First Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf

Coke or Pepsi? Mac or PC? iPhone versus Blackberry? As if our lives weren’t already besieged by choice, we now have the yin/yang of Volt and Leaf.

The Chevy Volt the electric car with a gasoline-powered generator to alleviate range anxiety. The Nissan Leaf’s claim to fame is a clean break from petroleum. This is the world’s first automobile conceived and engineered as a ‘pure’ electric.

The Leaf is built on a dedicated platform. A 107-hp permanent-magnet AC motor manufactured by Nissan revs up to 16,000 rpm to drive the front wheels through a single-speed transaxle. The fuel tank is a 24kWh lithium-ion battery pack supplied by a joint venture between Nissan and NEC.

The Leaf’s whimsical appearance is the most obvious distinction from the belt-and-suspenders Volt. The Versa-sized exterior flaunts features that have traditionally been a tough sell to Americans. The Leaf’s basic proportions suggest mini-minivan. There’s a hatch in back and a charge-port lid where we’re used to seeing a grille. The alligator-eye headlamps guide air smoothly around the mirrors, according to Nissan.

The Leaf’s interior disposition is light and lively. One set of beige and black furnishings goes with all five available exterior colors. Some of the trim is made of recycled beverage containers. The seats and steering wheel are heated to provide comfort more efficiently than warming the cabin bubble. Navigation, Bluetooth, and a USB socket are standard. Spending an extra $940 for the SL model adds a back-up camera, fog lamps, automatic headlamps, and a roof-mounted solar panel to recharge the lead-acid battery (used to kick-start Leaf’s electrical systems).

Tall cloth-upholstered front seats would provide a commanding view of the road were it not for a dash that sweeps upward in the corners, a rising belt line, and thick C-pillars. The back seat carries three adults (versus two in the Volt). There’s ample head, leg, and foot room, but the bottom cushions are too short to provide adequate thigh support. The rear back rest folds to increase cargo space, though Home Depot hauls are frustrated by a fixed partition containing some of the battery modules.

A touch of the power button cues cordial audio and visual greetings without a hint of driveline noise or vibration. To go, you move a mouse-like controller to the left, then in a direction opposite the desired travel (forward for reverse, back for straight ahead). A second reward nudge engages an energy-saving ECO mode.

Tap the accelerator and there’s an energetic surge forward accompanied by a faint whine from the propulsion system. The Zen-like tranquility is pierced only by a hushed wind and tire ruffle plus a subtle pedestrian-alert whistle.

The thrill of 207 lb-ft of nearly instantaneous torque tugging at 3400 pounds of curb weight is short-lived. The Leaf is swift enough not to be called a laggard but its 9.7-second amble from rest to sixty mph won’t earn acclaim from the National Hot Rod Association. In performance tests, the Leaf finished a close second to the Chevy Volt.

That said, there are some driving delights. Thanks to the 600-pound battery pack under the seats, body roll is modest and the 205/55HR-16 Bridgestone Ecopia tires strive for agility. Unfortunately, the steering effort, feedback, and grip are all well below the normal entertainment threshold. The generally plush ride goes jiggly over bumps. And the low-rolling-resistance rubber has such a weak sense of dead-ahead that the steering must be minded during highway cruising.

The real fun resides in the instrument panel. Nissan has outdone itself here with upper and lower electronic displays plus a central 3×6-inch electro screen that provides a revealing look at the car’s nervous system. Driving conservatively nurtures the growth of pine trees in an upper left monitor. A lower-left gauge tracks battery temperature. Every use of the accelerator and brake registers in an arc of fourteen circles located below the digital speedometer. When the battery’s state of charge falls precipitously low, the nav screen automatically displays quick charge locations within reach. You can monitor energy consumption by the drive motor and all accessory systems and ascertain your average kWatt per mile efficiency. These entertaining displays help diffuse range anxiety.

Speaking of the devil, to accurately assess operating range, we departed Nissan’s Franklin, Tennessee, US headquarters with a fully charged battery and merged into morning traffic. After an hour or so of freeway driving, we continued with a low-speed excursion of the local suburban hills and valleys. At eighteen miles remaining, the range digits began flashing and a ‘battery level is low’ warning appeared. We drove on to an eight-mile reading at which point the digits changed to three horizontal dashes and a ‘very low battery advisory appeared.’ Suffering no apparent loss of performance (or terminal range anxiety), we rolled home to a charging station having logged a total of 81 miles: 60 on the highway averaging 65 mph plus another 21 miles at 25 mph.

This and other chances to experience the Leaf’s foray into the electric unknown prompt a few conclusions. This is a real car, not a risky science experiment. Never having to add gas or change oil and a significantly lower cost per mile are plusses that all motorists can appreciate.

Unfortunately, these attributes are expensive. Even after the government kickbacks, the Leaf, like the Volt and all cars pioneering advanced technology, has a higher initial cost than conventional alternatives. But the greatest hardship is the loss of spur-of-the-moment versatility. The Leaf demands a level of diligence few possess to plan ahead, to plug in, and to never tug too hard against its 81-mile-long leash.

So, while the Leaf is no great leap forward as an only car, it could be the smartest second or third car ever created for the modern affluent household.

Leafy Green Facts and Figures

  • Number of states with Leaf dealers: 15 plus D.C. by this fall, 50 states in 2012
  • Federal tax credit applicable to Leaf purchase: $7500
  • States offering $5000 purchase incentives: California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii
  • Number of home recharging stations offered free to initial Leaf buyers (DOE research project): 5700
  • Total investment by joint venture partners Nissan and NEC Energy Devices in battery manufacturing facilities: $348 million
  • Targeted annual battery pack manufacturing capacity: 500,000 by 2013
  • Targeted annual global Leaf production volume: 250,000 by 2013
  • Hours required to fully recharge a depleted battery: More than 7 using 240-volt, 16-amp circuit; more than 20 using 120-volt, 12-amp circuit
  • Number of public charging locations expected by the end of this year: 13,000 in 19 states
  • Battery warranty: 8 years, 100,000 miles
  • Potential U.S. Leaf sales in 2011: 20,000
  • Annual global Leaf sales needed to lower the price and achieve a profit without government subsidies: 1 million
  • 3-year service and maintenance cost savings over Toyota Prius: $1360

The Specs/Test Results
PRICE: $33,600 SV, $34,540 SL
MOTOR: Synchronous permanent-magnet AC, 107 hp, 207 lb-ft
DRIVE: Front-wheel
LxWxH: 175.0x 69.7×61.0-in
WHEELBASE: 106.3 in
WEIGHT: 3400 lb
0-60 mph: 9.7 sec

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