New Car Reviews

2011 Nissan Leaf: Cutting off the Long Tail

Long-Term Update: Summer 2011 Array Miles to date: 0

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the nerdier ends of the internet over the past few years might be familiar with the concept of “the long tail.” For those who haven’t, here’s a brief rundown: computer nerds tell us that, for almost anything quantifiable (like the number of cars a family owns), a bunch of people will have a low number (many families have one or two cars), but as that quantity grows larger, the corresponding percentage of people will drop (few families have three cars, fewer still have four, and so on). The name comes from the graph used to show this, which looks like a long tail.

“The Long Tail” is especially apropos when you look at Americans who commute by car. A huge percentage of commuters drive fewer than ten miles a day, the national average is 40 miles roundtrip, and a small portion travels much more than that. Gasoline-powered cars, by definition, are unconcerned with this graph: given a large enough gas tank and an extensive network of gas stations, your petrol-powered car is designed to drive forever, meeting the driving needs of everyone.

Unlike its gasoline-powered counterparts, the all-electric Nissan Leaf wasn’t designed for 100 percent of the population, or 100 percent of their needs. If the majority of what your daily driver does is schlep you back and forth to work and most people drive fewer than 40 miles a day, that’s what — and who — this car serves.

I’m firmly inside that camp: like some other staffers here, I live within three miles of Automobile Magazine’s Ann Arbor office. In addition, I have four — yes, four — grocery stores within a mile of my apartment, and my social life exists within a tight geographical radius. The Nissan Leaf, it seems, was designed for people like me.

July 12, 2011: You want me to take the…freeway?
Another editor dropped off the white Nissan Leaf overnight so my first drive is my morning commute, a two-mile slog from my apartment on the west side of Ann Arbor to our downtown office. Traffic is tight so I pull out of my neighborhood and goose the accelerator to keep pace with it. The Leaf doesn’t surge forward but it pulls nicely — strangely nicely for an eco-box — without a peep from the engine compartment. I find myself cracking a smile, something I almost never do while commuting.

That night, I grab my paycheck (my first from Automobile Magazine) out of my mailbox and point the Leaf’s optional satellite navigation system toward the nearest branch of my bank. Having recently moved here, I’ve found my bank’s local branches are few and far between, but the Nissan’s system finds one. Immediately it starts issuing voice directions, but I can hear none of them: the Leaf’s navigation system doesn’t turn down the background music enough, and even if it did, the voice mumbles too much to be clearly heard. I suppose it doesn’t help that I like the stereo enough I’m now driving everywhere with the music loud.

The GPS whispers another turn or two and I find myself on an onramp for I-94, which wasn’t what I had in mind. I was hoping to save the battery as much as possible, but the battery meter is flashing that I have a healthy 85 miles of range, so I get to the end of the ramp and merge.

The Leaf might not be a tower of power, but with plenty of low-end torque available and a one-speed gearbox, acceleration is smooth and efficient, especially from 20 to 60 mph; in fact, the lack of high revs or shifting makes the Leaf feel faster — and more gutsy — than a similarly powered gasoline-engine car. For the second time of the day, I crack a smile behind the wheel.

Five miles down the road, the smile goes away: I’m using juice at a huge rate and my once-stellar range figures have plummeted. I should say now that the Leaf is surprisingly good at highway driving: it’s quiet and comfortable, and the ride is poised. A mile before my exit I swerve around a tire tread at 60 mph, and the Nissan doesn’t miss a beat. But the Leaf, it seems, is in its element at a slower pace: it regenerates power under braking, which means it loves traffic and urban maneuvers. It can commute at highway speeds, and very well, but I think doing so doesn’t play to the Leaf’s greatest strengths. I change the GPS setting to “avoid freeway” and take the surface streets for the rest of the week.

July 13 to July 17: Wait, You Actually Like It?
The rest of my week settles into a pattern: two miles to work in the morning, two miles back home at night, and a side trip here or there. I visit the grocery store (3.5 miles to Meijer, my favorite superstore), the hardware store (almost walking distance), and the laundromat (1.7 miles to associate web editor Donny Nordlicht’s apartment, with its en suite washer and dryer).

Every morning the car finds some new way to put a measured smile on my face: the ultra-comfy seats, the instant-on power, the silence from the engine compartment while I pass slow-moving traffic. As far as range anxiety goes, I have none: I charge the Leaf three times during my week at our downtown charging station. I drive so little I never even have to think about using the included 120V “trickle” charger — I don’t own an extension cord and don’t bother to buy one.

July 18: Bubbles is Born
Instead of a tachometer, Nissan fits the Leaf with a series of circles on the dashboard, which light up to show how much power you’re using during acceleration or regenerating under braking. After a week in the Leaf, however, those circles are starting to look like bubbles, and after being entertained by the Leaf all week, I occasionally catch myself calling the off-white EV “Bubbles.”

I leave Donny’s house with a load of clean laundry Monday night and take the long way home, a simple 5.9-mile loop during which I finally put the pedal to the carpet a number of times. Pulling away from a stop doesn’t result in spun tires, but the car’s power builds nicely and it feels energetic as the speed climbs. I look at the dash and every one of those bubbles is lit, reminding me I’m using all the available power. From the engine, there’s a faint sound not unlike a prolonged pronunciation of the word “whee.”

I started the week expecting that I’d save gas and that the Leaf would be mediocre, but I ended it slightly stunned at what I found. Unlike the Toyota Prius — which delivers economy at the expense of driving enjoyment — the Leaf has an uncanny feeling about it, a joie de vivre you can’t help but notice. It never ferried me faster than 71 mph and yet every drive made me happy, even when I was tired or cranky. I walked away from the Nissan Leaf repeating one very surprising word to myself: fun.

Motor gopher Rich Otto came into my office Tuesday morning to pick up the keys. For the first time in this job, I didn’t want to give them back.

2011 Nissan Leaf

Base price (with destination): $33,600
Price as tested: $33,930
Available federal tax rebate: up to $7500

Standard Equipment:
16″ aluminum alloy wheels
Portable trickle-charger cable
Front-seat side-impact air bags
Front- and rear-seat side curtain air bags
Stability and traction control
Tire pressure monitoring system
Electronic brake force distribution and brake assist
Vehicle security system
Cruise control
6-speaker CD audio system with audio input jack
USB connection port
XM Satellite Radio
Navigation system
Multi-function trip computer
Power windows & locks
LED headlights & taillights
Bluetooth hands-free phone system

Options on this vehicle:
Splash guards, $140
Floor mats & cargo area mat $170
Cargo net $20

Key options not on vehicle:
Internal-combustion engine (not offered)
Solar panel spoiler
Rearview camera
Auto on/off headlamps

EPA-rated range:
73 miles

Estimated charging time:
220-volt outlet: 8 hours
110-volt outlet: 21 hours
DC fast charge to 80%: 30 minutes

80 kW AC synchronous motor
24 kWh lithium-ion battery
3.3 kW onboard charger
120-volt portable trickle charging cable
240-volt home charging dock
Optional 50 kW DC fast-charging port


Single-speed direct-drive

Curb weight: 3366 lb
Coefficient of drag: 0.29
Length x width x height: 175.0 x 69.7 x 61.0 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in