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The Nissan Leaf electric car. (The Canadian Press)
The Nissan Leaf electric car. (The Canadian Press)

Green Highway

Leaf's real appeal: low costs Add to ...

The Nissan Leaf electric vehicle may help usher in the game-changing era of the full electric car, but what will make it popular holds age-old appeal: low costs.

"The cost of ownership is the driver," said Mark McDade, Nissan Canada's director of marketing and manager of the Leaf project. "That's the big story here," he said at the Canadian preview of the Nissan EV-12, the prototype that Nissan says is mechanically 95 per cent of what the Leaf will be. It will go on sale in Vancouver by the end of 2011, and likely other large Canadian cities in 2012.

Nissan Canada was giving journalists and electric industry partners - including local municipal and provincial politicians, as well as officials from various utilities across the country - a quick taste of the electric vehicle. In a small, coned parking lot course where even the most lead-footed driver wouldn't be able to surpass about 70 km/h, each driver provided a closely controlled dollop of no more than two minutes of seat time each. And yet almost every driver came away with similar impressions of the Versa-bodied hatchback prototype.

"It was just like driving a regular car," said Donna LeClair, chief technology officer for B.C. Hydro, after her quick spin. Yet she too believes there is a pure economic self-interest behind the appeal to upcoming electric cars, a surprising trait for what we've all been warned is advanced technology that won't come cheap, especially before the mass production of automotive batteries takes place. "We believe the economics of electric vehicles will lead to their adoption here (in British Columbia)," and she was working to ensure that the proper codes and practices were in place to ensure these economics remain favourable.

At first glance, Nissan makes a compelling argument, with numbers to back it up. If a litre of regular gas costs a dollar, and you look at a relatively efficient vehicle that averages eight litres per 100 km (or 29.4 miles per gallon in the U.S.), in 20,000 km worth of driving a year, that driver would pay $1,600/year for fuel. Compare that fuel price to the Canadian average of about 10 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) for electricity, the Leaf's 160 km range on a full charge, and Nissan calculates your electron "fuel" cost to be $360/year.

"And those are conservative figures," said McDade, noting that that level of fuel efficiency is about on par with a Sentra-sized vehicle, which is smaller than the Leaf, plus the price of electricity is actually lower than this right now in certain places. "In Ontario, with electricity prices at about $0.07/kWh, the overall price for a year of driving (20,000 km) would be closer to $210."

The gaping hole in Nissan's cost story is that Nissan won't announce the price of the vehicle now, saying only that the overall operating cost of the Leaf will be between that of the overall operating cost of the compact Sentra and mid-size Altima sedan, or about the price of a "typical hatchback." Given that the electricity will cost peanuts, as will regular maintenance (no oil and filter changes, no transmission and few moving parts in general), the vast majority of the Leaf's operating cost will be its MSRP, although that will also be reduced by government rebates such as the province of Ontario's $10,000 electric car rebate announced in August last year.

In short, although there are still infrastructure hurdles to jump through, the Leaf may just be dirt cheap to buy and to run, even if Nissan can't say how cheap quite yet.

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