Ask me which test cars I've driven lately and I'll hem and haw while I wrack my brain, searching for something memorable. That's what would've happened before I drove the purely electric 2011 Nissan Leaf, anyhow.
After driving the 2011 Nissan Leaf, I could dominate a coffee klatch, raving about its great driving experience and the unexpected emotional enlightenment I got from driving it for the week.
The type of driving I do on a daily and weekly basis is perfect for an all-electric car like the Leaf that gets up to 100 miles per charge. I work from home and commute maybe 20 miles each day to get my kids to and from school, after-school activities and such. Add to that an occasional trip to the grocery store, coffee shop, gym and sushi date with my hubby and that sums up my average driving for the week. I could drive the Leaf for many days without needing to charge it, and I could top it off by plugging into one of my home's electrical outlets. This all but eliminated the "range anxiety" that others have complained about with the Leaf.
A 340-volt battery pack powers the Leaf's electric drive motor, making 107 horsepower. A depleted battery recharges in eight hours at 240 volts and in 20 hours at 120 volts, so 240-volt charging, at additional cost, is all but required for the overwhelming majority of buyers. While the Leaf can go roughly 100 miles on a charge under ideal conditions, the EPA rating is 73 miles. Cars.com, which owns a 2011 Leaf, has found the EV's range can vary greatly, especially in cold weather. Follow Cars.com's coverage of its Leaf and 2011 Chevrolet Volt here.
The most surprising thing was the Leaf's zippy, responsive driving experience. With a slight press of the accelerator pedal, the Leaf responded willingly, jumping up to highway speed with seemingly no effort at all. I had anticipated a golf-cart-like experience, but it was nothing like that. Because there's no gas engine, there's also no engine noise. The Leaf is green in more ways than one, including not contributing to roadway noise pollution.
I consider myself average on the green spectrum. My family recycles, but I'm not above tossing a newspaper or two in the garbage if our recycling bins are full (don't tell my kids). While I own a car with pretty good fuel economy, that didn't factor into my decision-making process at all. So, I was a little surprised by how great it felt to drive the Leaf past every gas station in my town and how uplifting it was to know that, at least for a week, I was doing my small part to help leave our air just a little less dirty than I otherwise would have for my children and my children's children. Though energy generation almost always produces some pollution, there's none from the car itself, and the overall environmental impact is believed to be lower — especially from some electric utilities — than it would be from a comparable gas-powered car.
If it weren't for the unruly process of fiddling with the power cord (trying to wind it back up to fit in its compartment in the trunk was as pesky as trying to manually wind up a long garden hose), I could actually see myself owning and driving a Leaf on a daily basis. Hopefully, the next version will have a retractable cord. Hey, if my hair dryer can do it, so should the Leaf.
Maybe I'm more innately green than I originally gave myself credit for. Maybe I should start air-drying my hair.
The 2011 Leaf has a starting MRSP of $32,780. My test car, a SL trim level, cost $35,440. The Leaf is eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500.
I have an affinity for hatchbacks, so the Leaf's exterior styling instantly sat well with me. Its hatchback design affords a larger-than-expected cargo area.
The Leaf's sporty stance, fast-looking rear spoiler, roof-mounted antenna and solar panel (which trickle-charges the 12-volt battery, not the high-voltage one), and amphibian-like protruding headlights make the Leaf look like it's watching your every move. It's ready to pounce on its invertebrate prey or turn on a dime to avoid a predator. In reality, the protruding headlights have a function beyond looks. They help deflect air around the side mirrors, keeping drag and wind noise to an absolute minimum.
The Leaf's low stance makes it easy for even the littlest ones to climb in and out of it without a parent's help. The cargo area can easily hold a week's worth of groceries.
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Fair
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On
The Leaf's interior is reminiscent of my own Volvo C30. It has a simple, modern feel with all the basic technology I'd want without going overboard with features I wouldn't use.
Pairing my smartphone with the Leaf's Bluetooth was simple and fast. There's also a USB port for an iPhone as well as my favorite features these days — keyless access and push-button start. If I'm going green, I'm going to stash my keys at the bottom of my pleather purse and never pull them out again.
I love the Leaf's futuristic, low-profile gearshift. Not only does it look cool — like a metallic flying saucer — but it also functions well. Because it has such a low profile, it didn't get in the way when I'd reach for the center control panel.
The Leaf has manually adjustable cloth front seats, which are made partly from recycled materials. Both my husband and I were able to find a great fit, which is a challenge sometimes since I'm 5 feet 3 inches and he's 6 feet 2 inches. However, the steering wheel only adjusts up and down. It doesn't telescope, which is surprising in a car where seemingly everything else was so well thought out.
The backseat had plenty of space for my two daughters and their high-back booster seats. While the Leaf seats five, squeezing three kiddos in the backseat would be uncomfortable but doable in a pinch. There was plenty of legroom for my girls, ages 11 and 8, and enough space for them to stash their backpacks on the floor under their feet. While there weren't tons of storage cubbies in the second row, they did have cupholders in the in-door storage pockets.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
The 2011 Leaf has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A car must receive the top score of Good in front, side, rear and roof-strength tests to receive this safety award. It also must have an electronic stability system, which is standard on the Leaf.
The Leaf also has standard front-wheel drive, antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control and six airbags, including side curtains for both rows. Because the Leaf is totally silent with no engine noise to alert kids or other pedestrians when the car is backing out of a driveway, the Leaf emits a low-tone beep when in Reverse.
The other safety feature I was happy to see was the backup camera, which is standard in the Leaf SL I tested. While in Reverse, the navigation screen switched to a monitor that showed not only what was directly behind the car but also on-screen guidelines of the projected path as I turned the steering wheel. I can't tell you how helpful this is when parallel parking or backing out of a curved driveway.
The Leaf has two sets of lower Latch anchors in the outboard seats. They're a challenge to access because they're buried deeply in the seat where the back and bottom cushions meet. The seat belt buckles are also a challenge because they can be either floppy or recessed when pushed into the seat cushions. Either way, they're tough for kids to use on their own. While my 11-year-old didn't have any trouble with them, my 8-year-old needed help buckling up every time. Luckily, my older daughter pitched in for the week. If that weren't the case, I'd have to duck under the roofline to get her buckled each time. Find out how the 2011 Leaf did in MotherProof.com's Car Seat Check here.
Get more safety information about the 2011 Nissan Leaf here.