The 2012 Nissan Leaf is the second year of production for the first mass-produced, battery-electric vehicle of modern days. And it remains a milestone in many ways: It does everything a conventional car does, at least up to 70 miles or so of range, and emits no emissions at all.
Like the original Toyota Prius hybrid, the 2012 Leaf is easy to drive, it carries up to five passengers and a decent amount of their stuff, and it's priced low enough to make Nissan the clear leader in electric cars. At $35,000 and up, the price is hardly dirt-cheap. In fact, it's about twice what a comparable gasoline car would cost--before you begin deducting the various Federal, state, and local incentives that can reduce the cost by $7,500 to $12,000.
But for that money, you get one of the very few cars to score a perfect 10 on the High Gear Media green rating. One mile driven in a Leaf has a lower overall "wells to wheels" carbon impact than the same mile driven in a 25-mpg gasoline car--even if you charge that Leaf on the dirtiest power grid in the U.S. (North Dakota or West Virginia, if you're counting).
The Nissan Leaf has no engine at all. Instead, the front wheels are driven by a 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that's powered by a 22-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack built into the floorpan and under the rear seat. Nissan quotes "up to 100 miles" of range for the Leaf, and the EPA rates its range at a realistic 73 miles--though careful low-speed use can extend that number, while high speeds and cold weather that requires cabin heating can cut it down by 30 percent or more.
Leaf owners are well-advised to install a Level 2 240-Volt charging station in their garages, which will take 7 to 10 hours to recharge a fully depleted Leaf battery. The car can also be recharged on standard 120-Volt household current, but that can take up to 20 hours--not particularly practical for most daily drivers.
The Leaf also offers the ability to "quick-charge" the battery from 20 to 80 percent of capacity in 30 minutes or less, via a second charging port located under the nose flap that gives access to the recharging sockets. There are relatively few quick-charge stations in the U.S. today, but Nissan is moving aggressively--in partnership with state and regional government bodies and electrification coalitions--to roll them out along corridors between electric-car-friendly cities: Seattle and Portland, for instance.
The 2012 Leaf is a spacious, airy vehicle for passengers, and it includes a standard navigation system with built-in maps of charging station locations. Upgrades include a rear spoiler, a cargo cover, and a rear-view camera that displays on the navigation screen. It's rated as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
For the 2012 model year, Nissan raised the price slightly but added heated seats, steering wheel, and mirrors to the SL model, along with a standard quick-charge port, since 90 percent of Leaf buyers order it anyway.
There are only a few competitors to the Leaf, including the 2012 Mitsubishi 'i' electric minicar (much smaller), the 2012 Ford Focus Electric (extremely low volume), and potentially the upcoming 2012 Tesla Model S electric sport sedan, which is supposed to go into production in summer 2012. There's also the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric, whose battery pack provides 25 to 40 miles of range (enough for most daily use). After that, the Volt's gasoline generator switches on to give it essentially unlimited electric range. But because of that onboard generator, the Volt isn't quite as clean as the Leaf.
The Leaf is a massive experiment on Nissan's part to pitch low-carbon driving to the many owners who can live with 70 to 100 miles of range per day. The company sold almost 10,000 Leafs in the U.S. during 2011, and we expect that number to double for 2012. For those early adopters, the Leaf is simply the most advanced, greenest car on the planet.
For an in-depth review of styling, utility, safety and features, see TheCarConnection's full review of the 2012 Nissan Leaf.