The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first battery electric car from a major carmaker built in high volumes for almost a century. Its distinctive five-door design makes it as recognizable and iconic on the road as the Toyota Prius hybrid, yet distinctively a Nissan. As the sole all-electric car sold in volume this year, it’s hands-down the greenest car on the U.S. market.
The Leaf does everything that a regular compact hatchback does, while using no gasoline at all. Everything, that is, except travel hundreds of miles at a time; the practical range of the Leaf is 70 to 100 miles.
The distance you get will vary with temperature, road speed, and how much you use the air conditioning or the heater. Range drops significantly if you travel at freeway speeds, blast the air conditioning, or (especially) use the resistance heater. To preserve battery life, top speed is capped at 90 mph.
The Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is built into the floorpan. It powers a 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels. Acceleration is adequate, at less than 10 seconds for the 0-to-60-mph sprint. Like other electric cars, the 2011 Leaf uses regenerative braking that recaptures energy to recharge the battery.
On the road, the Nissan Leaf is competent but not particularly inspiring to drive. It has the appliance-like feel of early Prius models, and it’s happiest up to 40 or 45 mph. It is definitely quiet, with only occasional and barely perceptible whine from the electric motor, making the Leaf a calm, pleasant vehicle to drive. It seats five, and holds sufficient goods in the load bay, though with the rear seats folded down, the floor is interrupted by a full-width hump with the charger inside.
Recharging the battery will mostly be done at night using a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station in owners’ garages. Many public charging stations are being installed, but in early years, home charging is the key. A fully depleted Leaf will take 8 to 10 hours to recharge using 240-Volt power (the same kind used by electric stoves), or up to 20 hours on standard U.S. wall current. Buying a Nissan Leaf gets you a visit from a local contractor, arranged through your dealer, to inspect your house and tell you what you may need to do to install a charging station.
The 2011 Leaf also offers an optional $700 “quick-charge” plug, which sits next to the standard recharging plug under the charge door on the car’s nose. The quick-charge port works with special 440-Volt charging stations, and can fill the battery to 80 percent of capacity in half an hour or less. But those stations are few and far between, and unlike the standard charging port, the CHAdeMO standard used on the Leaf likely won’t be the U.S. quick-charge standard—meaning a possible future compatibility problem.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf comes in two trim levels: the base SV and the fancier SL, which includes a tiny photovoltaic solar panel on the rear air deflector. The quick-charge port is only available on the SL model. Prices begin at $32,780, and many Leaf buyers will qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, and various state, local, and corporate incentives. Alternatively, you can lease a 2011 Leaf for three years for just $349 per month with $1,999 down.
The Nissan Leaf electric car isn’t available nationwide. First deliveries began in December 2010 in California, and Nissan is opening its order book to other regions in phases—unlike the range-extended Chevrolet Volt, the other plug-in electric vehicle offered this year. That car will be on sale in all 50 states by December 2011.
For more details, see the full 2011 Nissan Leaf review series on our sister site, TheCarConnection.
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