The Nissan Leaf is being touted as Nissan’s first “zero emissions” car. It’s the car of the future their website claims, and they have YouTube ads from a magical world where polar bears hug Leaf drivers instead of ripping their heads off in a carnivorous rage. I decided to see how well the Leaf stood up, both to its claimed green credentials, and to comparable, evil gas-powered cars that cost half as much. The two I chose were the Honda Fit, and Ford Fiesta. Both cars are very similar and size and power to the Leaf, and neither of them is a hybrid of any sort.
The Leaf has an 80 kW electric motor. The Fit has a 117 horsepower engine which is equivalent to 87 kW, and the Fiesta has a 120 hp engine equivalent to 89 kW. For half the price, you get a slightly more powerful engine that can be “fully charged” in a matter of minutes. Nissan has kept quiet about the Leaf’s curb weight, but estimates put it at about 3,500 pounds. That’s about half a ton heavier than the Fit, which weight 2,575 lbs, or the Fiesta which weighs 2,628 lbs. Battery packs are heavy.
At 2.7 cents per mile, the fuel cost for the Leaf is lower than the Fit’s average of 8.8 cents or the Fiesta’s 8 cents per mile. But to break even compared to the cost of a Fit, you’d have to drive your Leaf for 293,114 miles. If you forewent the Fiesta, you’ve got even more ground to cover. You’ll need to drive your Leaf for 367,170 miles without replacing any major parts, like the battery. To put this in perspective, to break even you’d have to assume after owning the car for 20 to 24 years and running 2,900 to 3,700 charge cycles, everything would still work as if it were fresh out of the factory. Good luck. Even Nissan has no confidence it will last that long. The battery is only warrantied for 8 years or 100,000 miles.
As for Nissan’s claim of “zero emissions,” it’s a nice thought, but generally false. Most of America’s electricity comes from coal. According to the Dept. of Energy, Coal produces about 2.117 pounds of CO2 per kWh electricity. If we assume that your Nissan Leaf gets the full 100 miles per charge, then—unless you live in a few select areas—you’re CO2 output will be 50 pounds per 100 miles. In city driving, this represents about a 24% reduction over the Fit, but if we head to the highway, the carbon emissions of the Leaf are exactly the same as the Fiesta, which achieves 40 mpg fuel efficiency. The only difference at this point? A Fiesta can drive around 480 miles without stopping while Leaf owners enjoy 7 hour “fuel stops” as they sip energy with the 3.3 kW on-board charger.
But at least you can feel superior to everyone around you who’s still driving those evil petrol cars. That is, until you realize, mining lithium is not “eco-friendly,” and the process alone “could be just as destructive to the environment as [the] pollution” electric cars will supposedly curtail.” Oh yeah, and lithium is even more non-renewable than oil was ever thought to be.
/********** Correction **********
An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed Lithium to the “rare earth metals” category of elements.