Nissan's Leaf is highly important, a true milestone in automotive history. Essentially, it's the first electric car from an established manufacturer that is seriously intended for imminent production. Yes, I know about General Motors' EV1, which was our 1997 Design of the Year. But you couldn't buy it. You could only lease it and, ultimately, had to give it back to be scrapped. Most of the electric cars I've seen in fifty years in the automobile business were funny little Renaults stuffed full of lead-acid golf-cart batteries, which transformed nimble four-door sedans into heavy, slow two-seat city cars. A few electric conversions are available now-Peugeots and Minis-but they're basically existing small cars that have been clumsily repurposed in half-hearted gestures toward being "green."
Asked to characterize the Leaf in Tokyo last October, Nissan's head of American operations, Carlos Tavares, thought for a moment, then said, "It's a real car." That's a powerful statement-and one I'd like to believe. Driving a test mule with the Leaf's systems for a brief moment, I thought it quite nice, but it was hardly a defining experience. What concerns me about the Leaf is its crushing visual banality. Many surface details are excellent, but others are just awkward. It's often said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. The Leaf, alas, looks like it was done by a committee of committees. It's not ugly, but neither is it striking nor exciting. Perhaps that's understandable. It wouldn't be a good idea to give it the "this is a hybrid" Kamm profile of the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, however efficient that is, nor should it have been an electrified version of an existing model. But surely it didn't have to look quite so . . . ordinary.
Nissan PR people say the electrical plug trapdoor on the Leaf's nose is a highly distinguishing mark of electrification. It is not. There's the suggestion of a radiator grille, too, as unnecessary here as were the huge false radiators on air-cooled Franklins in the 1920s and '30s. Volkswagen and Porsche at least eschewed air inlets in the fronts of early Beetles and 356s, as did Chevrolet for the Corvair, all three firms thereby making clear their differences from "regular" cars. I know Shiro Nakamura and his Nissan design team, and they are a lot better than this disappointing Leaf might lead one to believe.
Putting any car into production today is a gigantic gamble, often based on no more than some half-qualified executive's "gut feeling" and justified only by putting too many badges on one vehicle. For Nissan, making the brave commitment that the Leaf represents must have caused many sleepless nights, hence, I suspect, the play-it-safe shape. I hope the Leaf succeeds so that the next-generation Leaf's styling can become what this one could and ought to have been.