Buying An Electric Car

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This guest post is by venture capitalist David Cowan. David has recently purchased a Nissan Leaf after going car-less for two year.

After 3.5 years, I’ve finally re-joined the community of car owners.

Between February 2008 and last week, I was car-less. I borrowed and rented cars, took taxis and Zip cars, and occasionally biked. I also bummed a lot of rides (thank you very much – you know who you are). It had started when the warranty on my fancy German gas guzzler expired; I sold the thing, and never really found the time to shop around for a replacement – Who Has Time For This?

I felt a lot more excited about the prospect of driving an electric sedan, which should be greener, potentially faster, simpler to operate, and cheaper to fuel. Most importantly, I’d never have to kill ten minutes stopping for gas – Who Has Time For This? So I put my name down on the lists for a Tesla Model S, Fisker Karma, Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, deciding to wait for one to be built. Three years later, I got calls from Fisker, Nissan and Chevy, and it was time to decide.

After examining the options and driving the cars, it was a pretty easy decision to buy the Leaf for these eight reasons:

1. Compared to the others, the Leaf gets twice the range from a battery charge: 100 miles, or 85 miles with the AC cranking. (Plugging the car in and out adds about 15 seconds a day to your daily routine, or 5 minutes a month – about half the time we spend at gas pumps.)

2. With a pure electric motor (not a hybrid gasoline engine) the Leaf is nimbler, less fragile, and legal to drive in California’s carpool lanes so I can bypass the Highway 101 traffic jams – WHTFT?

3. Driving in electric mode (without the help of a hybrid gasoline engine) is wonderfully quiet and smooth (no transmission). Even at 80 miles per hour the acceleration is immediate and impressive.

4. The Leaf steers as smoothly as a Lexus, and the small wheels turn on a dime.

5. Only the Leaf has open, comfortable seats with ample head room in front and leg room in back (a must if you have kids)

6. Only the Leaf carries 5 passengers (a must if you have THREE kids!)

7. The Leaf has the largest trunk, and the back seats fold down for more cargo space.

8. The Leaf costs 3/4 as much as the Volt, and 1/3 as much as the Karma. You get at least $7500 in tax credits, offset by the $2,000 expense of a home 220 volt charging station.

These reasons explain why the Nissan Leaf now the outsells the pack. I can think of only three good reasons why you might wish to buy one of the other cars:

1. The Leaf’s pure electric motor is not a problem for two car families – on that rare day once a month when you drive more than 100 miles, you can always take the gas guzzler instead (Honda Odysseys are awesome). But without that fallback, one-car households will find the Volt more practical (albeit expensive and cramped).

2. If you love driving enormous, heavy sports cars that sit low to the ground and you’ve got $100k to burn (like these guys), then you might prefer the gorgeous design of the Karma. It has the look and feel of a luxury muscle car with a growling engine, bucket seats, and beautiful wood/leather interiors. (The Leaf is all plastic.) Having said that, the Karma performs like a sports car at lower speeds but on the highway I found it downright sluggish compared to the Leaf. The Karma handled highway acceleration nearly as well as the Leaf only when in Stealth Mode which means that the gasoline engine is off. (You may be as disappointed as I was to learn that people can still see you in Stealth Mode.)

3. Stephen Colbert will mock you for driving a Leaf.

All three cars come chock full of gizmos we all love (rear view camera, navigation, keyless entry, XM radio, Bluetooth, heated seats…) so there’s no reason to stick with gasoline. The Leaf even comes with a cool iPhone app for remote operation of the charger and climate control.

So I’ve been zipping around in my Leaf for a week now and absolutely loving it. Even after three years, it was worth the wait.