The first Nissan Leaf, the company’s highly anticipated all-electric vehicle, was delivered to a customer in December 2010. In the months since, the price of gas has soared to more than $4 per gallon, and the desirability of alternative-fuel vehicles has soared right along with it. So it seems as if the time is ripe for Automobile Magazine to do a long-term (two-month) test of the Leaf. We’ve tapped various staff editors to each spend one week with the Leaf as their only mode of transportation, thereby giving us a good idea of what it’s like to live with an electric vehicle every day.
As with all electrical vehicles, one of the practical considerations we had to think about was the availability of 240V charging stations. There are two public charging stations conveniently located only one block south of our office, but we’ve arranged to install our own 240V system in the parking structure that houses our fleet during the week so that we can more closely monitor energy usage. In addition, there is a fairly extensive network of ChargePoint public stations in a 50-mile radius of Ann Arbor. Last but not least, staff members can charge the Leaf at their homes, using a standard 120V outlet.
With the preparations in place, we took delivery of a 2011 Nissan Leaf SV. There are few options available on the Leaf, but our test car came with the following: splash guards ($140), floor and cargo area mats ($170), and a cargo net ($20). Total price, including destination charge, was $33,930.
WEEK ONE: May 16-23, 2011
I was given the keys to the Nissan Leaf on the Monday immediately following a weekend with a Chevy Volt, so I was already in electric-car mode. I had spent the previous two days keeping a close eye on the Volt’s range indicator, with a goal of getting through the entire weekend without burning any gasoline — easier said than done when electric range is only about 35-40 miles.
With the Leaf, electric range would be more than double that of the Volt – on startup with a full charge, the range indicator shows between 90 and 105 miles. On the other hand, the Leaf has no internal combustion engine that you can count on as a backup when you’ve overshot your range limitations, so I figured I’d spend the week carefully planning every trip to avoid getting stranded.
My daily commute is about 20 miles round trip, which means that if that’s all the driving I was going to do, there’d be none of the dreaded “range anxiety” we’ve all read so much about with electric cars. In the real world, however, a 90-mile range can easily shrink to about 60 miles. Case in point: on my first day in the Leaf, the temperature dropped to an unseasonably low 40 degrees. When I turned on the car’s heater, the range dropped as precipitously as the outdoor temperature. Where the car had previously indicated a range of 80 miles, the climate control system and a cruising speed of 75 mph conspired to drop it to 60 miles in just a few seconds. To be prudent, I decided that I could withstand the chilly temperatures for a few miles and turned the heat off.
That’s something that anyone who drives an electric car will learn quickly. Indicated range is an elastic estimate that changes seemingly minute to minute. Cruising speed, regenerative braking, usage of the heat and/or air conditioner, and other variables continually affect the algorithm that calculates range. In fact, while Nissan claims a range of 100 miles for the Leaf, the EPA has done extensive testing in different driving conditions and estimates that real-life range is closer to 73 miles.
Even with all that, range proved to be a non-issue during my week with the Leaf, which in fact turned out to be an ideal commuter car. Every day after coming home from work, I immediately plugged into the 120V outlet in my garage, and in the morning I plugged into the charger in the parking structure. I planned errands, such as trips to the grocery store and the mall, to take place on my way home from work so as not to waste any miles. The special planning turned out to be unnecessary, however, since my daily schedule rarely calls for me to drive more than 40 miles in a day.
The Leaf is also a pretty decent cargo hauler. After a trip to a greenhouse, three flats of flowers were easily accommodated — two in the recessed cargo space behind the rear seats and the third on the load floor created by lowering the rear seatbacks – along with a couple bags of potting soil. I also used the Leaf to carry my golf clubs along with a pull cart. Again, lowering the rear seatbacks expanded cargo space to accommodate the golf equipment. My only complaint is about the uneven load floor. The flattened seatbacks lie quite a bit higher than the recessed area behind the seats, creating a two-tiered cargo space that can prove to be awkward depending on the types of items you’re trying to wrestle into the rear.
In an effort to be even more energy-efficient, I experimented with the Leaf’s Eco mode (yes, even the zero-emissions Leaf has an Eco mode). When Eco mode is engaged, the amount of regenerative braking is increased when you let off the gas pedal, encouraging you to accelerate less quickly, and the output of the climate control system is cut back to reduce battery drain. It increases range to the tune of about 10 miles, but it also makes the Leaf feel really sluggish, so I opted not to use it.
In the course of my week with the Leaf, I drove a little more than thirty miles a day. In almost every respect, other than the fact that it doesn’t burn fossil fuel, the Leaf behaves like a normal car. Acceleration is brisk (when Eco mode isn’t engaged), with lots of torque available whenever you step on the accelerator pedal. The brakes are very firm and at low speeds are sometimes difficult to operate smoothly, but that’s not unusual for regenerative brakes. In fact, the only thing I missed compared with a fossil-fuel-powered car was the sound of the engine. Instead of a throaty exhaust note, the Leaf emits a quiet hum, which encourages a much more zen-like approach to driving. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I have to admit I was happy to see a Porsche Cayman R in our fleet after I turned in the keys to the Leaf.
2011 Nissan Leaf SV
Base price (with destination): $33,600
Price as tested: $33,930
Available federal tax rebate: up to $7500
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
6-speaker CD audio system with audio input jack
USB connection port
XM Satellite Radio
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
Auto on/off headlamps
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
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