Is there an advantage?
The world is full of conflict, confusion and contradiction. Sometimes, we just want a simple answer, but it seems elusive. Just last week a friend of ours asked – why should I buy a LEAF instead of a Focus Electric? Let’s take a look at these two cars.
First and foremost, the Nissan LEAF was designed to be an electric car from the beginning, while the Ford Focus is an existing gasoline engine platform adapted to the electric powerplant. So what?
An automobile is perhaps one of the most complex pieces of equipment that anyone will operate in their lifetime. It certainly doesn’t seem that way to the consumer who just gets in, starts the car, and drives off to work. But think of everything that happens before reaching the first corner down the street and you will get a better understanding of the equipment surrounding you.
As you approach the car it recognizes that you are carrying the correct key to this particular car so that when you approach and touch the button on the door handle the car unlocks. If you are carrying passengers, you can unlock multiple doors, but if it is just you on your solitary commute to work, it will unlock only the driver’s door.
As you start your car, who knows how many more computers come to life to remember your previous radio station settings, climate control settings, distance driven records and much more information that is available to us, but that we rarely access on a routine basis. The navigation system starts searching for satellites to localize our position in space (if not time, although I suppose the onboard clocks do that as well). And we haven’t even made our direction selection from the transmission or pulled out of the driveway yet. So does it really matter whether the car was designed to be electric or not? By now, perhaps you are starting to lean toward a yes answer.
Cars are meant to be driven. They are conceptually designed to move you from place to place. If they were designed to be stationary they would be called houses, and they would be much larger. This is where those converted gasoline powered vehicles start to lose their edge, assuming they had one in the first place (styling being an oft stated issue).
When anyone is given an original task, the starting point is a blank slate. “If I could design a thing any way that I wanted to, based on what I think the best design would be, how would I go about it?” That is the question. Then you go to work. In Nissan’s case, the LEAF was the result of that question.
In Ford’s case, the engineering team tasked with creating the Focus Electric was given an entirely different task. “Convert this existing gasoline based car to operate using only an electric motor powered by batteries.” Perhaps now you are starting to see the challenges.
A 2.0 liter four cylinder engine might weigh roughly 300 pounds. The electric motor needed to propel the vehicle will be lighter. Suspension needs are now different. Where a gasoline powered car usually has a gas tank in the back, perhaps that will be replaced by a battery pack that weighs significantly more. Also, usually those batteries are larger than where the gas tank went originally, so they may need to be spread out through the existing design of the vehicle. One of the reasons that the Chevrolet Volt only seats four is due to its battery design. Which leads, in turn, to other issues.
The LEAF was designed to have its battery pack under the floor of the vehicle from the beginning. The advantage to this is that the suspension can be designed to accommodate this placement from the beginning. As large and heavy components are removed and replaced in an existing platform, other optimally designed systems are replaced with compromised systems that have been developed to replace the optimally designed system. The response from the manufacturer is always something along the line of – “We carefully evaluate the changes in vehicle design needed to address the change in drivetrain and are confident that the solutions reached will offer uncompromised performance to our customers.” I should be writing their PR. What else are they going to say – “We did this because we didn’t really want to design a clean sheet of paper design because that would cost too much money”?
So, the answer to our initial question is this – you should buy a Nissan LEAF because it was designed to be an EV from the beginning. The battery pack is encased in steel to protect it and you in the event of a collision. It does not sit on a steel tray with a compromised case to save weight, because they had to save weight somewhere. It does not use a needless battery active thermal management system that adds cost, weight and complexity, because the battery pack was designed from the beginning to be used in a car, not in a laptop computer. Because every decision made about the vehicle was to optimize its performance as an electric car, not as a vehicle designed to be a gasoline powered vehicle that was converted to have an electric drivetrain because someone wanted to test the waters without spending too much money. We think that’s why you should buy a LEAF.