It is easy to own a car with a gasoline engine. More than a century of automotive infrastructure is built around cheap, plentiful and convenient gas. You are rarely far from a station, and it takes just a couple of minutes to get several hundred miles’ worths of driving range.
Electric vehicles, meanwhile, emit less pollution — particularly in areas served by relatively clean power plants. You do not send fumes into the neighborhood while waiting for three cycles to get through a gridlocked intersection or circling for a Costco parking spot, and they are inexpensive to run and maintain.
But many potential buyers are turned off by “range anxiety”: the fear that their electric car would run out of battery and strand them.
To combat that concern, many of today’s electric cars target lofty driving ranges of more than 200 miles per charge. We recently tested two such models — the newly introduced 2019 Kia Niro EV and 2019 Nissan Leaf Plus — that offer comfortable driving ranges without the luxury price you would pay for a Tesla.
Aside from Tesla, the Nissan Leaf is likely the best-known electric car in the U.S. It first appeared back in 2011 with a range of 73 miles per charge.
The Leaf entered its second generation as a 2018 model, bringing crisper styling with more sharp edges and fewer rounded blobs than the first-generation model, transitioning from a “look at me” planet-saving electric car to a handsome though anonymous compact hatchback. The new generation also brought improved ride and handling, upgraded technology and superior crash protection.
But the biggest improvement of all is its range. The standard Leaf is now rated to travel 150 miles per electric charge, a big jump from 107 miles on the 2017 model and more than twice the range of the original 2011.
With its 150-mile range, you could commute from Rockville to Washington, D.C. every day of the week without needing to recharge. You would recharge, of course, a 240-volt car charger will recharge a depleted battery in eight hours, and even a standard 120-volt household outlet gives you about four to five miles of charge per hour. That means you can top off every night and always leave home with a full battery and if you need to travel long distances, public quick-charging stations can give you about 120 miles of range in 40 minutes.
Nissan has another option for drivers who feel too constrained by a 150-mile limit. It is the Nissan Leaf Plus that joined the lineup for the 2019 model year.
The Leaf Plus’s larger battery boosts the range as high as 226 miles per charge (or 215 miles on the SL trim level we tested, which is weighed down with extra luxury equipment). For about an extra $6,000 compared to the standard Leaf, the Leaf Plus also brings a more powerful electric motor for quicker acceleration.
The standard Leaf remains one of the strongest buys among electric vehicles. It already beats the competing Hyundai Ioniq Electric and Volkswagen e-Golf (both about 125 miles per charge), and it is similarly priced at a base price of $30,885.
Now the prospective buyers who survived range-anxiety concerns are probably balking at the price tag of even the standard Leaf, much less the longer-range Leaf Plus. But it’s not as steep as it looks.
For one thing, most electric cars (including the Leaf) are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit and a Maryland excise tax credit. Secondly, with Montgomery County’s current electric rates around 7.5 cents per kilowatt-hour, it costs about two cents per mile to drive the Leaf. A gasoline car averaging 30 miles per gallon, at fuel prices of $2.50/gallon, would cost four times as much. Plus, you never have to change the Leaf’s oil.
To be sure, the Leaf does not have the sporty, fun-to-drive flavor of the Ioniq or e-Golf, which complements punchy acceleration with zippy, agile handling. Nor is it futuristic like a Tesla. But the Nissan is comfortable, it is easy to drive, has a roomy cabin (with good rear seat and cargo capacity in a useful hatchback body) and ample range for normal commuting and errands.
Unlike the Leaf, the newly introduced Kia Niro EV comes only in a pricey long-range form. Roomier, taller, and more anonymously styled than the Leaf, it’s a direct rival to the Chevrolet Bolt — which, upon its debut as a 2017 model, was the first relatively affordable electric car with more than 200 miles of range.
But General Motors has already sold so many electric cars, it is vehicles are no longer eligible for the maximum federal tax credit. Uncle Sam only slices $1,875 off the Bolt’s $37,495 base price, compared to $7,500 from the Niro’s $39,545.
The Niro is a mechanical twin to the less-spacious Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, and it shares that model’s extra-punchy acceleration and agile, premium-grade handling. However, while it can rival a base-model Tesla Model 3 in many ways — including its EPA-estimated 239 miles per change — the Niro looks like the past instead of the future, with anonymous styling and drab interior decor (The Hyundai Kona Electric, a similarly sized model from Kia’s sister brand, trades some interior space for more dramatic looks and it has even more range per charge.).
Note that range-anxious car buyers have another option beyond a long-range electric vehicle. Several plug-in hybrid models offer a decent all-electric range, then have a gasoline engine on board to get you the rest of the way home.
The Honda Clarity mid-size sedan ($34,330 before the $7,500 federal tax credit) has a 47-mile all-electric range, enough for most Montgomery County commutes, and several other models (including a plug-in hybrid version of the Kia Niro) manage 25 to 30 miles per charge. These plug-in hybrids let you operate on electricity for your normal commuting, but still, let you fuel up in a near-instant any time you have a range concern.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.