Preview Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf

First "affordable" mainstream electric car performs admirably, edging close to on-sale date

by James M. Flammang

2011 Nissan Leaf

FRANKLIN, Tennessee - No, Nissan's Leaf isn't the first electric car to assault the American market. Neither is it quite the first "affordable" battery-powered car, despite Nissan's claims in that direction. That being said, the Leaf is probably the first modern-day electric vehicle that has a chance of turning the corner on battery power, bringing it into the mainstream.

Nissan clearly has high hopes for the Leaf, which began production in Japan in late October. Dimensionally similar to a Nissan Sentra or Honda Civic, this four-door compact hatchback holds five occupants and has a range of about 100 miles. Just prior to Nissan's media drive of the Leaf, one example of the full-electric car traveled 116 miles on a single charge.

Range is the dominant issue, as it is with all battery-powered cars. For some drivers, 100 miles per charge would never suffice. For most commuters, on the other hand, it's more than enough, even providing a sizable margin of "safety." Nissan points out that 90 percent of the U.S. population drives less than 100 miles per day. On weekdays, 72.4 percent go less than 50 miles, while 26.5 percent drive 5-10 miles per day. On weekends, two out of three travel less than 50 miles.

Instrumentation in the Leaf (for which Nissan uses capital letters: LEAF) provides considerable information about the remaining distance that can be traveled before a charge is needed, as well as the location of public charging stations. Those aren't so numerous just yet, but eventually - as all-electric cars gain favor - they're likely to appear at workplaces, theaters, malls, supermarkets, restaurants, parking lots, metro stations, and so forth. Nissan foresees 13,000 public charging stations by 2012 (400 of them offering quick-charging). The Leaf system keeps track of how far you can go depending on how you've been driving, how long it will take to charge, and other factors. Energy Consumption Monitoring is available, to help hyper-milers keep a close watch on the Leaf's operational efficiency.

Nissan's Leaf can be charged three ways, but the time required varies considerably:
1. Ordinary 110-volt outlet for a trickle charge, which is very slow: on the order of 20 hours.
2. A professionally-installed 240-volt setup, charging the Leaf in about eight hours. This is the method that most owners are expected to use. Currently, a charging installation typically costs around $2,200.
3. DC fast-charge, which can yield an 80-percent charge in just 20-30 minutes.

Earlier electric cars used lead-acid batteries or, more recently, nickel metal hydride (NiMh). The Leaf holds a lithium-ion battery pack, which consists of 192 laminated cells (roughly license-plate size) arranged into 48 modules. Rated at 24 kilowatt-hour (kWH) capacity, the battery pack can deliver more than 90 kilowatts of power. The high-response synchronous AC motor is rated at 80 kilowatts (280 Newton-meters). Top speed is 90 mph.

Batteries are placed in the safest location, according to Nissan: beneath both the front and rear seats, where they don't intrude into passenger space and help provide optimum weight distribution. The battery pack and tray weigh about 600 pounds. An 8-year/100,000-mile battery warranty is included. No damage to the battery pack occurred in a 40-mph frontal offset crash test. Three switches in the battery pack can shut off power, and a separate switch is installed on an access panel for the benefit of first-responders. The battery pack is sealed, to prevent water intrusion.

No conventional transmission is used; just a single reduction gear. To go into Drive, just move the palm-shift selector toward you.

Special steps were taken to make the Leaf as quiet inside as possible. "Stuff that was masked by engines in the past now showed up" as noise, said Mark Perry, Nissan's director of product planning/strategy. Engineers therefore had to redesign parts, including the car's antenna.

All-disc brakes are used, with "coasting" regenerative braking and an electronic parking brake. Standard equipment includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, a rear spoiler, navigation system, pushbutton start, cruise control with steering-wheel controls, Bluetooth, and automatic temperature control.

It's fun, it's quiet, it's spirited - without using a drop of gasoline

Apart from its battery-powered status, the Leaf is an appealing little car: one with few frills, but down-to-business style. On relatively smooth roads, at least, the ride is easygoing and appealing. Handling is fairly typical compact-car, if a trifle woozy through some curves on two-lane roads. It's as if the car isn't totally in concert with the pavement, but you soon get used to its distinctive feel.

Acceleration is so smooth on takeoff that the Leaf is moving more swiftly than it seems; but pickup undeniably lags at higher speeds. At low speeds, it responds quite nicely to the pedal, so keeping up with traffic and merging are essentially trouble-free. Nissan points out that high torque output in an electric car makes for swift acceleration at speeds up to 35 mph or so. In fact, they claim it's comparable to Nissan's full-size Maxima sedan. Above 35 mph, response is markedly milder.

Two driving modes are available, and there's a noticeable difference between D and Eco mode. You can feel it change, if you're rolling at the time. The difference isn't huge, though, and there's not much reason to stay in other than Eco.

The instrument panel has a lot of items to consider, but not all need to be checked regularly. Some are harder to see, including the odometer/trip meter, because they're low and unlit. Others are nicely illuminated.

Visibility is excellent all-around. Front seats are exceptional: snugly bolstered and nicely supportive, but also amply cushioned for comfort. Front occupants get plenty of space, too. For rear passengers, toe space is not great, but legroom and headroom are good. The center rear occupant sits on a rather hard perch, but headroom is okay, unlike that position in many cars. Size of the cargo hold isn't bad.

Quiet? Definitely so, but a very slight whine is discernible when accelerating at low speeds.

Overall, the Leaf not only meets expectations, it exceeds them. If anyone can make the electric car work, it's Nissan at this time.

"Affordable" for an electric car has a meaning rather different from conventional cars. The Leaf's sticker price is $32,780, but the $7,500 federal tax credit drops it to $25,280. However, if sales do take off as predicted, that tax credit will fade away at some point. Various states and municipalities offer their own tax credits, and a credit is available for installing a personal charging system. Remember, though, that a credit is helpful only if your tax liability is higher than the amount specified.

Scheduled to go on sale in December, the Leaf will come in two trim levels: SL and SV. Priced at $940 extra, the SL model includes a solar panel and backup camera.

For the first two years, Nissan expects to produce about 50,000 Leafs annually in Japan. Then, production will expand to the company's factory in Smyrna, Tennessee. A Drive Electric Tour began October 1, with consumer test drives in 23 cities across the country, including all primary launch markets.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang