First Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf SL
By Roger Boylan
GM’s short-lived electric car of the ‘90s, the EV1, was available in limited quantities as a lease-only proposition, so the 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first all-electric car the general public can buy. Its price is reasonable for such cutting-edge technology: around $25K, once Uncle Sam’s tax credit of $7500 is applied. Is it worth it? It certainly has great promise, and it’s a well-conceived little car. I spent a short while behind the wheel of Leaf a couple of days ago–a very short while, unfortunately, the actual drive time having been eaten into by a high-energy sales presentation from Nissan’s own Seinfeld-wannabe; I didn’t catch his name, and I ducked his pitch. I was there merely as an Autosavant, desirous of completing my trifecta of electric-car tests (read about the Toyota PHV Prius here and the Chevrolet Volt here).
The Leaf is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack of the type familiar to me from the Prius Plug-In and Volt. Lithium-ion batteries offer quicker acceleration and a longer range than your common or garden nickel-metal hydride battery, but unfortunately, they’re still at a fairly rudimentary stage of development, with limited range and—in the Leaf—a dead weight of about 500 lbs. We were shown cutouts and diagrams by the comedian. But I was reassured to note that, notwithstanding the futuristic technology, the Leaf is a fairly normal-looking car, a four-door hatchback with that cloyingly cute Pokémon face so typical of small Japanese cars.
Leafs (Leaves?) come in SV and SL trim levels. The SV gets 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, keyless ignition/entry, all-power gear, cruise control, automatic climate control, a full array of front, side, and curtain airbags, an adjustable driver seat with very low-tech manual controls, a tilt-only steering wheel, 60/40-split-folding rear seats made of cloth upholstery recycled from, well, recycled stuff, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth connectivity, a nav system, and a six-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio, and an iPod/USB audio interface. The SL adds a nifty spoiler-mounted solar panel that powers the cooling system, automatic headlamps, foglamps, a rearview backup camera and a cargo cover. Furthermore, every Leaf comes with the Nissan Connection, a remote-access system that provides data about the battery’s charge levels and can activate the car’s climate control via cell-phone signal. Optional on the SL is an ultra-quick charging port enabling an 80% charge in half an hour at a public charging station, of which there are still only a handful nationwide. The normal charging time is 4 to 8 hours with a special 220-volt charger, not coincidentally available for sale from Nissan for the not-so-modest sum of $2200, to which, however, a 50% tax rebate may be applied until the end of the year. That’s eleven days away at the time of writing, but extensions are likely.
What’s the driving like? Pretty good, actually. There’s plenty of room inside the little jelly bean, and it spurts ahead eagerly, with all that torque available from the get-go, thanks to all-electric power and a sophisticated CVT transmission (a Nissan specialty). The 80-kilowatt electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack between them manage to crank out 107 horsepower and up to 207 pound-feet of torque, that latter figure of course being the all-important one at the traffic light derby; Nissan estimates a 9.9-second 0-60 time, but the Leaf felt faster to me, even within the constraints of our test circuit. But that was probably the sensation of being launched ahead in a single uninterrupted flow; I’d noticed the same weird seamless motion in the Chevy Volt. Both cars are silent, too, except for the wind and road noise from the low-resistance tires. Like the Volt, the Leaf is highly responsive, with tight and communicative steering, and an unexpected love for tight corners; both cars are more fun to drive than you’d expect, the Leaf slightly more so. Its brakes are firm, too, and help regenerate battery power slightly with every application.
So it’s a well-designed little car, with room for five, a spacious cargo area, and good performance. Would I get one, then? No, because I enjoy driving, and the constant awareness of the limited cruising range would seriously hamper my driving pleasure. I only went a short distance the other day, yet I found myself glancing compulsively at the readout on the futuristic instrument panel showing the Leaf’s range, starting at 100 miles and dropping precipitately thereafter. And there would also be the prospect of a time-consuming and awkward refueling rigmarole looming at the back of my mind, detracting from the good feelings of a Sunday drive amid autumnal foliage. No, the Leaf’s got great potential, and certainly the notion of never going to a gas station is appealing in both a financial and a geopolitical sense; but it’s still really just a harbinger of things to come. On the whole, based on my experience so far, if I had to choose an electrocar I’d take a Volt, if only because it has the backup gas engine when the electric juice runs out. I’m funny that way; I just hate being stranded, whether in the Trans-Pecos or on Times Square.
So in reality, I’ll just stick with internal combustion until they can install a lightweight battery with a long enough driving range to get me there and back again. But driving these three cars of tomorrow has been a fascinating experience. I’ve seen the future, and it almost works.