On paper, the Leaf and I are a perfect match; I drive 35 miles round trip to work; I have no children so my vehicle doesn't need to double as a shuttle service; and I'm a bit of a homebody, so most nights I eat in or go for dinner at a friend's house, most of whom live within a few miles. But I view a car not so much as transportation but as a source of entertainment, so I was skeptical of the Leaf. Would it be able to satisfy my enthusiast side, or is it little more than a tarted-up golf cart? I start the week with an open mind, but I'm prepared to be disappointed.
In our parking structure, I unplug the Leaf for the first time and it feels strangely familiar. The action of unplugging and hanging the charging "gun" on the high output charger feels very much like using a gas pump. When I turn it on -- it doesn't sound right to use the term "started" when referring to an electric vehicle -- the range meter reads 110 miles. I thought the Leaf maxed out at 100 miles, so I'm already pleasantly surprised.
The range estimate doesn't change during my drive from downtown Ann Arbor to the highway, which is roughly three miles of typical urban streets. I'm instantly enamored with the light throttle and the immediate, lag-free acceleration. These characteristics, combined with the supple ride and overall impression of lightness -- as well as the faint whirring sound -- make me feel like George Jetson behind the wheel of his futuristic hovercraft. I wish I had a robot maid at home, too...
The highway is fairly clear, so I flatten the throttle to see what the Leaf is capable of. It's certainly not fast, but it accelerates so smoothly and quietly that it gives you the impression of speed. I'm instantly intrigued, so I keep it floored to see how fast it will go before it starts to fade. It begins to loose steam -- and seriously hemorrhage total range -- at about 90 mph, so I let off and settle my speed to a more reasonable 75 mph. When I reach my exit, the estimate is 80 miles but goes back up to 88 by the time I reach my house a few miles from the highway. I used 22 miles of range on a 15-mile drive, which is impressive considering that I pushed the little Leaf so hard on the highway.
The next morning, after a rare night without being tethered to an electrical outlet, the Leaf's range estimate has dropped to 87. My morning drive to the highway is comprised of 45 mph roads with few stops. I only use the brakes a handful of times, which really eats into the Leaf's range; it's down to 77 miles when I reach the entrance ramp. The highway is empty, so I pin the throttle to the floor and revel in the smooth, silent forward motion; a truly addicting sensation. I average between 70 and 75 mph on the ten-mile highway drive, and when I reach the charger in our parking structure, the estimate has plummeted to 45 miles. This 42-mile drop is nearly double what I experienced on my trip home on the same route the night before.
After a full day of work for me and more than nine hours on the rapid charger for the Leaf, the range has increased to 91 miles. I had been under the impression that the rapid charger was, well, more rapid and fully expected the range to have reached 100 without a problem. I'm not worried, though, as it is more than enough juice to run some errands on my way home. To get the Leaf more in its element, I skip the highway this time and take side streets to the grocery store.
The Leaf's sharply angled rear might prohibit carrying tall or bulky objects, but the cargo area is more than large enough for a week's worth of groceries. What's surprising, though, is that the Leaf is largely designed to be a city car used for running errands around town, but there are no tie downs for a cargo net or bag hooks to prevent delicate items from rolling around in the rear cargo area. I get around it by using reusable shopping bags that are stable enough to stay put. At this moment, I am the poster child for environmentalism.
Despite avoiding the highway, I still manage to take a fairly direct route home. Unfortunately, it's blazing hot outside, so I've been running the air-conditioning the whole trip, which has really chipped away at the Leaf's range. I arrive home with 63 miles showing on the range indicator.
My daily routine for the remainder of the week was similar. On the fifteen-mile, mostly highway drive, the Leaf used on average about 30-35 miles of range. I charged the Leaf every night at home and each day during work, so I never experienced any range anxiety. What I did experience was quite the opposite. While the Leaf is inherently unique in the automotive marketplace because of its propulsion system, it's also special as a vehicle in general, because unlike the majority of environmentally friendly cars it managed to put a smile on this enthusiasts' face again and again.
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