The all-electric Nissan Leaf is one of the most revolutionary cars in a long time not just because it doesn't burn any gasoline, but also because it is being sold as a mainstream vehicle by a reputable brand with a slew of advertising. For something so unique, it's ironic that driving the Leaf is, on the whole, a very ordinary experience. However, it's this very normalness that will help potential customers become comfortable with the idea of owning and driving an electric car.
I took a short drive in the Leaf at the Midwest Automotive Media Association's fall rally with Brian Verprauskus, Nissan’s senior manager for corporate planning, riding shotgun.
The Leaf's cockpit has its share of special display screens, like the digital instrument panel with readouts for driving range and battery temperature, but those who have sat in newer conventional cars will recognize the push-button start, which brings the Leaf silently to life.
The Leaf's knob-like transmission selector reminds me of the shifter in the Toyota Prius; you just nudge it to a specific position to put the car in Drive or Reverse, for example. Controls for the side mirrors, power windows and locks, steering wheel and seats are where you'd expect them. The Leaf has a light-colored cabin with white and gray trim, but I wish a darker choice were available to hide the inevitable encounters with dirt.
One of my most lasting impressions from driving the Leaf is its seamless and quiet acceleration. Press the gas pedal, and the Leaf smoothly builds speed. It doesn't feel especially quick, but it also doesn't have trouble keeping pace with other cars on the road.
The Leaf doesn't have a traditional automatic transmission — it uses a single reduction gear to send power from the 80-kilowatt electric motor to the front wheels — so acceleration isn't interrupted by any shifting. The Leaf also has an Eco mode designed to increase driving range, but it makes the car feel sluggish when accelerating.
The Leaf, not surprisingly, has an electric power-steering system. The steering wheel turns with a very light touch; it's reminiscent of the highly assisted steering in many Lexus cars.
The Leaf is a little bigger than Nissan's Versa, and it rides quite a bit like that hatchback. The suspension isn't overly firm and brushes aside bumps in the road. It seems like the right kind of setup for this type of car. The Leaf also features regenerative braking, and although the pedal has a nice, firm feel, the brakes can be a little grabby.
There's good space for taller people in front — I'm 6-foot-1 and had plenty of room — but you immediately notice the raised floor in the second row, which compromises comfort by making passengers sit with their legs and knees in an elevated position. The floor height is due in part to the Leaf's lithium-ion battery pack, which extends underneath the floor from the front seats to the backseat.
Nissan expects the Leaf's range to be anywhere from 60 to 140 miles, depending on driving conditions, and the automaker will offer owners ways to maximize the number of miles it can travel.
Verprauskus says a smart phone application will let you set a timer to begin warming the Leaf's interior on cold days while it's still plugged in so that this significant energy draw doesn't occur when you're on the move, decreasing range. A dash-mounted screen also gives you a detailed view of how much power is being used by vehicle accessories and indicates how many more miles you could travel by turning off, say, the air conditioning. If the battery is really running low, you can also use the navigation system to search for the closest charging station.
While a car like the Leaf obviously won't make sense for every driver, for the masses who commute a set distance day in and day out, returning to a place to plug-in each night, becoming a Leaf driver wouldn't require much change in routine. That, combined with the Leaf’s familiar driving characteristics and a relatively affordable price, should go a long way toward giving it a shot at appealing to U.S. drivers.