First Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf

Don Sherman

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.

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" This is the world's first automobile conceived and engineered as a 'pure' electric."Perhaps a trip to the local automobile museum will demonstrate that electric (yes plug in the wall type) were around in the early 1900's Baker electric and Rauch Lang built them in Cleveland, Ohio. Preferred by ladies because of the ablity to go without cranking the motor, they were popular urban transportation.

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