2011 Nissan Leaf: First Drive

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The automotive world is tilting on its axis, and electric cars are about to become reality.

Have you bought in, drunk the Kool-Aid?

In other words, are you ready to drive a rechargeable car, something as mind-blowingly, reassuringly all-new as the 2011 Nissan Leaf?

If you've hung in there through the spike in gas prices, the global recession and the bankruptcies at the American car companies, congratulations. You're probably as tenderized as you'll ever become, as prone to owning a real, pure, honest-to-goodness no-oil electric car as you'll ever be.

You won't have many choices, though, once you decide to wave goodbye to BP et al. For most of the next year, the 2011 Nissan Leaf will be your only mainstream electric-car choice. No Tesla Model S, no Ford Focus Electric--the Leaf is real, starting in December, while the others linger in development.

(While you'll obviously be tempted by the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, it's an extended-range electric vehicle. Which means you still have to buy gas, though not very often. To some, that makes you still part of the problem, though obviously you're trying to be part of the solution, too.)

This week's Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose gave High Gear Media our first chance for a first drive in the production-ready 2011 Nissan Leaf. I'm curious as a reporter, but as a citizen too. You see, earlier this year I filled out an online form to get a spot in line to buy a Leaf, for my own use, out of sheer curiosity. It's a turning point powered by my favorite subatomic particle on earth, the electron.

The Leaf could be the alchemy that turns the whole auto industry on its ear. Or it could be the sales flop that forever pigeonholes electric cars into a very tiny, very expensive niche. Exciting, right?

Since I signed up in April, word's come down. While folks in Arizona, California, Tennesse and Hawaii take delivery of their gas-free go-go mobiles, I won't get my Leaf until April 2011. Pulling a few strings, I found a way into one early, when Nissan offered me the chance to circle San Jose in a prototype Leaf for some essential driving impressions.

Before we get to the intricate details of what's it like to drive, you need to know the basics--the stuff I've already been through online. The Leaf can be ordered now through Nissan's own Web site. Placing a $99 reservation puts you on a list for a Leaf, and depending on where you live, you could get one as early as the end of this year. The smart folks who pre-registered for the $32,780 2011 Leaf (which qualifies for a $7500 Federal tax credit, along with many state tax and driving incentives) in five regions will be approached next month to place their final orders for the five-door electric wagon. All other possible hold-ups aside, in December, the folks in those five launch regions (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii) will start to take delivery of cars by December of 2010.

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