If you've watched TV lately, you've probably seen an ad touting the 2011 Nissan Leaf, a 100% electric car that begins shipping to customers in selected markets in December. (Some higher-profile buyers have already gotten theirs.) This week in New York, Nissan invited members of the media to check out the car in person, so off I went to grab a quick turn behind the wheel. Now, I normally drive a V8 Ford Mustang that drinks premium unleaded, gets okay-at-best gas mileage and has a loud, often smelly exhaust. In a nutshell, it's the polar opposite of the Nissan Leaf, which plugs into the wall, emits nothing, and is essentially silent. Of course, there's a little more to it than that, so here's the skinny.
What is it, and what does it cost?
For those of you who don't breathlessly follow the auto industry, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is a front-wheel-drive, five-door, five-passenger plug-in electric hatchback. The bodywork is tweaked for optimal aerodynamics, and as a result, like it or not, the Leaf's exterior is certainly unique. From the front, it sort of looks like a platypus. As for driving range, figure 100 miles (or better) in normal-to-optimal conditions, and a little less in sub-optimal conditions (such as during winter while running the heater a lot, etc.)
It's got an MSRP of $32,780 and is eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, which effectively knocks it down to $25,280 when all's said and done. If you live in California, Georgia, or Oregon, you may be eligible for rebates and/or tax credits up to an additional $5,000, plus perks like HOV lane access. You can also lease the Nissan Leaf starting at $349/month.
Nissan says that to run the Leaf over 15,000 miles at an average cost of $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, the cost-per-mile would work out to around $0.026 -- for a total of $396. A conventionally-powered car getting 25 mpg would consume $1,800 in fuel over the same distance with gas priced at $3/gallon. That's around $0.12 per mile.
The Leaf is propelled by an 80 kW (roughly equivalent to 107 horsepower) AC motor with 180 Nm (approx. 206 lb-ft) of torque. Power for the motor is drawn from a lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the car's back seat and floor. The Leaf is built on proprietary architecture (i.e. it doesn't share its platform with any other Nissan vehicles) and dimensionally, it's about six inches longer, three inches wider, and a half-inch taller than the 2010 Nissan Versa hatchback. Its wheelbase is around four inches longer than the Versa's as well.
Charging it up
The onboard charging system will fully charge the battery in around 8 hours using a dedicated 240V AC line (i.e. Level 2 charging) via a home-mounted charging dock. The dock has a retail price of around $2,200 before any applicable tax incentives (up to $2,000 tax credit), and Nissan will have an electrician visit your home to determine its readiness for the dock installation.
The Leaf also comes with a portable 110V AC "trickle-charge" cable that can be plugged into any conventional wall outlet to charge the battery, but it will take a lot longer to achieve a full charge. This is referred to as Level 1 charging, and is not meant to be the primary charging method for the car. Nissan says it's meant for so-called "opportunity charging," meaning it's available for you to use in a pinch. The 110 charging cable stows in a case in the cargo area.
The top-level Leaf SL trim can be ordered with an optional (*Est $700) DC quick-charging port that allows the car to get an 80% charge in around 30 minutes when connected to a compatible charger (these would be at commercial-grade public charging stations).
Drivers will be able to pre-program when the Leaf starts charging in order to take advantage of when their electric rates are lowest, as well as specifiy whether to turn on features like the heater or air conditioner at a specified time. This can be done in the car itself or via a smartphone app that can be used to keep tabs on charge levels, expected charging end time, etc.
Driving the Leaf
In keeping with the Leaf's obvious green theme, many of the interior bits (the headliner, seat padding, and numerous dash panels, for example) are made of recycled materials. The overall look is simple yet modern; a two-tiered electronic instrument cluster faces the driver, and a clean center stack is dominated by a standard nav system whose screen also lets you access a variety of car features and tools. The shifter is a joystick mounted between the driver and passenger, similar in appearance and operation to the one you'll find in a Prius. The light-colored cabin feels nice and roomy, including the back seat.
Starting the car up is easy: keep the key fob in your pocket and press a button next to the steering column. The dash lights up, but since there's no conventional engine, there's no accompanying clamor -- just silence (unless you turn on the radio). Tap the shifter over and down to get into Drive, and you're on your way. Because the Leaf is so quiet, a speaker mounted in front emits a noise at low speeds to help make pedestrians and the visually impaired aware of its approach. From the driver's seat, you don't really hear it -- even with the windows open -- and once the car gets over a certain speed, the artificial sound is deactivated as wind and tire noise obviate the need for it.
