Almost two and a half years after its introduction, the Nissan Leaf's sweet spot may be in sight. The Leaf now exceeds Lotus's annual sales every month and soon will better Lotus and Maserati together. Meanwhile, there have been no reports of garage fires while the Leaf is charging, and the lithium-ion batteries that were baking last summer in Phoenix, impinging the performance of some Leafs, have enjoyed a rare winter that brought a snowfall to the Valley of the Sun.
While the saguaros were snow-covered, the new 475,000-square-foot Nissan Battery Plant came online at Smyrna, Tennessee. This beneficiary of a $1.4 billion Department of Energy loan is capable of adding to industry-wide overcapacity by some 200,000 packs annually. Leaf final assembly for the North American market moves from Oppama, Japan, to Nissan's adjacent Smyrna factory, where the electric runabout is built on the same line as the Altima and the Maxima.
As long as the next-generation battery plant was going in, Nissan took the opportunity to upgrade some important aspects of the Leaf. Or, as product planner Mike Higginbotham put it, "Localization really gave us an opportunity to revisit everything."
A different animal, if you will, from its predecessors, the 2013 Leaf is less platypus and more wombat. It promises greater agreeability in daily use because of new features. Additionally, it's not as pricey. There are now three models: the value-minded S ($29,650, including destination charge), the midrange SV ($32,670), and the leather-trimmed SL ($35,690), which rides quite nicely, thank you, on 17-inch aero-correct alloy wheels and Michelin Energy Saver A/S 215/50R-17 tires. Of course, the stickers don't reflect available federal and state subsidies, which kick back at least $7500 to the trendy young buyers -- some 2336 of them in March -- who just happen to average 750 on their credit scores, probably about the same as they rang up on their SATs.
The '13 Leaf is more aerodynamic and has lost about 150 pounds. It holds more cargo because the onboard charger, now available with 6.6 kW-capacity, moves under the hood from between the rear wheels. Greater range is promised after EPA testing is complete, although Nissan's proviso about actual range and decreasing battery output over time reads almost like the prose you'd find on a cigarette package.
The charging port's door in the nose now opens remotely from the key fob, a light inside the area eases nighttime hookup for either a DC fast-charger or a 220-volt connection, and an automatic locking feature secures the charger in place. (Nissan foresees a quantum jump in charging stations in coming years.) Available interior features include a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, a unique energy-efficient Bose sound system, and an "Eco Route" choice for the navigation.
The driving experience is pleasant, like listening to the Ray Coniff Singers perform the Beatles' Something. The field of view through the windshield is close to that from within an aerial tram -- although the scenery isn't as interesting -- and the steering is light without being vague. The available B-mode drive setting increases the level of regenerative braking, which translates to fun as you anticipate traffic's chaos with the aim of using the stopping pedal as little as possible.
When the Leaf was launched in December 2010, Nissan forecast the conquest of Toyota Prius customers and intimated that the appetite for an expensive small commuter car was rumbling like a cowpoke with a plate of beans. Then unknown was the soon-to-be-discovered fact that two-thirds of hybrid owners defect to conventional powertrains when trading for a new car. The notion of producing 150,000 Leafs annually in Smyrna was looking like Carlos Ghosn's Ishtar.
The battery plant went ahead anyway, and the lucky dogs involved in Nissan's marketing effort get to figure out how to sell this cute, better mousetrap. It has so many blue accents -- the wheel centers, the badges, even the tip of the dorsal antenna -- that it appears to be frosting up. Last December, Al Castignetti, vice president for sales, told Automotive News about the dealers' "need to go out and find the electric-car buyer in your market." We picture Diogenes, setting forth with his lantern in search of an honest man. But even with the upgrades, the Leaf is still too expensive and, without the government's generous support, no one would want it. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the skeptical environmentalist himself, Bj¯rn Lomborg, recently revealed a devastating analysis of the EV's real carbon footprint: "If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles in its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles."
Might be great in a couple of decades, he suggests. Or chemistry, as others have said, might be destiny. Either way, for now we see strong appeal in less expensive competitors like the Ford Focus and the Hyundai Elantra. But if you want to take part in a moonshot, the Leaf is your launch vehicle.
2013 Nissan Leaf
|Electric motor:||80 kW AC synchronous|
|Battery:||24 kWh lithium-ion|
|Steering:||Electrically assisted rack-and-pinion|
|Suspension, Front:||Independent MacPherson strut, coil springs, stabilizer bar|
|Suspension, Rear:||Torsion beam, stabilizer bar|
|Brakes:||Four-wheel disc with regenerative capability, ABS|
|Tires:||P215/50R-17 all-season (on SL)|
|L x W x H:||175.0 x 69.7 x 61.0 in|
|Track F/R:||60.6/60.4 in|
|Cargo volume (rear seats up/down):||24.0/30.0 cu ft|