While sifting through the largest study on electric vehicles to date, we came across a surprising stat that highlighted the narrow gap between EVs and plug-in hybrids in everyday use. Specifically, the number of electric miles driven in the Chevy Volt (9,112) and Nissan Leaf (9,697) owners over two years raised the question over which car has the greener impact. As we await new models of each plug-in car for 2016, we’ll summarize the green car credentials of each.
Practicality remains the chief advantage of cars like the plug-in Volt. There is little need to worry about charging station locations or pricing since most drivers recharge their car’s battery at home. With the gas engine ready to kick in when the battery goes empty, Volt drivers have the ability to run their cars to the last electric mile. Leaf drivers risk being stranded if they run out of juice. (Chevy’s 2016 Volt ads highlight this weakness in the most tactless way possible.)
In the Department of Energy-sponsored study, the results showed the Volt’s disadvantage in range (38 miles) to the Leaf (84 miles) did not hamper the car’s green impact in the long run. Drivers of 4,000 Leafs and 1,800 Volts maintained the close figures quoted in average electric miles for a full two full years (2012 to 2014).
Volt, the plug-in hybrid with the longest range, serves its purpose primarily as an electric vehicle. But the DOE found Volt drivers averaging 12,238 miles over the same period, which makes the car’s gasoline fuel economy (37 miles per gallon) a key part of the equation. As for Leaf drivers, the question has to include consideration of the owners’ secondary means of transportation.
Naturally, a Leaf owner can only go so far in an EV, which makes a second car almost a necessity, and there are few cars that can outdo the Volt’s fuel economy (Prius, Mazda3, and Camry Hybrid are among them.) In EV energy use, the 2015 Leaf’s 114 miles per gallon equivalent easily bests the 2015 Volt’s 98 miles per gallon equivalent.
When the 2016 Volt and 2016 Leaf make their way onto the market in late 2015, the standards will change. Volt range (53 miles) and fuel economy (42 miles per gallon) both get a significant bump in the redesigned model. Efficiency in EV mode also gets a big increase to 106 miles per gallon. Based on the DOE study and Chevy research, the 75% to 80% electric miles Volt owners got from their cars could reach as high as 90% in the new model.
Drivers of the 2016 Leaf will also cover much more ground with 107 miles of range in the SV trim or higher. Practically speaking, that bump in battery capacity will give drivers another 20 miles to work with, assuming a store of five miles will always be left. The Nissan EV’s 114 miles per gallon equivalent holds for the new model year.
According to the data and projections for the next-generation models, Nissan Leaf owners would have a slight edge in efficiency and emissions, assuming the secondary transportation option could match the Volt’s solid economy on gasoline. Until EVs double their current range, plug-in hybrids like the Volt remain the most practical low-emissions cars on the road. For the greenest driveway, we suggest one of each.