Electric cars face many shocking speedbumps

They may be revolutionary for the time being, but cars like the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV face aren’t without their numerous drawbacks

Back in the sixth season of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson became a member of the Stonecutters, a secret society made up of ordinary Springfield residents.

Although that was quite a long time ago, I can’t help but remember the Stonecutters’ chant, “We Do.” I fact, I often catch myself singing the lyric, “Who holds back the electric car? Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star?”

After visiting this year’s Canadian International Autoshow, that lyric stuck with me during my visits, and the days after.

Why? It struck me that it’s not who holds back the electric car, but what holds back the electric car.

Before I go on, I will grant that electric cars, such as the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, are impressive feats of engineering that have come a long way since the 1996 Saturn EV1. For strictly urban environments, such as Toronto’s downtown core, they’re perfect. They’re small, nimble, and shockingly efficient. Pun intended.

Dare to Compare

Gasoline engines have never been more efficient, both in emissions and economy.

  • The all-new Chevrolet Cruze ECO, for example, is good for a fuel economy rating of 6.0L/100 km, or 47 mpg. It also costs $21,700.
  • Not only that, Volkswagen’s diesel models, like the Golf and Jetta TDI, can travel more than 1,000 km on a single tank.
  • Mazda, too, has made strides in fuel economy, by introducing SkyActiv, available in their new CX-5 sport ute and the Mazda3 sedan and hatch.

Unfortunately, that’s where most of their advantages end.

“Range anxiety” is a term coined to address the fact that an electric car won’t have enough juice to get back to Point A from Point B. Not only did it plague the Saturn EV1 back in the late 1990s, it continues to plague the likes of the LEAF and i-MiEV to this date.

At the Autoshow, which usually takes place in the final two weeks of February, I had the pleasure of speaking to both Mitsubishi and Nissan representatives. During our separate conversations, they both admitted that the LEAF and i-MiEV are unsuitable for longer trips.

Why? Because their ranges are limited to an EPA estimate of 160 kilometres. Of course, that depends on weather conditions and driving habits, which can improve or limit range.

According to the Nissan website, the LEAF’s range in ideal driving conditions is 222 kilometres. Ordinarily, that would be enough to rest the concerns of range-anxious individuals.

However, Nissan defines “ideal driving conditions” as “driving on a flat road at a constant 61km/h.” Nissan even provides an ideal temperature range of 20 degrees Celsius, meaning “there’s no need for climate control, extending the range even further.”

Regrettably, not every road in the Greater Toronto Area is flat, and average speeds aren’t usually 61 km/h. Let’s say that in a hypothetical situation, a Nissan LEAF driver has make a roughly 40-kilometre commute from Point A – the Rouge Park area of Scarborough – to Point B, Union Station, in the dead of winter. That commute is also to take place twice, taking into account the drive back to Point A.

Nissan estimates a 99-kilometre range in winter stop-and-go driving conditions. That leaves 11 kilometres to spare. Whichever number is taken into account – 222, 160, or 99, those range figures are still a far cry from most vehicles on the road today.

Another drawback is price. The Nissan LEAF costs about $31,900 before HST, while including the $8,500 rebate the Ontario government gives you for buying an electric car.

To put it into perspective, there are internal-combustion, gasoline-powered vehicles which net excellent fuel economy figures, that cost thousands of dollars less.

I won’t deny that both the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan LEAF are impressive feats of engineering. I do, however, hold a few reservations as to whether or not they’re the long-term solution to the woes surrounding the automotive industry.

Perhaps they will be in a few years, once ‘range anxiety’ becomes a thing of the past. Or perhaps those few years will bring new technologies, improved improved internal-combustion engines, leaving electric cars in the dust.