The Nissan Leaf isn’t for everybody. I could say the same of any car I review, yet for some reason it seems necessary to remind consumers of this fact when detailing electric cars like the Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.
Reactions to the nascent EV (electric vehicle) movement range from evangelists speaking of getting off oil in our lifetimes, to people who fear they’ll be forced at the end of a cattle prod to give up their muscle car and buy electric instead.
Both are wrong. EVs are simply another alternative to gasoline and diesel that will join hybrids, biofuels and natural gas to diversify our options. The Leaf is the first mass-market, full-use battery-electric car intended for the whole country — and, as such, the whole world.
There are many legitimate questions about the EV phenomenon as a business, a social movement and a recipient of substantial government subsidy. Concentrate on the Nissan Leaf itself, though, and you’ll find it’s a compellingly real, refined and satisfying car. If Nissan has rushed it to market, you wouldn’t know it.
Equipped with a 340-volt battery pack and a 107-horsepower electric drive motor, the five-seat Leaf hatchback has an estimated range of 100 miles, though this will vary with weather, terrain, driving style and how much you carry in passengers and cargo. This is true of gas-powered cars, too, but it’s more noticeable — and critical — in a car with limited range and no quick means of refueling. In a country where people own pickup trucks just so they can go to the home-improvement store twice a year, the annual interstate trip to Grandma’s is enough to turn off many Leaf shoppers. For city dwellers or those looking for a second car, the Leaf makes a lot more sense.
This illuminates the main advantage boasted by the current market’s only other high-profile electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, which can serve as a family’s only car. An onboard gas engine and generator keep the Volt going for a few hundred miles once its 40-mile electric range is exhausted. When the Leaf’s battery is empty, the car is simply done until it’s recharged.
The Leaf’s consolation is a lower price: $32,780 for the base SV trim level and $33,720 for the SL, compared with the Volt’s $40,280 base price. You can subtract a $7,500 federal tax credit, or apply it to a three-year lease that runs $349 per month after a $1,999 down payment. Some regions and states, including California, offer additional incentives up to $5,000, and some employers are also getting into the game. California-based Sony Pictures Entertainment offers its employees $5,000 more. (How long before you can move to California and get an EV for free?)
The Leaf requires a 240-volt charging station, which costs $700, plus installation. Installation could cost anything from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on whether you have power where you park and, if so, how much. According to Nissan, more than half of the installations assessed so far are no more than $2,000 for the whole shebang. The average, they say, is $2,500, including the unit, shipping, permitting, fees and installation. Depending on when and where you read this, the charger and/or installation might be eligible for deals from local, state or federal governments, or from your electric utility.
Unfortunately, there are limitations beyond the power requirement. First, like the Volt, the Leaf will roll out slowly, starting with Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington in December 2010. Hawaii and Texas will get theirs in January. Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., will follow in spring. The rest of the country will have to wait until late 2011. Second — or maybe this should be first — the 2011 model year’s allotment has already been reserved. Nissan hopes to build as many as 150,000 Leafs in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2012, but for 2011 the U.S. gets just 20,000 cars, built in Japan.
In brief, the goal in buying an electric car is to drive on electric power, period. The underlying motivation varies from buyer to buyer and usually involves one or more of these objectives: diminishing the demand for foreign oil, potentially releasing less pollution and carbon, saving money on cost per mile, driving solo in carpool lanes and/or irritating friends and strangers with an air of superiority. (If you think hybrid drivers are zealots, you ain’t seen nothing yet.)
The overarching impression our editors get from the Leaf is that it’s a “real car.” Forgive our surprise, but with the exception of Tesla’s high-priced Roadster, our expectations since the GM EV-1 left the market have been set by dinky so-called neighborhood cars, or even the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which is based on a lesser car than we usually encounter here in the States.
When you see a Leaf, you know it; its front and rear are both distinctive enough to distinguish it from similarly shaped hybrids. It’s not an electrified version of a gas car, it’s a model all its own — not unlike the Prius. The conventional wisdom is that the Prius’ odd looks are partly responsible for its 50 percent ownership of the hybrid market, and that “people who drive hybrids want everyone to know it.”
I don’t buy it. For every person who wants to make a statement, there’s another who would happily stay incognito. The Prius dominates because it was the most efficient gas-powered car on the market for years, one of the cheapest hybrids around, and a free ticket to carpool lanes in some of the most congested commuter cities in the country. I submit that for every Prius owner who appreciates its looks, there’s another who bought one in spite of them.
