September 16th, 2010

This is a real car:

Nissan Leaf

And this is not:

Edison2 Very Light Car

And if you happened to be walking down L’Enfant Promenade in Washington, DC this afternoon, it’s quite likely you would have seen both of them.

The first car is Nissan’s new all-electric vehicle, the Leaf, which you will be able to buy (or at least order) within the next few months at your local Nissan Dealer.  (And if you haven’t seen the new commercial, go watch it now.)

The second is the Edison2 Very Light Car.  It was in town because the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize winners were being announced.  (You can read about them here.)  The Edison2 won the prize – the five million dollar prize – in the mainstream class. …Really?  Mainstream? This car doesn’t look mainstream to me.  It does meet the definition of mainstream as defined by the PIAXP folks.  It does carry four passengers, and is presumably capable of transporting them around on public roads with some modicum of comfort, safety, and practicality.  It’s motivated by a 1-cylinder, E85-capable 40 horsepower motorcycle engine.  And it can do this because it weighs a scant 800 pounds.

The Edison2 will never be sold to the public. But it’s interesting for a few reasons.  It demonstrates that there are ways to build a 100 mpg car that doesn’t use electricity as its fuel – namely, through the use of lightweighting and aerodynamic improvements.  (It also demonstrates what a group of individuals who cut their teeth in auto racing can do when they focus on fuel efficiency.)

The Leaf, on the other hand, is remarkable in that it’s so unremarkable, while at the same time being unlike anything the mass market has seen.  It’ll cost around $24k (after the $7500 federal tax credit), which is pretty inexpensive considering its 24kWh battery that gives it a 100 mile range between charges.  And it’s a nice car – with better tactile feedback and quality of materials than many other conventional cars in its price range.  It’s roomy, handles well, is quick off the line, and is quite fun and intuitive to drive.  My test-drive was brief, but easily enough to convince me that Nissan likely has a success on their hands.  (It should be noted that the Leaf was not an entrant the Automotive X-Prize competition.)

The Edison2 may have won the Automotive X-Prize competition (and the $5 million purse).  But my guess is that a year from now, it will be the Nissan Leaf that will have won consumers’ hearts.  And even the hearts of a few polar bears.

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