I stood in front of Fox Four what seems like just a year or two ago, talking with my friend Steve Parrot and two Nissan engineers about the all-electric Leaf they were about to be introducing. But it was actually the fall of 2010. All swore that, fully charged, their vehicle would go 100 miles, assuming one drove reasonably.
By then I’d already reviewed a Japanese version of the Mitsubishi electric, and its range was a spot-on 70 miles with the air conditioning running. Even so, to review the Mitsubishi I had to drive it to Dallas the night before and plug it in to recharge overnight. I did not want to have to repeat that procedure with the Leaf — but, if it truly had a 100-mile range, I wouldn’t have to.
As it turned out, the fully charged Nissan Leaf would “register” 100 miles of range. But when I backed it out of my driveway it was down to 83 miles, and by the time I made the top of the hill, it had maybe 70 miles. So 17 miles of range disappeared in the first 30 feet and another 13 in a quarter of a mile. I’m guessing that, at best, that first generation of the Leaf never delivered more than 67 miles on any given charge. Still, when one considers that the first electric cars around 1900 delivered 40 miles of range — and the last barrage of electric cars in the mid-1990s delivered around 40 miles of range — improvements over the last decade have been impressive.
After all, the newer BMW i3, with a stated range of 80 miles, easily surpassed that distance in normal driving, including freeway speeds with the air conditioner running. And for the coming model year BMW is moving the posted range up by another 34 miles. Meanwhile, the electric Kia Soul’s range was supposed to be just 90 miles; but many reviewers, myself included, put it on the freeway with the a/c blowing and it easily delivered 113 miles or more. In fact, as of this writing, the Kia is hands down the best value in an electric car, but no one wants to offer them for sale in North Texas — and for a good reason. If you’re the dealer, the servicing equipment is so costly that you’d never make a penny selling electric Kias.
Nissan engineers tweaked the software on their Leaf and improved the mileage substantially within a few years. Then they added a larger battery to two of their models last year that pushed the range over 100 miles.
Still, another generation of electric cars is now on the horizon and will be introduced shortly, and the smart money is suggesting that the 200-mile-range Chevy Bolt later this year may be the electric car that changes everything. That remains to be seen, at least by the media. After all, the Chevrolet Volt tripled its sales in the second year of production and so far it’s slightly outsold the Nissan Leaf, yet the Volt gets no respect whatsoever. The fact is that both the Nissan’s and Volt’s successes suggest that the Tesla Model 3 will never happen at the $35,000 price being touted. After all, the Nissan and Volt have nowhere near the proposed Tesla’s range and battery size, but both retailed for more money — and both lost a fortune for their manufacturers.
And in spite of that, the next electric also marked as likely to change the market is the next generation of the Nissan Leaf, which is also supposed to deliver range in the neighborhood of 200 miles. The Tesla Model 3 is ranked the 3rd most important upcoming electric car, followed by the Volkswagen e-Golf and Hyundai’s electric SUV. As always, the final determination will be the true real-world range, features and price.
But what you should notice is that five years ago, that 70-mile range climbed past 100 miles in the past year — and it’s expected to double again late this year. Moreover, Volkswagen’s BUDD-e electric van is promised around 2020 with almost 400 miles of range. Of course, that could just be VW hype.
Things are changing quickly in electric cars — except for the way the public views them.
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.