The Leaf will follow suit. The appeal of electric motoring is far stronger among likely buyers than are concerns about styling.
One of the most interesting features is a small solar panel atop the SL trim level’s liftgate spoiler. Don’t be misled; this little thing doesn’t add range — it just trickle-charges the regular 12-volt battery. I’d be willing to bet the high-voltage battery pack loses more energy when sitting parked than the solar panel collects.
Due to the nature of electric motors, the Leaf has robust torque from a standing start — enough to spin the tires before the traction control intervenes, especially when turning after a traffic signal turns green. With a zero-to-60 mph time of roughly 7 seconds, off-the-line acceleration is sprightly up to around 45 mph, and then you see the rate begin to decrease — to a degree that you must be patient if you plan to pass at highway speeds. This is the nature of an electric drivetrain with no conventional transmission and only one “speed.” The top speed is electronically limited to 95 mph. I found myself speeding inadvertently — a lot. This is always a good sign in a car. It reflects low noise levels, stability and confidence, things you don’t always get in typical cars, much less in efficient ones.
As I said of the Volt, the Leaf isn’t merely quiet as it accelerates from a stop, it’s admirably quiet at high speeds. Only when you hit around 60-70 mph does wind noise begin to become intrusive, especially when you encounter crosswinds. The car’s bizarre, bulging headlights are designed to deflect air around the side mirrors. It’s possible the crosswinds interrupt this stream, leading to intermittent noise from the A-pillar and mirror area.
To address concerns about vision-impaired (and smartphone-impaired) pedestrians wandering into the quiet car’s path, Nissan implemented a feature that might someday be mandated: At speeds below 17 mph, where there’s almost no other sound, the Leaf emits a synthesized, vaguely electric swirling sound that grows in intensity as speed increases. You can’t hear it inside when the windows are closed, and you can turn it off if you wish.
There are two forward drive modes: Drive and Eco. Drive gives you gentle acceleration that increases gradually as you step down on the accelerator. Eco makes the pedal even less sensitive, to promote more efficient driving, though you still go full-speed if you floor the pedal. Eco also provides more regeneration, whereby the car’s inertia turns the motor to recharge the battery. This causes the car to decelerate more quickly, with an engine braking sensation, but it isn’t as dramatic as I’ve experienced in some electrics.
The Leaf uses traditional, hybrid-style regenerative braking, where the brake pedal actually modulates the regeneration and the braking rate, giving the sensation of regular braking. Under heavier braking, the mechanical brakes take over. Other electrics I’ve driven — including the Tesla Roadster, the i-MiEV and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive — divorce the regeneration from the brake pedal. Regen happens when you lift off the accelerator, and the brake pedal activates the mechanical brakes alone. In other words, it’s regenerative deceleration, but not really regenerative braking like that in the Leaf.
It’s much more difficult to make brakes like the Leaf’s feel normal. To that end, the Leaf does a pretty good job: The pedal is a bit soft, but it’s not as numb as you’ll find in many hybrids. Most important, the regenerative brakes have admirably linear response. When it comes to hybrids and electrics, there’s always a lot of attention paid to the transition between regenerative and mechanical braking, and while that certainly matters, it’s something you experience infrequently if you drive conservatively. More important, I believe, is how the brakes respond when the regeneration first sets in, because this is what you feel every time you brake. Hybrid car regenerative braking often grabs when it first engages. The Leaf’s is more gradual.
I drove the Leaf on the smooth roads surrounding Nissan North America’s Nashville, Tenn., headquarters. It wasn’t the full spectrum of road quality, but what I experienced was very comfortable. The electric power steering didn’t offer the best response of its type, but it’s better than some I’ve experienced in regular gas-powered cars. The handling was a pleasant surprise.
In normal driving, the car’s dynamics are agreeable, and this is all most drivers will ever encounter. If you push the car harder, it corners differently than normal cars do. Best I can tell, it’s because the 600-pound battery pack lowers the center of gravity dramatically, even compared with the Chevy Volt. The pack is under the front and rear seats entirely, which positions all that mass low and between the front and rear axles. In a normal car, when you take a sharp turn the body leans and the inside wheels get light, making the outside tires work harder to hold the car on the road. In the Leaf, when the tires begin to lose their grip, they seem to do so in unison.
