2 electric 4-door hatchbacks with very different missions

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2 electric 4-door hatchbacks with very different missions
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Both Nissan and Volkswagen offer electric cars. Both are four-door hatchbacks. Both seat five. On the surface, the two are remarkably similar. But, take a closer look and the differences start to show…

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Going head to head

The Nissan Leaf is the standard bearer for electric cars. Designed from the ground up as electric, and with well over 100,000 of them on the road globally, the Leaf holds the title of world’s best-selling electric car. Nissan sells the Leaf in every market in the U.S. and has a small but loyal customer base who love that it provides fossil fuel -free commuting.

The Volkswagen e-Golf is an electric version of the ubiquitous Golf. In the U.S., it is only sold in California and states that have adopted California’s emission standards. Those states include Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Unlike the Leaf, it does not have a particularly strong following as of yet and is a conversion. That is to say that it existed first as an internal combustion engine car and has been converted to electric.

The gasoline engine Golf is still available in the U.S. while the diesel version is suspended and unlikely to ever be seen on these shores again.

For two cars with fairly similar architectures, the two have distinctly different flavors. Both are suitable for commuting or around town use though neither has the range to be used for traveling. The Leaf pretty much screams ‘electric car’ while the e-Golf looks so similar to its gasoline counterpart that it takes a skilled eye to tell the two apart. Both hold four passengers comfortably and the fifth if needed and both qualify for $7,500 in tax credits from the federal government. Individual states may offer additional incentives on top of that.

So, how do these cars compare? Which is the better option?

Disclaimer

In preparation for this article, I realized that I’d had practically no seat time in the Nissan Leaf and none at all in the Volkswagen e-Golf. Both Nissan and Volkswagen were kind enough to provide examples of the their respective electric offerings for me to drive for a week. Other than this courtesy, I received no compensation.

2 electric 4-door hatchbacks with very different missionsNissan Leaf

Designed from the ground up as an electric car, the Leaf is a roomy, comfortable commuter. Around town it is quiet, smooth and has enough get up and go to keep up the traffic easily. The starting price is $29,010 before the federal tax credit.

Inside a Leaf is a great place to be. The interior is roomy and seating comfort is tops. The gauges and interior layout do take a bit of time to get used to but once acclimated, everything seems logical. At no time, however, does the driver forget they’re behind the wheel of an electric car. It’s clearly designed to be different right down to the joystick-like shifter.

There are a host of apps built into the navigation system that helps the driver estimate how far they can drive based on the current state of the battery’s charge. That’s pretty handy.

Because the Leaf was designed as an electric car, the battery placement is handled really well and the carrying capacity in the hatchback does not suffer from battery intrusion. This is not the case with some other electric cars, in particular, those converted from gasoline-powered cars. The Leaf offers excellent cargo-carrying capacity.

Since it was released in 2011, the Leaf has been sold with a 24kWh battery that the EPA estimates is good for a range of 84 miles on a single charge. For 2016, Nissan is offering an optional 30kWh battery that the EPA estimates is good for 107 miles. These estimates take into consideration and mix of both highway and surface streets and use of climate controls.

In my experience, both the 24 and 30kWh batteries can take the car 10-15% further than the EPA estimates if the climate controls are turned off and freeway speeds are avoided. Knowing that most consumers won’t make such sacrifices, Nissan offers CHAdeMO fast charging that charges the battery to 80% in 25-30 minutes. Smartphone apps like Plugshare help drivers locate these charging stations.

CHAdeMO chargers are for public use and not installed in private homes mainly because they are ferociously expensive and require a level of power that most homes aren’t capable of handling. Instead, when home, electric cars can be plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet that takes close to forever to charge, or into a 240-volt charging station that can be installed into a home for less than $1,000.

My test car was a top of the line model with the 30kWh battery. The car operated flawlessly and, on a couple of occasions after having driven the car very carefully, the estimated range showed over 140 miles. Now, this was done using hypermiling techniques (a style of driving that maximizes miles per gallon or battery range) and most drivers will never see numbers this high. But, truth be told, driving carefully and deliberately will allow even limited-range electric cars to provide a range in excess of what the EPA estimates.

As an experienced electric car driver, I was really impressed with the Leaf. For commuting and around town driving, it’s hard to beat.

2 electric 4-door hatchbacks with very different missionsVolkswagen e-Golf

Converted from the fossil fuel-powered Golf and starting at $28,995 before the federal tax credit, the e-Golf is a terrific attempt at a conversion. It’s really quite fast, the handling is very Teutonic and the whole package stands out for being so ordinary.

Don’t take ordinary as a slight. Volkswagen has done an amazing job of converting this platform to electric.

The interior is pretty much the same as the gasoline version. The gauges are all analog besides a small screen between the speedometer and the power usage display. In a nod towards conventionality, the power usage gauge is just a converted tachometer. The battery state of charge meter is the same gauge that displays the fuel level in the gas version. It’s all very ordinary and it all works spectacularly well.

The seating is very comfortable and there is plenty of room for four passengers. However, I would not particularly like to be a fifth passenger as the back seat is tight and the headroom of the e-Golf is significantly less than that of the Leaf.

Battery placement is another area where VW has done a great job. Being a conversion, this is particularly impressive. Lift the hatch, fold down the back seats and the car is fairly capacious.

The e-Golf is offered only with a 24kWh battery and has an EPA rated estimated range of 83 miles. Again, like the Leaf, I was able to hypermile the e-Golf to showing me an estimated range greater than 120 miles. Again, this was done using a fairly rigid driving style that amounted to no speeding, no AC and no fun. With such great handling and speed available, it did seem a waste of a potentially great driving experience. But, it goes to show that driving electric cars very carefully, it’s possible to exceed the EPA estimated range.

Like all electric cars, the e-Golf can be charged with 110-volt outlet or 240-volt home charging station. Unlike the Leaf that offers quick charging via the CHAdeMO standard, the e-Golf offers CCS-Combo quick charging. Again, smartphone apps like Plugshare help locate these chargers, and both CHAdeMO and CCS Combo are often available at the same unit. Like CHAdeMO, CCS-Combo should be able to charge the battery to 80% in 25-30 minutes.

What to choose?

Honestly, both cars are great. The Leaf with the 30kWh battery is a great choice for those who regularly drive up to 90-100 miles a day because it does offer a bit more range than both the standard Leaf and the e-Golf. The Leaf is also quite a bit roomier and it never lets you forget you’re behind the wheel of an electric car. It’s a darn solid choice for commuters and, with a 240-volt home charging station, leaving home every morning fully charged with a 100+ mile range is really nice.

The e-Golf is a solid effort. This car can go a long way to correct the damage done by Volkswagen’s diesel scandal. The handling and acceleration are fantastic and the ordinary nature of the car is reassuring to recent converts to electric. It’s so ordinary that I found myself forgetting that I was at the wheel of an electric car on several occasions.

So, check out the Leaf no matter where you live in the U.S. If you live in a state that recognizes California emissions, check with your local VW dealer to see if they offer the e-Golf. Either way, you’ll likely be very satisfied and will get to enjoy a break from using gas pumps.

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David Lardner About the author:
David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center. He is also an active board member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.
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