Toronto Star Wheels conducted a unique experiment this year. It was among the many things we did in this weekly section and on our ever-changing, 24/7, all-things-automotive website, wheels.ca, but it was probably the most important.
We called it Project Green and it was a six-month comparison of two electric cars, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt.
We put those cars through their paces in a side-by-side test and we let anybody who works at the Toronto Star take them out on assignments, or away for the weekend, in return for a contribution to our rolling blog (more about that below).
In the end, there were three general conclusions:
In the formal test, conducted by our Better Driving columnist Ian Law, the Leaf and the Volt came out about dead even when it came to acceleration, braking and general handling. Both performed well and, as Law concluded, it was hard to pick between them.
There was a general cynicism that ran throughout the blog entries about the validity of EVs as “family cars,” particularly when it came to travelling long distances. And the unknown future price of electricity added to the mood.
All in all, however, both cars were easy to drive and comfortable. And testers really got off on helping to reduce the carbon imprint on the planet.
In order to get a real perspective, however, I had to get the opinion of someone who had really been around for awhile, so I took my Aunt Jean out for an afternoon in the Volt.
Aunt Jean is Jean Snell, long-retired secretary to the principal of Duke of York Public School in downtown Toronto. She has lived a long life.
Now, she gets really mad at me when I say how old she is in public. So I get around this in different ways, like talking about the big family party we had a few years ago to celebrate her 90th birthday. That sort of thing.
But I’m going to cut to the chase. In 1917, when she came into this world in the village of Brady, not far from Great Falls, Mont., there were not a lot of cars around as compared to today. When she was a child, she remembers her father taking her and her three sisters — Helen, Dorothy (my mother) and Roberta — for rides in “a sedan.” But after moving to Canada sometime in the 1930s (nobody could remember exactly when and guesses varied), they couldn’t afford a car and Aunt Jean’s auto experiences were limited to vehicles owned by suitors and family friends.
Her husband, E.R. (Roy) Snell, died young. With him went the company car. So one day, out she went to buy her very first new car. It was not a happy experience.
“I didn’t like the way it felt when I drove it,” she told me the other day. “I didn’t know — and don’t really know — anything about cars so I asked my principal if he would take it for a little spin at lunch. He came back and these were his exact words: ‘Don’t drive that car again! It’s dangerous!’
“I can’t remember whether I drove it or had it towed, but I took it to a dealer close to where I lived at the time, Paul Willison, and I told him I was in a fix. He let me trade the car with him and I bought another new car. I had four new cars in my life and I bought the last three from him and they were all Chrysler products. I was very satisfied, particularly with a Plymouth Valiant I once had.
“I won’t name the other Detroit automaker, whose car was out to kill me, because they have undoubtedly got better quality control now. But if you asked me if I would ever buy another one, the answer would be, ‘NO!’”
Aunt Jean gave up driving three years ago — “I was a very safe driver and I never had an accident or a ticket; I just thought it was time.” — but she seemed the perfect person to ask for an evaluation of an EV.
She came away very impressed.
“I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, a lot of change.” she said. “Air travel became reality, Man went to the moon, automobiles were mass-produced and we have marvellous highways and public transit systems. Radio and TV came along and we couldn’t live without those now. We have cellphones, never mind telephones, and DVDs. And higher education is available to everybody who wants it (Aunt Jean graduated with a BA from York University in 1984, when she was 6. . . Oops, there I go again . . .).
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” she said. “I think the Volt is a great car and I think the electric car’s time is coming.”
But then she dropped the clunker.
“But I wouldn’t buy one, even if I was younger and could, because of one thing: the price. It’s way too expensive. (The 2013 Volt’s MSRP is $42,000.) Yes, there is the government rebate but it’s not enough. I think it’s a lovely car but, for the average person, it just costs too much.”
Now, as well as Project Green, Wheels writers reviewed more than 250 cars in the section and online in 2012 and we branched out in our coverage of transportation issues, publishing our first bicycle issue in July.
But back to Project Green.
Nello Merante, our newsroom messenger, posted a blog that — I think — is representative of how many people react when first introduced to an electric car. Wrote Nello:
“When I first got into the Chevrolet Volt, I pressed the start button and waited. I heard nothing. I mean nothing. Silence. Only when I put the car in drive did I realize that the thing was on. I started to laugh, but I don’t know if it was a funny laugh or a nervous laugh.
“To my surprise, the car had good response. It drove like a ‘regular car.’
“Now my thoughts were, ‘I’m driving an electric car. What if it rains? Will I be electrocuted? Can this thing go through a car wash?’
“We all know that electricity and water are a bad mix. So I decided to test it out and to go through a car wash. It passed. Then on Saturday, it rained. No problem — just like a ‘regular car.’
“This car made me feel like I was doing my part in helping the environment. No emissions. It also gave me front-door parking at a busy mall because of the designated hybrid-parking-only space.
Others had unique views. Wrote Star Editor Michael Cooke:
“I’m not a car guy. People ask me what kind of car have I got? And I answer a black one. That’s about the extent of my ‘Wheels’ knowledge.
“My first car was a second-hand Morris 1,000, which got me across town and back and that’s all I ask, even today. That’s good, because it’s what the Leaf delivers. Back and forth across town.”
That about says it all, doesn’t it?
We have more projects and special sections planned for 2013, starting with blanket coverage of the Detroit Auto Show in January.
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