Between this and the car’s nearly 50/50 weight distribution, front/rear, the tires hold on better than you might expect of the low-rolling-resistance variety. The four Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 tires share responsibility well enough that they’re only 205 mm wide (rated P205/55R16). The compact Nissan Versa’s standard tires measure 185 mm, the Sentra’s are also 205 mm and the midsize Altima sedan’s are 215 mm, even though the Leaf is heavier than all of them, at 3,366 pounds. (The other models start at 2,693, 2,862 and 3,180 pounds, respectively.)
The Leaf is no sports car. It slides about if driven hard, and I wouldn’t call it agile, but it’s surprisingly well-controlled, especially considering it has a non-independent torsion-beam rear suspension.
At 6 feet tall, I found the Leaf’s front seats accommodating, and the cloth upholstery was of decent quality. The seat height adjustment comes in the form of a rotary knob that raises and lowers the rear part of the bottom cushion. Some drivers might prefer a jack-style lever that raises and lowers the whole seat, but I found this design helps provide thigh support if you sit lower. To be clear, the mileage range limits how long you sit in this car, so even if you find the seats less comfortable, you won’t be in them for too long.
A major disappointment in any new model, the steering wheel tilts but doesn’t telescope. The Leaf doesn’t suffer the Volt’s forward-visibility problem, thanks to relatively narrow A-pillars and a roof that doesn’t extend so far forward as to obscure traffic signals.
The Leaf’s biggest functional drawback is its backseat. Though the 60/40-split folding seat has three positions, versus the Volt’s two, it’s less accommodating overall. The main problem is a high floor, due to the battery pack. Even at my height, my knees weren’t touching the front seat’s backrest, but that’s only because my knees were pointed toward the sky. Adults might not want to take a long trip in this seat, but, again, you might not consider the car’s 100-mile range to be long.
Aside from the exterior styling, Nissan seems to have gone out of its way to make the Leaf seem like a “regular” car in most ways. (Pop the hood and you’ll see what looks like a gas engine’s valve cover, and next to it a conventional 12-volt car battery.) The center control panel is pretty conservative, and nicely finished in piano-black trim rather than the usual silvery plastic. Overall, the Leaf doesn’t attempt to be as upscale as the Volt, but its quality is quite good.
One exception to the conservatism is the drive-selector knob, which looks like an overly ergonomically engineered computer mouse. It recalls the Prius shifter in that it’s a toggle that springs back to center no matter where you push it. In my opinion, a mechanical knob or lever that assumes a different position for each setting is better. That way, you know what setting it’s in without looking at a display elsewhere. Chevrolet went this way with the Volt. If there’s a benefit to the floppy-toggle approach, I haven’t found it.
The Leaf’s instrument panel — split between a low information display and a separate speedometer up high — lacks the video-game-quality graphics and resolution found on the Volt’s, though the Leaf’s center-of-dash touch-screen is more impressive. Among the various energy-monitoring displays are a distance-to-empty readout and a running-efficiency meter on the instrument panel. The center screen can show a range radius on the standard navigation system, as well as detailed energy usage by the drive motor, climate control and other systems. My favorite: a line that tells you how many miles of range you’ll gain or lose by turning the cabin heat or air conditioning off or on.
What we don’t know is how well these monitors predict the remaining range. That knowledge will require more time and miles in varied conditions.
The Leaf’s sloping liftgate definitely takes a toll on cargo space, though preliminary specs suggest it has an edge on the Volt. The space behind the Leaf’s backseat is rated 10.6 cubic feet using a German measurement method; the U.S.-standard Society of Automotive Engineers method is typically about 15 percent greater, which would give the Leaf an estimated 12.2-cubic-foot rating. The Volt has 10.6 cubic feet by the SAE standard.
The Leaf’s cargo area is relatively tall and deep, as it takes up residence behind the battery pack. A large hump containing electronics for the onboard charger spans the space immediately behind the seats, though. Both it and the folded rear seats are about a foot higher than the cargo floor.
The Leaf requires a 240-volt charging station. At this level, a depleted battery recharges in eight hours. Nissan provides a 120-volt charging cord it wisely calls a trickle charger, which takes about 20 hours to fully recharge a depleted battery.
