2012 Car Comparison: Chevrolet Volt vs Nissan Leaf

Last Updated: Mar 28, 2012

The Competitors
This electric-car comparison compares the 2012 Chevrolet Volt and the 2012. Nissan Leaf These small hatchbacks spearhead a transition from gas-powered cars to electric propulsion. Both rate the equivalent of more than 90 mpg, but each achieves that remarkable efficiency with technologies different enough to determine which is best for you. This 2012 Chevrolet Volt vs. 2012 Nissan Leaf comparison picks a winner based on features, performance, and value.

Base price for the 2012 Chevrolet Volt is $39,995. It comes in one trim level that can be upgraded with options, such as a navigation system. The 2012 Nissan Leaf offers two trim levels, the SV at $36,050 and the SL at $38,100; both include a navigation system and offer relatively few extra-cost add-ons. (The base prices in this review include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which is $850 for both the Volt and Leaf.)

Note that the federal government and some states offer incentives to buyers of plug-in hybrid and pure-electric vehicles, including the Volt and Leaf. These buyers are eligible for a one-time federal income-tax credit of up to $7,500, an incentive that in effect reduces the base price of the Volt to $32,495 and the Leaf to as little as $28,550. In addition, certain states offer incentives that can lower effective prices further; check with your Chevrolet or Nissan dealer or state government for details.    

The Similarities

  • Volt and Leaf have compact-car dimensions. These are similarly sized four-door hatchbacks roughly as large overall as a Honda Civic. The Leaf, however, has a rounded body with a roofline nearly four inches taller than that of the Volt. That gives the Nissan chair-like seating compared with the Chevy’s legs-out, lower-to-the-floor posture. The Leaf is technically a five-seater, with a three-passenger rear bench to the Volt’s double-bucket arrangement. Most buyers will treat both as four-passenger cars, however, because the Nissan’s rear seat isn’t wide enough to accommodate three across in any comfort. 
  • Volt and Leaf need to be plugged in to initially charge their onboard batteries. Both connect with home- or commercial-type outlets to juice up the large lithium-ion battery packs integrated into their structures. The packs supply electric power to the vehicles’ strong electric motors. Both cars also partially replenish their batteries by capturing energy otherwise lost during coasting or braking.
  • For the Leaf, the electricity stored in its batteries is the sole power source; this is a pure electric vehicle. The Volt is also propelled by its electric motor. But in a vital distinction, the Volt integrates a gas generator to furnish electricity to the motor when the initial battery charge is depleted. Chevy calls the Volt an extended-range electric vehicle (see The Differences below).
  • Although these are by no means muscle cars, neither Volt nor Leaf feels underpowered. The Volt has the equivalent of 149 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The lighter weight Leaf has 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Both are front-wheel drive and have transmissions that function as automatics, though neither has gears in the traditional sense. Acceleration is on par with that of the typical subcompact economy car, 0-60 mph requiring 8.8 seconds in the Volt and 9.4 in the Leaf.  
  • The process of charging the batteries from the electrical grid is similar. Both cars come with a heavy-duty electrical cord. On one end is a three-prong plug compatible with any 120-volt household outlet. On the other is a specialized connector about the size of a flashlight that plugs into a fuel-filler-like port on the car. Both cars also can accommodate 240-volt charging (think of outlets like those used for home clothes dryers). The 240-volt charging replenishes the batteries more quickly than 120-volt charging and both Chevy and Nissan strongly recommend that Volt and Leaf owners install a purpose-designed 240-volt quick-charging station in their home garage or workplace. Purchase and installation of these charging stations can cost several thousand dollars, though tax credits may be available to offset much of that; check with your Chevy or Nissan dealer for details.  
  • Cost of driving each car on electricity is similar -- and doing so is far less expensive than driving an equivalent distance on gasoline. Rates and gas prices may differ by region, but for our purposes, the EPA estimates an electricity cost of 12 cents per kilowatt hour and a gasoline price of $4.12 per gallon. Using those figures, the agency calculates the cost to drive 25 miles on electricity alone is $1.02 in the Leaf and $1.08 in the Volt.
  • Both cars also rate highly in an EPA-created metric called “miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent,” or mpge. Under this calculation the Nissan Leaf rates 106/92/99 mpge city/highway/combined and the Volt rates 95/93/94 mpge. However, since the Volt can also be propelled using gasoline alone, the EPA also gives it gas-only rating of 35/40/37 mpg. That’s on par with some of the most fuel-efficient conventional-powertrain subcompact cars, though many of those retail for under $18,000. And although Chevrolet says the average Volt owner goes 30 days and drives 900 miles between visits to a gas station, it does recommend pricier premium-octane fuel for this extended-range electric vehicle. 
  • Dashboard readouts in the Volt and Leaf keep you thoroughly informed of the state of their battery charge, their driving range, and myriad details relevant to this new way of motoring. Among available data is driving distance remaining (with the Leaf’s dashboard screen capable of projecting a map that shows the potential range, in circumference, from the car’s location). Both cars display how long it will take to fully recharge their battery using both 120- and 240-volt hookups. Timing systems allow owners to recharge to take advantage of lower nighttime electrical rates. Much of this data can be viewed on the owner’s smarthphone using Internet applications. And some functions, such as recharging schedules, can be remotely programmed via smartphone. Displays in both the Volt and Leaf also offer animated graphics that coach drivers to accelerate, coast, and brake in the most efficient manner. 
  • Both cars satisfy all federal crash-safety requirements and include a complement of airbags, including torso-protecting front side airbags and head-protecting curtain side airbags for all four outboard seating positions. The Volt has front knee airbags for driver and passenger; the Leaf includes outboard torso-protecting rear side airbags. Note that a federal investigation concluded the Volt’s battery does not pose a fire risk in real-world collisions. This after three Volt batteries caught fire under test conditions supervised by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Battery maintenance and replacement for both the Volt and Leaf are covered by an 8-year, 100,000-mile manufacturer warranty. 