A 107-horsepower equivalent doesn't sound like much, but the Leaf's healthy torque number (all 206 lb-ft are available from zero RPM) means it makes excellent use of the power it has. Surprisingly brisk acceleration greets you when you hit the gas, and keeping up with Manhattan traffic is no problem. The Leaf feels a lot punchier than some other small cars like the Ford Fiesta, which I also recently spent time with.
As you drive, your speed is presented digitally and a meter constantly shows how much power (or regenerative braking) you're using. Drive efficiently, and a tree grows in the upper display. Get aggressive, and you can unleash your inner Paul Bunyan and whack it down. (See? Who says EVs are all about hugging trees?)
If you want to squeeze a few extra miles' range out of the battery, you can put the car into an "Eco" mode (just tap the shifter into Drive a second time). This alters the pedal feel and throttle response so that you need to press down harder to get power. The car moves along, but it loses much of its off-the-line jump in this mode. If you're sitting in heavy traffic congestion, it's an easy way to take advantage of the fact that you're not moving very quickly to begin with. To deactivate Eco mode, just tap the shifter into drive again.
Clean and quiet
As we maneuvered around horse-drawn hansom cabs on Central Park South, my driving companion Mark Perry, Nissan's Director of Product Planning and Advanced Technology Strategy, half-jokingly noted that the Leaf probably emits less than they do. I'll say this: the Leaf is certainly less offensive-smelling, too.
I commented to Perry that the quietness of the electric powertrain lends a premium air to the driving experience, despite the car itself being very mainstream in terms of packaging and intent. It happened to be raining when I said this, and Perry replied that Nissan had to ditch the original windshield wiper motors intended for the Leaf. They were fine in conventionally-powered vehicles because the engine noise drowned them out, but In the Leaf their sound was intrusive, so quieter units had to be fitted.
Another neat feature is a steering wheel-mounted button that, when pressed, will being up the nav system and show, via color-coding on the map, how far in any direction you can drive with the amount of range you have left on your battery. As public charging points become available, they will automatically be displayed on the map as well. (That's part of Nissan's subscription-based telematics service, Carwings.)
I made my way up Central Park West and then cut through the park as I looped back toward our home base for the day at Mickey Mantle's restaurant. The Leaf's steering has a just-right amount of power assist dialed in and good response and feedback. Same goes for the suspension, which is communicative and not at all wallowy. Really, the Leaf's just pleasant to drive.
Actually, there's a better word for it: ordinary. Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay to the Nissan Leaf is that for something so tech-laden and interesting, the overall experience as a driver or passenger is profoundly ordinary. Yeah, it's electric, but that novelty wears off quickly and it simply becomes a car.
I completed my brief drive, backed into the Leaf's quasi-reserved spot in front of Mantle's, and collected my things, impressed with what I'd just experienced.
The Nissan Leaf isn't for everyone. If you drive long distances daily, you'll run into problems absent a more robust public charging infrastructure, and that part of the scenario remains very much a work in progress.
But for a lot of people -- homeowners with garages especially -- the Leaf's 100-mile range and available home-installed charging dock may be more than ample. A suburban commuter with a short drive to and from work, or a stay-at-home parent who runs mostly local errands may find the Leaf to be a very good fit; drive it all day, plug it in overnight, wake up to a full charge with your Cheerios and coffee. I'm not about to give up my Mustang for an EV, but after driving the Leaf, the idea of one as a second car has lot of appeal.
One of the other members of the media in attendance ended his drive equally enthused. His comment? "This thing's great. It'd be fine for most my driving, and if I needed to really go somewhere completely out of range, I can always rent a car." That's really what it boils down to. If you want an EV like the Leaf, you'll find a way to make it work for you. For many Leaf buyers, I imagine that the lifestyle change associated with switching to an EV is actually a key selling point. They want to alter how they go about the day-to-day.
I loved the Leaf. It's not some quirky gadget masquerading as a car. It's a rewarding, fully-realized car with the sort of techno-cachet usually reserved for the latest must-have gadget. Put more simply: It's cool. It's electric. And it works.