First Nissan Leaf sprouts in the valley |

First Nissan Leaf sprouts in the valley

Scott N. Miller/

VAIL, Colorado – Steve Hawkins is a true believer in the electric car, so much so wasn’t willing to wait for a new Nissan Leaf.

The Leaf, an all-electric car – the first battery-only vehicle rolled out by a major manufacturer – isn’t yet on sale in Colorado. That didn’t stop Hawkins, the general manager at the Mountain Haus lodge in Vail. Since the car’s introduction a few months ago, he had been in contact with dealers on the West Coast, hoping to buy a Leaf, but not willing to pay the several-thousand-dollar premium some dealers were putting on the car.

A couple of weeks ago, Hawkins heard from a dealership in Portland, Ore. A buyer had cancelled his Leaf order, and the dealership was willing to sell the car to Hawkins at its sticker price. The deal was done, the car was loaded on a truck and shipped to the Vail Valley.

Hawkins took delivery last week, and has quickly put nearly 500 miles on the new vehicle. Wednesday, the Leaf was sitting next to the Mountain Haus’s battery-powered 2003 Toyota RAV4, one of fewer than 350 built by the company. The Toyota is used by Mountain Haus guests for around-town use, but its range will allow round-trips to Gypsum’s Costco store.

The Mountain Haus Toyota is one reason there’s a charging station for electrics at the store. There’s a charging station at the lodge, of course, and Tesla, a company that builds all-electric sports cars, has put a charging station for its cars at the lodge, too.

“We’ve had probably about a dozen Teslas here,” Hawkins said, adding that owners will come up from Boulder or Colorado Springs, spend the night, then zip back home the next day.

The lodge and Holy Cross Energy have also put a charging station on the top deck of the Vail Village parking structure, just to the west of the bus parking area. That’s where Hawkins usually parks when he’s commuting in his own battery-powered RAV4, his former daily driver for the past several years.

Those charging stations use high-powered lines, usually the equivalent of an electric stove or clothes dryer.

But Wednesday, the Leaf was charging quietly outside the lodge, letting standard household current trickle into its lithium-ion batteries before a quick ride around the Vail golf course, out to East Vail, then back to Vail Village on Interstate 70.

The Leaf is eerily quiet going down the road, with only some tire noise and a bit of gear whine to spoil the silence. The interior is potentially distracting, with the ability to display a dizzying array of information from the amount of charge going out of or into the batteries (coasting recharges the batteries) to the location of the last charging station and much, much more.

Nailing the throttle on the westbound East Vail on-ramp gets the Leaf up to highway speed quickly, long before the end of the acceleration lane. All the while, the monitor of the car’s estimated range hovers around or above 75 miles. By the time the car’s back at the Mountain Haus, the monitor actually shows more battery life available than when the test-drive began, thanks in part to a downhill blast on the interstate and a knowlegable hand at the wheel.

Hawkins keeps up a running commentary during the drive. He’s not a big skier, so he mainly enjoys the fresh air and sunshine of the mountains. Electric vehicles help keep that air clear. They’re also cheaper to run (if not to buy right now), and easy to maintain.

While this is Hawkins’ first brand-new car, it’s his third electric. Besides the RAV4, he also owns an exceedingly rare electrified Chevrolet S-10 pickup.

As noted earlier, Hawkins is a true believer in electric vehicles. He has two gas-powered cars at his Wildridge home – an aging Toyota FourRunner and an Austin-Healy sports car that’s nearly as rare as his Chevy – but seldom drives them. In fact, he said he plans to sell both. Almost all of his driving is done between Glenwood Springs and Summit County, both of which are within easy range of the Leaf. Most people could easily do the same, he says.

For most people, an electric could be a viable second car. As far as Hawkins is concerned, though, if he needs to drive farther than his batteries and a quick recharge will take him, he’ll rent something gas-powered.

“Somebody’s got to be on the leading edge,” he said.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or

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