The Differences

  • The main distinction between the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf is the distance they can travel between “fill ups.” That distance is determined by their powertrain technology. The Leaf relies solely on its electric motor for propulsion; it uses no gas and emits no emissions. But that limits its ultimate range. The Volt is propelled by its electric motor, too, but it also carries an 80-horsepower 1.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that comes on automatically when the battery charge is too low to drive the car. This on-board “gas generator” powers the electric motor and extends the Volt’s range. (At speeds above 70 mph, the Volt’s engine contributes some motive power.)  
  • The electric-only range of both cars depends in large degree on such factors as vehicle speed, number of passengers, ambient temperature, and use of accessories like air conditioning. But under optimal conditions, the Chevrolet Volt can travel 30-35 miles on a full charge and the Nissan Leaf 60-100 miles.
  • Once the electric-only range is exhausted, the Volt can continue along for an additional 335 miles or so on engine-generated power using the fuel in its 9.3-gallon gas tank. The bottom line is that the Volt’s ultimate range is comparable to that of a conventional subcompact car. The Leaf goes further on electricity alone but demands advanced planning so you can recharge – at home or en route -- before the battery is depleted and you’re left without power. This situation applies to all pure-electric vehicles and the term coined to describe it is “range anxiety.”  
  • The time it takes to recharge each car depends on the type of power supply used. You can “top off” the batteries at any point to gain more range in the Volt or Leaf. But fully recharging a depleted battery using a 120-volt connection requires about 10 hours for the Volt and up to 20 hours for the Leaf. Using a 240-volt source a full charge takes about four hours for the Volt and about seven hours for the Leaf. The Leaf SL model also has a separate port that accepts commercial DC fast chargers, like those beginning to appear in selected public locations. This method can be used to top-off a partially depleted battery and can recharge a fully depleted battery in three hours.          
  • Volt and Leaf may appeal to eco-minded drivers comfortable with advanced technology, but they are cars, and that means their styling is fair game for analysis. Broadly, the Volt is designed as a relatively sporty compact that wears patches of contrasting-black exterior trim to help it look lower and sleeker. The Leaf is more upright and rounded, with less rakish roof pillars. The effect is a passenger compartment that’s airier and easier to get into and out of than the Volt’s. Both cars have folding rear seatbacks, but the Volt’s drop flush with the rear cargo deck to create a flat load floor. The Leaf boasts more overall storage volume, but its cargo bay is interrupted by a structural partition behind the rear seat that precludes a flat load floor. This makes it more difficult to carry bulky objects in the Leaf than in the Volt.        
  • Perhaps surprising given their complex engineering, Volt and Leaf ride and handle much like conventional economy cars. That is to say, they’re a little bouncy over bumps and not remotely capable of aggressive cornering speeds. Beyond that, each does have a distinct feel. The lower-slung Volt maintains its heading in gusty crosswinds better than the Leaf, but the Chevy feels more cumbersome around town. Both characteristics are related in part to vehicle weight. The Volt tips the scales at 3,781 pounds, some 700-1,000 pounds heavier than a conventional compact car. At 3,400 pounds, the Leaf also carries more mass than non-electric cars its size, though in city and suburban driving, it has a pleasant, light-on-its-feet agility absent in the Volt. That same disposition is reflected in the movement of certain controls. For example, to put the Leaf into drive or reverse you toggle a smooth-working biscuit-shaped controller in the center console. The Volt relies on a ratchety gearshift lever that would have been at home in a 1999 Cavalier.     
  • Despite lower base prices than the Volt, both Leaf models are essentially completely equipped. Each comes standard with a navigation system, the GPS interface essential to many of the car’s range-calculating readouts. Each also includes a heated steering wheel and heated front and rear seats. Indeed, Nissan recommends you rely as much as possible on these to take the chill out because, unlike the climate-control system, they don’t draw power from the lithium-ion battery pack that drives the car. Arguably, the only critical feature the uplevel Leaf SL adds to the less expensive SL is a rearview camera. Otherwise, the SV buyer can easily live without the SL’s standard fog lamps, automatic headlights, and universal garage-door opener. Among the few options available to Leaf buyers are various exterior decals ($130 for a “Zero Emissions” graphic), and a $225 Recycling/Organizational Package that includes cargo dividers and what Nissan describes as “save the earth eco recycling bags.”
  • The Volt buyer is faced with more out-of-pocket choices, the most important being a navigation system. It’s a $1,995 item and if you want one, Chevy requires that you also purchase a $495 option that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel and a premium Bose speaker system. A review camera that projects on Volt’s standard dashboard screen is a $695 stand-alone option and comes with front and rear audible parking assist. Unlike the Leaf, the Volt is available with leather upholstery; it’s a $1,395 option and includes heated front seats.
  • Finally, both these cars are essentially silent under electric power. They of course come with conventional horns. But to alert pedestrians of its approach, the Leaf emits a soft-toned electronic chiming at low speeds. Volt is equipped with no such automatic warning, but Chevy does fit a button on the end of the turn-signal lever that the driver can push to trigger a gentle buzzing sound.

The Winner
The 2012 Chevrolet Volt. The Nissan Leaf appeals in a host of ways and would be a great choice for green-leaning motorists whose daily travels were comfortably within its 60-100-mile range. Given today’s relatively limited recharging opportunities, Volt’s ability to rely on gasoline as well as on electricity makes it the more complete transportation solution for early adopters of alternative-fuel vehicles.