For the past six months, Wheels has had exclusive use of two electric cars for testing and evaluation — a Nissan Leaf and a Chevy Volt.
Many of the Star’s journalists have driven the cars over the summer and their opinions and observations are posted online at wheels.ca — both pro and con (or is that positive and negative, since we’re talking about electric cars?).
Now it’s time for some cold hard facts about how these two climate-saving machines perform.
But why should we care about performance numbers with electric cars? Aren’t buyers of green cars more concerned about the environment than power and handling?
The answer is every motorist should be concerned about performance numbers, since they are a direct reflection of vehicle safety. How well these cars stop, steer and accelerate can determine how well you can avoid disaster on the roads.
With this in mind, Wheels took a close look at the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf to see how well they compare to the average family sedan.
Just for fun, and to show what a sporty electric car can do, we also tested the Tesla Roadster, a high-performance electric car provided by Wheels reader Jaff Stevenson of Grimsby.
Our test data was collected and sorted by ILR driving instructors Guillermo Aristizabal, Peter Law, Shaun de Jager, Jordan Tam and Ken Graves.
The Tesla runs like an electric Usain Bolt, and is just as flashy, without the skyward arm pointing. It accelerates with a linear pull that no other internal combustion engine could match, without burning nitro-methane. This smooth rush of power is a trait of electric motors, so all three cars exhibited quick get-up and go.
In our acceleration test, the Tesla rocketed from a standing start to cover 100 metres in just 5.7 seconds, hitting a top speed of 110 km/h. The Volt did it in 7.5 seconds and hit 85 km/h, while the Leaf took 8.1 seconds and hit 81 km/h.
Watching the Tesla accelerate was surreal. There is no sound or indication the car is about to move. It simply starts to distance itself from you, as if it is falling off a cliff.
In the braking tests, all three cars performed very well. Their ABS systems kicked in immediately, even though their computers would prefer to use the brakes to regenerate power for the batteries.
We chose a speed of 60 km/h for our emergency braking test, since electric cars are designed more for urban commuting than highway touring.
All three cars stopped in a distance of about 15 metres from 60 km/h. The Tesla was more inconsistent, due to the bumpy surface and its stiffer suspension. Both the Volt and Leaf stopped consistently and without any drama, regardless of how rough the pavement was. But I know the Tesla would show its braking superiority from higher speeds, where it could take advantage of its lighter weight and bigger brakes.
On the skid pad, both the Volt and Leaf posted numbers that would be average for any family sedan. Tires designed for low rolling resistance, with fuel economy in mind, usually don’t offer up the best grip for handling. But these cars still put up some decent handling numbers of .75 to .78 lateral g for cornering grip.
The Tesla, with its performance tires, low centre of gravity and lighter weight, pulled an amazing 1.02 g, which puts it in some very-high-performance company. Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes and even the mighty McLaren hang out in the “over 1.0 g club.”
The slalom test reflects the agility of a vehicle and how well it could avoid a potential collision.
The Leaf felt more like a typical family sedan, with lots of understeer and noticeable body roll. The real surprise in this test was the Volt, which handled more like a sports car. It turned in admirably and rotated well mid-corner, transitioning from right to left and back with ease and predictability.
The Volt ran through the slalom at speeds the Tesla was posting, and with less understeer. The difference was, the Volt absorbed the rough pavement better than the Tesla.
Both the Leaf and Volt are driver-friendly, offering up supportive seats and ergonomically designed steering wheels and seating positions. The well-thought-out access to the controls makes it easy for the driver to remain in control.
To maximize range and economy, the low-drag styling of both cars presents challenges to the driver.
One big downside was the blind spots created by laid-back “A” pillars supporting the raked aerodynamic windshields.
They made outward vision to either side an exercise in head shuffling to see any pedestrians or vehicles hiding in those blind spots.
Rearward vision is also limited, due to the fast-back design and high rear-fender lines.
The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt performed well enough that they could be mistaken for any family sedan if they weren’t so quiet. Their active safety performance is not compromised by the fact they are electric cars.
Are they as green as the manufacturers want us to believe? That depends on where you do your recharging.
If you were topping up your batteries in Quebec, where most electricity is generated by hydro projects, then your carbon footprint is indeed quite small.
If you live in Alberta, where most power comes from coal-fired or gas power plants, then your green car isn’t so green after all.
Would I want one parked in my garage? If I lived in the city and commuted to work, and could recharge at both locations, definitely yes.
I would even look at investing in roof-mounted solar panels for my home. Now that’s green!
Acceleration 0 to 100 m: 7.66 s @ 81km/h
Braking 60 km/h to 0: 15.1m
Handling skid pad: 0.75 g average of clockwise and counter-clockwise
Slalom speed: 61 km/h
Acceleration 0 to 100 m: 7.52 s @ 85 km/hr
Braking 60 km/h to 0: 15.7m
Handling skid pad: 0.77 g average of clockwise and counter-clockwise
Slalom speed: 65 km/h