2011 Nissan Leaf Drive Review: A Real Electric Car for Real People

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2011 Nissan Leaf U.K. spec

2011 Nissan Leaf U.K. spec

Just days after Nissan announced its 8 year, 100,000 mile warranty option for the 2011 Leaf, we've had a chance to do our second test-drive of the week in Nissan's $33,750 electric baby.

Earlier this week, Nissan gave us some time behind the wheel of the Leaf in San Jose, California. We had a great time and totally geeked out about the Leaf's built-in EV navigation system, a great way of keeping track of where you are and where you can go.

But transported away from the city limits to the quaint rural location of Nissan's European Technology Center in Bedfordshire, England, we gave the Nissan Leaf a real shakedown.

First Impressions

Let's get one thing straight: Nissan are taking the 2011 Leaf very seriously.  Nissan have designed and built the Leaf from the ground up: It is a new platform and a new car.

And it shows. Instead of missing rear seats, or standard trim items found in some EVs which are redesigns of standard gasoline cars, the Leaf brings together a union of body, chassis and transmission to form a brand new EV benchmark.

Behind the wheel

Sliding into the supportive and well trimmed cabin, a neat and functional split level display in front of the driver gives all of the essential details including the usual warning lights and dials found in any car. A ‘fuel gauge' shows the battery charge remaining, as well as an expected range given current driving style.

Controls are all in the usual place, and saving the rumble of an engine, nothing gives the game away that this is an electric car.

2011 Nissan Leaf Seat

2011 Nissan Leaf Seat

We're reminded of the dash layout of the 2004-2009 Toyota Prius when looking at the 2011 Leaf Dash: Information is displayed in a clean and uncluttered way and everything is within easy reach of the driver.

Selecting gear, or rather, choosing which direction you want the car to go in, is achieved through a lever mounted on the center console, similar to the one found in the Toyota Prius.

Driving

With foot released from the brake and gear selected, the 2011 Leaf creeps forward like any other automatic. It also features hill assist, giving the driver time to move from brake to accelerator without the dreaded rollback.

While the leaf lacks a conventional gearbox, the 2011 Leaf has two settings for forward: drive which gives full access to the 80kW motor to accelerate the car from 0-60 in a respectable time of around 10 seconds; and eco which trades off some acceleration in exchange for extended range.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

In the city, eco mode is more than acceptable. Acceleration is still more than enough to avoid holding up traffic at the lights and a highway capable 80 mph is still possible.

Mimicking the kick-down function on most automatics, the Leaf provides a reserve of power to help accelerate it in overtaking manoeuvres. Pulling out at freeway speed to overtake a car doing 65 mph and accelerating to 75 mph was easy, thanks to this feature.

Brakes

While we found the brakes on the 2011 Nissan Leaf to be a little on the harsh side to begin with, it didn't take long to acclimatise to the two-stage braking system.

The 2011 Leaf uses two braking systems working in tandem: a standard friction brake, used mainly in emergency stops; and a regenerative braking system.  Learn to brake in advance and smoothly, and the Leaf will recharge its battery pack a little as a reward. Brake late and hard, and the energy will be lost to the capable disc brakes, never to be seen again.

But braking doesn't just take place when the brake pedal is depressed.

Electric cars often use small amounts of regenerative braking to mimic the engine braking of gasoline cars. But the engine-simulation regenerative braking is a notoriously difficult feature to get right. In some electric cars it is so harsh that removing your foot from the accelerator results in dramatic retardation.

In eco mode, the engine-simulation regenerative braking is fairly strong, but in standard drive mode,  the amount of regenerative braking the car exhibits when you step off the accelerator is minimal. This means, that with careful feathering of the accelerator and at least one eye on the Leaf's built-in energy meter, ultra-efficient driving is possible.

It's something Prius drivers have been doing for years, and it's called pulse-and-glide. In drive, the Leaf appears to respond well to the technique. We were able to extend the predicted range of our test car for a short while to over 130 miles with some careful pulse-and-glide techniques at 50 mph.

We wouldn't be surprised if some careful hyper-milers were able to get even more out of a charge.

2011 Nissan Leaf Front

2011 Nissan Leaf Front

But don't worry if your driving style is a little more conventional. While we were only able to drive the Leaf for 45 minutes or so, we tried hard to give the Leaf a hard time, with hard acceleration and braking.

Even after some brutal treatment of the car's motor and battery pack, the Leaf still seemed happy to report a range totalling at least 100 miles of travel since its last full charge.

In short, if you're careful with the right foot, the Leaf will reward you with extended range, but if not you should still be able to achieve a respectable distance per charge.

Handling

All in all, the steering on the Leaf is light and precise. Obstacles can be navigated around with ease, and the car's low center of gravity helps the Leaf to hug the road.

There is very little in the way of understeer or oversteer, but there is very little to let the driver know when either are occurring. Like many modern ‘drive by wire' systems, the steering feels a little remote. However, it is a feeling which soon subsides as you become familiar with the car.

Sound? What Sound?

As the car pulls away very little noise is heard inside, although we did wind down a window to see if we could detect the now infamous audible alert played through external facing speakers to alert other road users of the Leaf's presence.

While we were testing, we listened hard for the low-speed audible warning. From inside the car it was barely heard, and outside it was not much louder. The Leaf we drove, a European specification left-hand drive model, had a switch to turn the alert off.

At the moment we're unsure if the production model will allow the sound to be switched off, but it creates much less noise than we had thought it would.

Inside the car, with windows up and radio off, there is very little rumble or road noise. Yes, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is noisier than some luxury cars on the market, but for a family car noise levels are excellent. Even at freeway speeds, conversation can be held at living-room level and babies can soundly sleep on the back seat.

Gadgets, Gadgets, Gadgets

2011 Nissan Leaf Energy Display

2011 Nissan Leaf Energy Display

We've pointed out before that the 2011 Nissan Leaf is a gadget lover's dream. In addition to the iPhone application you can use to check the car's state-of-charge, the large touch-screen display and integrated GPS and stereo system, the Leaf has enough toys to keep most big kids happy.

A USB and headphone jack provide easy access to the car's stereo system, and full Bluetooth capabilities including hands-free calling are all accessible from the driver's seat. Steering wheel controls for cruise control, climate control, stereo and telephone system ensure that hands stay on the wheel.

We particularly liked the climate control system, which gives an estimation of the impact the climate system will have on the car's range when used. In our case, with a fully charged car and an outside temperature in the low 80s, turning on the AC would have resulted in an 8 mile drop in the Leaf's range.

In Conclusion

While the 2011 Nissan Leaf isn't the prettiest car on the block and certainly isn't the most macho, it does live up to its promise of practical electric motoring. It's no Tesla Roadster, but it does offer enough speed, acceleration and spirited driving experience to prove fun and capable as a daily driver.

Until recently, electric cars have been considered the playthings of the rich and wealthy, or the political statements of the extreme environmentalist keen to bring down demonic oil barons.

And until recently, excuses have always been made about why electric cars haven't performed as well as their gasoline counterparts, or made sacrifices on comfort, cost or style.

But Nissan haven't made any such excuses.  And there's not a Birkenstock, oversized poncho or political argument in sight.

With a range of around 100 miles per charge, fast charging possible to 80% full in 30 minutes when using a fast charge station and a top speed well above any freeway limit, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is a real car.

A real car for real people. Let us not forget that the car's name, the Nissan LEAF, is actually an acronym.

Leading, Environmentally-friendly, Affordable, Family car.

While some may argue that before any tax credits and other incentives are applied the Leaf is hardly affordable, we think Nissan has done a great job to help the car live up to its name.

 
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