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The Green Highway

Ignore the naysayers, the time is right for electric cars Add to ...

The fact that Peter Cheney didn't manage to get a battery charger to work does not lead to the conclusion (as he wrote last week) that "the truth is that all-electric cars just aren't there yet." Listen to what Nissan says: "Electric cars aren't for everybody."

Nissan is the first global manufacturer to mass-produce an all-electric car - the Nissan Leaf. I drove the Leaf in some challenging circumstances last week and did not have to call a flat bed truck to carry me home.

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All-electric cars suit a particular type of driver who makes regular short distance trips. Period.

If Peter wants to drive to Georgia on holidays, an all-electric car will not work. If Peter wants to drive 200 kilometres on a return trip to his son's school, an all-electric car will not work. That is absolutely obvious and is proclaimed loud and clear by Nissan and every other manufacturer of all-electric cars.

However for the millions - yes, millions - of North Americans who commute less than 100 kilometres a day, an all-electric car like the Leaf is a practical, comfortable and inexpensive way to achieve zero-emission driving.

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In advance of its commercial launch, I climbed into a Leaf at Nissan headquarters near Nashville. This is no electric golf buggy; the Leaf is a very comfortable, five-passenger sedan. It has a beautiful interior and is the quietest car I've ever driven. No gas engine, no tailpipe, but it still has lots of power. It accelerates quickly and the air conditioner works perfectly. However, both acceleration and AC will cut down on your range.

And, yes, you always have to be aware of your range. A fully charged Leaf is supposed to be good for 160 kilometres in ideal conditions. There are multiple readouts that tell you exactly how much range you have left minute by minute.

I don't like gas stations. I don't like pouring my money into the oil industry's pockets. I would prefer to plug in the Leaf at home on a standard 110-volt outlet and get the battery fully charged up in about 20 hours. Off a 220-volt plug - something like an electric dryer plug - I could get it fully charged in eight hours. And as you can see from the picture, it's not difficult to do.

In the near future, once they figure out what system to use, there should be 440-volt fast chargers to charge you up in 30 minutes. Maybe they'll put them in abandoned gas stations.

The batteries in a Leaf - about 400 kg worth - sit under the floor. Nissan claims to get the most energy density out of the least weight in its lithium-ion battery. It says it's the world's best. That's why it decided to risk billions in building the Leaf.

As I began my test drive, I noticed the weather was turning ugly. I'd heard that a big storm was expected - something about tornadoes, too - but I headed out to the Tennessee countryside. I got down the road a way and heard sirens wailing. I looked for fire trucks. Nothing. It was a tornado warning. Then the radio suddenly started giving instructions. "If you're in County X, Y or Z, take shelter. If you can't find a shelter, lie in a ditch with your hands over your head."

Great. I had extended my test drive beyond the suggested route because I was enjoying the car so much. I didn't know what county I was in or precisely where I was, but I did know I was running out of juice. Yikes. Now this is real "range anxiety." I hit the button on the navi that pointed to the shortest way home.

Now I was getting more warning lights - not about the tornado but about the power level. In the future, when there are public charging stations, the navi will show you where the closest one is. Today, they barely exist. However, I made it back safely and had 14 miles left in the tank, er, I mean the battery.

I had a great drive and a little excitement but I was happy to get back to that underground garage.

I loved the car. If you live in some U.S. states you can get $12,500 of free government money on the purchase of an emission-free Leaf. That would take the price down to about 20-grand. No word when the Leaf will come to Canada or what the price will be.

I'd definitely look at one if I were a daily commuter in a large tornado-free city. The Leaf is an all-electric car that is here now. That's the truth.


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