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Charged for Electric Autocrossing

What's the best way to reduce EV range anxiety? Take it to the ol' autocross.

By Clifford Atiyeh Jun 28, 2012 5:54AM

Honda Fit EV autocrossing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (c) Clifford Atiyeh for MSN AutosWhen I had a Nissan Leaf in my possession last week, my first thought every morning was: “Where will I charge it, and how long will it take?" That’s the only question when you borrow an electric car with no place to plug in at home. You always worry, as if you were watching a neighbor’s dog, that it might die when you’re not looking.

For a few days, it’s all fun -- the envious stares at Whole Foods (really), throwing a middle finger to Priuses (really considered it) -- but you know you couldn’t live with this long-term. So, naturally, the question, “What’s it like to autocross a Leaf in a parking lot?” never came up. But thanks to Honda, which flew me from Boston to Pasadena, Calif., so I could lap a Leaf outside the Rose Bowl, I now know. And I have to say that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of this first.

You may wonder why Honda wanted me to drive a Nissan. It’s because it wanted the media to compare it with the new Fit electric vehicle, due in California and Oregon late this year and in the Northeast early next year. If you’re also wondering how on earth anyone could take either of these funny-looking little EVs seriously on a closed course, please reconsider. These two can dance. They don’t really want to, but push them and they will.

First, the torque. Both cars have a lot of it. From the instant you mash the throttle, the motors creep up quickly and silently, catching the low-rolling-resistance tires by complete surprise (“What in God’s name are you doing?” is what they’re squealing.) At all speeds, the tires are the loudest part of an EV, what with no backfiring burble from a Spec-B Miata, the kind of car that normally dominates an autocross. Still, you’re traveling faster than you’d think possible, and way faster than the average 4-cylinder compact.

Since I’m writing under embargo and can't reveal how the Fit EV drives until tomorrow (there’s no big secret, I promise), let’s talk about how the Leaf diced the cones.

Nissan Leaf autocrossing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. (c) Clifford Atiyeh for MSN Autos

In a word: Notthatbad. There’s enough grip and steering feel to have fun, and the brakes can slow the car from 55 to 25 mph over and over without protest. The Leaf leans hard, while its conservative stability control cuts the power out of turns -- especially when you slam it too hard into a 180-degree turn and the Honda staff standing under a nearby tent look up all at once. But when it settles, smooth surges of power keep coming until the next turn. You can’t fully defeat the traction control, so your right foot is blocked from redneck, rubber-burning brake stands. See the picture above? No smoke.

Everyone should get to try this. Unlike a full racetrack, where power and speed run high, an autocross course tests a car’s limits at legal road speeds. Steering response, maneuverability in tight spaces, passing acceleration, panic stops -- they’re all reasonable situations you encounter on the street. Even electric cars like the Leaf -- hardly a vehicle built to entertain -- make most commuter cars feel boring when asked to hustle. That's great, except few could afford the now-discontinued $109,000 Tesla Roadster or the upcoming Tesla Model S, which starts at nearly $60,000 and goes way, way up from there. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who can buy a $40,000 Leaf, Fit EV or Volt, either.

Still, my laps proved something beyond failed attempts to drift. Whether you’re a petrolhead or simply hate change (I’m both), electric performance is here to stay. Car and Driver proved that recently when it installed performance tires on a stock Leaf. Porsche is doing it now by racing the GT3R Hybrid and developing the insane 918 plug-in hybrid supercar. Give it many more years, and electric cars will progress from their obnoxious, planet-saving clichés to pure, indulgent fun machines.

A few pioneers have already autocrossed and dragged their electric cars (and dragsters). These kinds of motorsports, not the circuit races which will drain a battery in 20 minutes, should catch on as EVs and EV conversion kits get cheaper. At the end of a hot session, you could easily have enough juice to get home. Plug a charging station in the parking lot for good measure, and it’d be a fair fight between gas and electric. Now, if Honda could throw a Mugen kit on the Fit EV, lower it, and disable the ESC, the first question I’d ask every weekend would be “Where’s the nearest parking lot?”

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association, and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics and The Times of London.

Jun 28, 2012 9:11AM
The Leaf is a fun car to drive.  As soon as the public charging infrastructure is in place, people will choose these cars because they are smoother and quieter than the gas engines of past.  Nissan finally released the Leaf in Kentucky, and we picked up one of the first sold in the state.  There are no public chargers in Lexington Kentucky that are available for use 24/7/365.  The Nissan dealer, Glenn Nissan, turns their level 2 EVSE charging stations off after hours.  Until the local Nissan dealers support 24/7 public charging, I doubt that other local businesses will take Nissan's commitment to EV's seriously.
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