In my opinion, the No. 1 wake-up call of the entire electric-car movement is how long charging takes. The appropriately named Leaf is out on a limb. Though being the first in a new field can pay great rewards, it is risky. It’s through the Leaf that people will realize an EV isn’t an iPhone that you can charge for a few hours and use all day. An EV is the opposite: You can charge it all day and drain it in little more than an hour, depending on where and how you drive. If you’re concerned that there isn’t currently a public charging infrastructure, the question is less about how soon it will exist and more about whether it will matter once it does.
You add roughly 10 miles of range per hour of charging at 240 volts and five miles of range at 120 volts. This isn’t about the Leaf; it’s simple physics. The Volt recharges at the same rate; it’s the Leaf’s greater range that makes it take longer. If the Leaf is down to 40 miles of range, it will top off in eight to 10 hours at 120 volts and probably less than four hours at 240 volts — same as a fully depleted Volt.
Unlike the Volt, whose gas engine is a backup, the Leaf supports high-voltage DC “quick” charging, known as level three. To use it, you must buy the $700 quick-charge option, which is offered only on the Leaf’s higher trim level and can’t be added later. A level-three charger will bring a depleted Leaf battery to 80 percent in 30 minutes. These stations will be commercial only; by the time you purchase a level-three charger and the high-voltage three-phase power you’d need to feed it, you could just buy yourself a second Leaf to drive while the other one’s charging. Maybe even a third.
Home charging will be the most important source. Using the dashboard’s touch-screen, a smartphone app or other web access, an owner can program the Leaf to begin charging at a preset time, such as when off-peak electric rates begin. You can also program it to preheat or precool the cabin using grid power before you drive, which preserves the battery for driving range.
As a new model, the Leaf hasn’t been crash-tested. Airbags include the frontal pair, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtains. Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. See all the safety features listed here.
While concerns about high voltages in vehicles are understandable, similar questions were raised when hybrids hit the market more than a decade ago, and everything seems to have worked out fine there. The batteries and their capacities may be larger in pure EVs than in hybrids, but the voltages are roughly the same. The battery is designed to disconnect in the event of an airbag deployment or water intrusion, and at the behest of rescue workers, Nissan incorporated an access panel into the floor that has a kill switch for first responders. Nissan has also subjected the pack itself to high-pressure water jets and full immersion, and there have been no ill effects.
Having examined the Leaf, I’m struck by how simple it is, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The car has a battery pack connected through associated electronics to an electric drive motor that powers the front wheels through a few reduction gears and a differential. That’s pretty much it. No clutches, no conventional transmission, no secondary source of locomotion. This comprises few moving parts when compared with a conventional gas- or diesel-fueled car or hybrid, or with the Chevy Volt. Battery-electric cars potentially have the lowest maintenance of any car type, with no need for oil changes or other routine steps. The brake pads tend to last longer because regeneration relieves them of the typical degree of use. Even items whose replacement intervals have become longer than ever in normal cars, like spark plugs and timing belts, are simply not in the Leaf at all.
The battery pack is the main source of concern, because we all know batteries don’t last forever. Nissan addresses this with an eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty. After this period, the pack is projected to have 80 percent of its original capacity, but that doesn’t mean it will be unusable. My suspicion is the Leaf will enlighten owners as to how few miles they truly put on their cars. Even if a Leaf ends up with an 80-mile range after a decade, that might be enough.
How much range the car actually has in practice — and how good the onboard computers are at estimating this range — are among the unknowns at this early stage. We know cold batteries have less capacity, and the cabin heater further saps power. The Leaf lacks any active battery heating or cooling, though the drive motor is fan-cooled. Chevrolet swears by liquid cooling and heating, and BMW has noted that its next electric car project is likely to transition to this design as well. It used convection battery cooling in its Mini division’s Mini-E field trial, which put 450 electrified Coopers into the hands of U.S. consumers. Nissan is confident, though, saying its proprietary lithium-manganese batteries will be just fine, citing the company’s 18 years of development in the lithium-ion field.
We can add this open question to the larger ones, such as how long it will take for battery prices to drop and/or for government incentives to cease, whether there’s enough profit potential to keep automakers in the electric game, and how much an electric car will be worth years from now, as newer models inevitably bring higher efficiency and longer ranges. Maybe an EV is like an iPhone after all: Do you really want version two when version four is out? This makes the lease option even more attractive in the uncertain early days of this new-old technology.