2011 Nissan LEAF
Base price: $33,780 – $34,660
As tested: $34,660
MPG: 106 city/92 highway (depending on weather)
- Never buy gasoline again
- No local emissions
- Roomy 5-door, 5-passenger sedan
- Driving needs require more mileage range
- "Beastly" exterior styling
- Suffer from acute "range anxiety"
By Jim Prueter
Getting Charged Up About Nissan’s New LEAF
In December, the Nissan LEAF –— which will be produced by the hundreds of thousands and distributed globally –— went on sale in select U.S. states. LEAF is the world’s first mass marketed all-electric vehicle.
Yet, Nissan is far from the first manufacturer to build and sell an all-electric car. In fact, preceding gas-powered cars, electric vehicles were introduced more than a century ago. And over the years, manufacturers have made various attempts to introduce electric models into the mainstream market. The most notable offering was the EV1, produced between1996 and 1999 by General Motors. With an initial vehicle MSRP of $33,995, the EV1 was only available as a lease with no option to buy. GM succeeded in putting little more than 1,000 units on the road at a production cost of over $1 billion.
GM is said to have destroyed all the EV1s, citing safety standards problems and a non-remediable issue of the vehicles catching fire during recharging.
Chrysler, Ford, Honda, and others have made similar attempts to build a craze for battery-powered cars. In 1975, for example, the U.S. Postal Service purchased 350 electric delivery Jeeps from AM General, a division of American Motors Corp., for use in a test program.
Now with manufacturers facing pressure from U.S. Government CAFÉ standards, the growing public resentment against petroleum (i.e. big oil disasters like the BP Gulf catastrophe and the resented reliance on imported oil), we’re apparently crazy for battery once again.
Nissan LEAF, a five-door, five-passenger sedan has zero emissions and a top speed of 90 mph. It is just the first of what is sure to be a broad selection of all-electric vehicles coming to market with manufacturers spending billions of dollars in development. Already the all-electric Tesla sports roadster is available at a cost of just over $100,000. Mitsubishi will have its all-electric i MiEV hitting the streets later this year. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and MINI follow close behind.
So with all the publicity, hype and talk of the historical introduction of this first mass-produced all-electric vehicle, what is it like to drive the LEAF? We were able to spend a half-day behind the wheel of a pre-production model LEAF that was very close to final-specifications and found it both satisfying and uneventful. It actually drove and handled pretty much like a regular compact sedan.
Additionally, there is nothing special to learn about operating or driving it; everything is straightforward and features are similar to those found on most vehicles.
Inside, we were struck by the roomy cabin and comfortable seats. Rear seats fold down for more storage and the trunk is huge since the battery pack is contained under the seats and into the floorpan. The instrument display is lit with a cool electric blue color that includes bar graph readouts for the battery’s state- of-charge. There also are instantaneous readouts for battery output and recharging from the regenerative braking system. The gearshift is located on the center-floor console, flipping forward for reverse and back for forward before repositioning itself to the center, while a button places the vehicle in “park.”
LEAF is powered by an 80-kilowatt AC electric motor that generates 107 horsepower – — more than the Toyota Prius and perfectly adequate for commuting in busy city traffic or keeping up on the interstate.
What I noticed most about the LEAF as I drove away from the parking lot is what was absent; the cabin was absolutely devoid of noise. So quiet is the LEAF, it was designed to emit an audible high-pitched noise to warn blind pedestrians of its presence. It also beeps when it is in reverse. I admit, try as I might, I could not hear the high-pitched warning.
Outside, the LEAF presents itself as one of the ugliest production vehicles in the annals of automotive design history, right up there with the likes of the Pontiac Aztek and Toyota Prius. It’s just hard to grasp what Nissan’s design team was thinking, starting with the ridiculous bubble headlamps that sit atop the front fenders. Nissan says they are designed to flow streaming air away from the side mirrors to reduce noise and aero drag. The look from the rear is no better. One automotive journalist went so far as to say dogs wouldn’t chase this thing.
But the biggest challenge with the LEAF isn’t its looks, it’s what’s known as “range anxiety” –— the fear that you won’t have enough juice to make it to your destination. And unlike a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle, where you could call AAA for assistance or walk to a gas station, electric vehicles need to “plug in” to recharge.
Nissan says LEAF is rated to go 100 miles on average with a range of 73 to 130 maximum depending on how you drive it and weather conditions. Nissan also says extreme use of maximum air conditioner or heater will zap the power and lower the range. Ditto for heavy traffic. There’s an Eco mode switch on the dash which, when turned on, limits acceleration power and preserves battery juice.
A navigation system comes standard on the LEAF and includes a cool feature relative to “driving range.” By pushing a button, a circle appears on the navigation screen map that indicates you can drive straight to anywhere within the circumference on the current battery charge. Of course as you continue to drive, the circle continues to shrink. Another switch has the navigation system routing you to the nearest public charging station. This may be quite a distance now, but as more will be installed in the near future, the navigation system automatically updates every three months to reflect new locations.
So while you will never again have to visit a gas station, you will have to charge your LEAF. There are three ways to accomplish this. First, you can use the included 110-volt trickle-charge cable found in the trunk. There’s a small pop-open door on the front of the vehicle just behind the chrome Nissan logo where the charger cable connects. Simply plug in the car and the other end goes into any regular household electrical outlet. The downside is a complete charge using this method takes about 20 hours.
Second, the optional 220-volt home charge station ($2,200 from Nissan including home installation less a 50 percent federal tax credit) lowers the complete turnaround charging time to about seven hours. A soon-to-be-available third option is a 440/480-volt industrial direct-connect circuit with fast-charger that will restore an 80 percent charge in about 30 minutes. This option will primarily be for commercial installation at highway rest areas, shopping mall parking garages and places of employment designated for electric plug-in vehicles.
The 24-kwh battery pack used to power the LEAF is warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles.
LEAF is on sale now in six states including Arizona, California and Washington, and will be nationwide by the end of 2011.
But don’t expect to walk into a Nissan dealership and purchase a LEAF. The initial run of 20,000 Japanese built LEAFs have been sold out for months having been pre-ordered through the Internet. Production on American-built LEAF models will begin soon at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., assembly plant and should be readily available to consumers by April.
LEAF is offered in two well-equipped models starting at $33,780 for the SV model and $34,660 for the SL that adds a rearview monitor, fog lamps, and a rear solar panel spoiler that trickle charges the conventional 12-volt battery used to run accessories such as the audio system. Some taxpayers can get a federal tax credit of up to $7,500 on the LEAF and up to an additional $1,100 on the optional charger.
Overall, we were surprised and delighted with how nice it drives and how simple it is to operate. For those of you with “range anxiety,” you should know that the vast amount of Americans drive less than 40 miles per day and a single LEAF charge will carry you twice that far.
If you’re concerned about recharging, there is currently a $100 million public-private partnership to build a first wave of charging station infrastructure that will cover the entire nation and be widely available by the end of 2011.
But LEAF may not be for everyone, depending on whether you live rural, or how much you drive daily. And while it may not be considered your main vehicle, it could easily be considered an ideal second or third for most people, especially because the fuel savings is so impressive. Nissan estimates a full-recharge to cost about $2.68 for 100 miles of driving. Meanwhile, a Toyota Prius, for example, getting 50 mpg with gasoline at $3 per gallon will cost you $6 to travel 100 miles, more than twice that of the LEAF.