lithium ion batteries can deliver up to 100 miles before a recharge, but the pause can take up to 20 hours plugged into a 110/120 volt outlet, or up to 8 hours into a 240 volt outlet after fully drained.
While a 110/120 volt outlet is found at any house today, a 240 volt isn't common. Nissan sells a "quick charge" system for your garage at $750 for the charger, plus an estimated $2,000 for installation. Unlikely Grandma would install the system for your occasional visits.
Leaf has a system that pinpoints recharging stations, tough there isn't a series of electric plug-in stations nationwide as yet, another battery-car drawback.
But we activated the system and the navigation system revealed a recharge station was only 3.6 miles away and gave turn by turn instructions how to reach it — directing us to our house and the plug on the porch. How did it know?
With no 240 outlet in the garage, the 120-volt socket on the porch was the closest energy source for Leaf. Since the three-prong power cord that comes with Leaf didn't reach the porch socket from the driveway, it had to be linked with an extension cord that was then plugged in at the porch. It took 12 hours to get a 100 percent charge (98 miles).
Leaf is unlike the Chevy Volt, which has a range of only 25 to 50 miles with batteries, but comes with a small gas engine to create more electricity when the batteries are drained to ensure about 300 more miles driving before having to stop to recharge or refill the gas tank.
Despite the drawbacks, the electric car is a valid alternative to gas-only cars.
While only promising up to 100 miles travel now, Nissan as well as General Motors and Toyota are already working on batteries with greater power for longer range and quicker recharge times, while able to better withstand low temperatures and accessory power demands.
Stay tuned, but be patient.
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