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2010 Nissan Leaf

By Design

Nissan's Leaf is highly important, a true milestone in automotive history. Essentially, it's the first electric car from an established manufacturer that is seriously intended for imminent production. Yes, I know about General Motors' EV1, which was our 1997 Design of the Year. But you couldn't buy it. You could only lease it and, ultimately, had to give it back to be scrapped. Most of the electric cars I've seen in fifty years in the automobile business were funny little Renaults stuffed full of lead-acid golf-cart batteries, which transformed nimble four-door sedans into heavy, slow two-seat city cars. A few electric conversions are available now-Peugeots and Minis-but they're basically existing small cars that have been clumsily repurposed in half-hearted gestures toward being "green."

Asked to characterize the Leaf in Tokyo last October, Nissan's head of American operations, Carlos Tavares, thought for a moment, then said, "It's a real car." That's a powerful statement-and one I'd like to believe. Driving a test mule with the Leaf's systems for a brief moment, I thought it quite nice, but it was hardly a defining experience. What concerns me about the Leaf is its crushing visual banality. Many surface details are excellent, but others are just awkward. It's often said that a camel is a horse designed by committee. The Leaf, alas, looks like it was done by a committee of committees. It's not ugly, but neither is it striking nor exciting. Perhaps that's understandable. It wouldn't be a good idea to give it the "this is a hybrid" Kamm profile of the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, however efficient that is, nor should it have been an electrified version of an existing model. But surely it didn't have to look quite so . . . ordinary.

Nissan PR people say the electrical plug trapdoor on the Leaf's nose is a highly distinguishing mark of electrification. It is not. There's the suggestion of a radiator grille, too, as unnecessary here as were the huge false radiators on air-cooled Franklins in the 1920s and '30s. Volkswagen and Porsche at least eschewed air inlets in the fronts of early Beetles and 356s, as did Chevrolet for the Corvair, all three firms thereby making clear their differences from "regular" cars. I know Shiro Nakamura and his Nissan design team, and they are a lot better than this disappointing Leaf might lead one to believe.

Putting any car into production today is a gigantic gamble, often based on no more than some half-qualified executive's "gut feeling" and justified only by putting too many badges on one vehicle. For Nissan, making the brave commitment that the Leaf represents must have caused many sleepless nights, hence, I suspect, the play-it-safe shape. I hope the Leaf succeeds so that the next-generation Leaf's styling can become what this one could and ought to have been.

1. Bulging, transparent headlamp covers are visible even from far behind the car.

2. Another curiosity is this blackout triangle behind the door and side transparencies. The upper point draws the eye upward and makes the car seem even taller.

3. This awkward line is puzzling. It peaks a bit ahead of the wheel centerline, so high on the body that it makes the side panels seem enormous.

4. After its peak, the side crease line becomes three flattened segments joined by disparate radii, for an odd and unpleasant effect.

5. The trunk sill isn't too high, but it is very narrow.

6. These under-tail ribs recall diffusers on race cars and lead one to ask, "what were they thinking?"

7. Not exactly a head-up display, but the speedometer readout is close to the driver's down-the-road sight line.

8. The information on current usage, on the other hand, requires a considerable shift of focus.

9. The central control panel is clean, simple, and legible.

10. Nissan claims that this hatch over the recharging plugs clearly identifies the Leaf as an electric car. It doesn't.

11. The hood's very rounded edge visually shortens the front of the car.

12. The base of the windshield is considerably less rounded than the hood, leaving a big black void.

13. The windshield is sloped back at an extreme angle, more like an Italian GT coupe than a typical economy car. If only the whole car were this dynamic.

14. The nearly flat roof panel elegantly runs under the transverse spoiler/CHMSL at the rear.

15. This is not a radiator grille, but it has the outline and inset surface one would expect to see for one.

16. This rib that dips below the air intake beneath the grille shape in the lower front fascia is crisply executed and leads nicely into a surround for the foglamps.

17. Sculpting of the entire front end is quite elegant, with a soft radius across the nose above the "grille" and the side crease turning back toward the wheel opening.

18. For all the visibility it provides, this leading quarter window might just as well be opaque.

19. The tall, featureless sides provide a good base for the Zero Emission graphics, but one hopes that not every Leaf will wear them.

20. Tall vertical taillights are well integrated to the upper structure, but less so on the lower body.