In many ways, I'm the perfect candidate for a Nissan Leaf electric car. I live just three miles away from my workplace, I have a garage in which I could charge the car each night, and I have another gasoline-powered car for trips that exceed the Leaf's maximum range. Yet after driving it as my only vehicle for six days, I'm not convinced that I could live with the Nissan Leaf.
I had never paid attention before, but I don't drive very far on week nights: In my first three evenings with the car, I drove 16, 19, and 23 miles, never using more than a third of the Leaf's battery charge. I had plenty of electric range for visiting friends, running errands, and returning to work the next morning without plugging in overnight. My urban commute doesn't use too much of the car's charge because I rarely exceed 40 mph, and frequent stops at traffic lights give the regenerative brakes ample opportunity to top-up the battery.
The weekend proved to be a bigger challenge as I bumped up against the Leaf's limited battery capacity. I had considered attending Cars, Coffee, and Karts, a monthly gathering of auto enthusiasts in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Unfortunately the meet is 60 miles from my house, meaning I'd barely even get there in the Leaf, never mind the return trip. Perhaps I'll go to the July one.
Instead I spent Saturday morning touring apartment complexes, buying groceries, and going to the car wash (our Leaf's Glacier Pearl paint looks great but really shows mud and grime). An afternoon run through winding roads to nearby Dexter for ice cream, then back home along I-94 quickly sapped what remained of the battery's charge. I arrived home with 21 miles showing on the range meter -- after covering just 54.2 miles since unplugging from our office parking lot. Based on those figures, a real-world range of 70 to 80 miles seems reasonable.
Charging the Leaf at home was incredibly simple, although the massive current draw did dim the garage lights when I plugged in the Leaf's power cord. The charging cable is plenty long enough to stretch from a distant outlet, but I think it should be orange instead of black so people don't trip over it in dimly lit garages. The Leaf told me it needed over 17 hours to fully charge via a household 120-volt outlet, so I had to stay home until at least 10 a.m. the next day.
Having spent so long re-energizing the Leaf, I was annoyed at how quickly I depleted the battery on Sunday. I loaded by bike in the back of the Leaf (more on that later) and drove to a local metropark, only to find that after the 35-mile round trip, less than half of the battery's charge remained. My big mistake was travelling nine miles each way on I-94 at 72 mph, which drastically ate away at the Leaf's estimated range. I gingerly drove to the pool that afternoon without too much worry, and rolled into work Monday with another 31 miles showing on the range readout.
Among non-automotive types, the Leaf seems to engender curiosity more than awe. (It's not yet on sale in Michigan.) I got an enthusiastic thumbs-up gesture from the driver of a Honda Civic, while the leasing agent at one apartment complex said the Leaf looked "cool" because the protruding headlights reminded her of the Nissan Juke (which she's considering buying). A friend who studies civil engineering asked, "So there's nowhere to put gas?"
One evening as I was leaving the office, a middle-aged gentleman walking downtown stopped to quiz me about the car. "Is that... is that a Leaf?" he asked. "Very cool. It caught my eye and I had to come take a look." I asked if he was considering buying one. "Yes, maybe. I'd like a little more range. About 120 miles [per charge] would probably be good."
The overall Leaf driving experience is about on par with that of an economy hatchback. The steering is too light and the brake pedal too firm for my liking, but I realize this is an electric vehicle and not a sports car. The torquey nature of the Leaf's electric motor makes the car "feel" surprisingly quick. It's fun and easy to dart through traffic, but doing so rapidly depletes the available driving range. Only when merging onto the highway did I wish the Leaf had more power.
Like Amy, I found the Leaf's cargo space plentiful but awkwardly shaped. Folding the rear seats provided enough space to squeeze my bike in the back, but I wish there was a truly flat load floor. The battery pack juts up from the floor behind the rear seats, making it inconvenient to load oversize objects. Still, carrying a bicycle in the back of an electric car felt like the greenest, most eco-chic act short of hugging a polar bear.
Considering the fact that Leaf drivers will charge their cars at least once per day, the button to open the charging hatch should be more accessible. Because it's tucked far below the dashboard and directly next to the hood release, I twice accidentally popped the hood when plugging in. I'd also love a way to open the charging port remotely from the key fob, like you can with the Chevrolet Volt.
One curiosity is that the Leaf records every single place you plug in as a new charging station, meaning our tester's navigation system now contains a list of most staffers' home addresses. Each entry can be deleted, but it takes some hunting within the nav system menus -- I think this could be a privacy issue for any Leafs offered in rental or car-sharing fleets.
I didn't like driving the Leaf with Eco mode engaged. While you do get more miles out of each battery charge, Eco mode makes the accelerator stiffer and makes acceleration extremely lethargic. It also means the regenerative braking system engages more aggressively, making it harder to coast toward red lights or stop signs. I found that on 70-degree days, I could instead gain a few extra miles of range by lowering the windows and turning off the climate control. When the mercury approached 90 degrees later in the week, however, I gave in to the joys of air conditioning and watched the range-meter subtract almost 15 miles.
The limited driving range and ridiculously long recharging times mean the Leaf is probably best suited to people who drive only in dense urban environments. Although the Leaf worked fine for me as a short-distance commuter vehicle, its limitations proved a hindrance for longer trips. Motoring silently on electricity is super cool, but I wouldn't want the Nissan Leaf as my only car.
Let me know when version 2.0 is ready and I'll reevaluate my conclusion.
2011 Nissan Leaf
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