October has been quite a month. This week we drove a pre-production version of the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the first production electric car to be sold by a major automaker in more than 80 years.
Unlike the range-extended electric 2011 Chevrolet Volt, which we drove last week, the 2011 Leaf is a pure battery electric vehicle. It is powered solely by grid electricity, which charges its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.
The Leaf is a striking design, every bit as groundbreaking and modern as the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid was in its day. It's easy to drive, seats four people comfortably and five adequately, and is priced quite aggressively, considering its pioneering nature.
Will mass market accept 100 miles?
The one huge question over the Leaf is its range. Nissan quotes a range of 60 to 120 miles, and the EPA will weigh in soon with its own verdict. But many market analysts believe that U.S. buyers simply won't accept a car they can't drive several hundred miles.
We're fairly confident that Nissan will sell every one of the 20,000 Leafs it can make for the U.S. during 2011 and 2012. But in 2013, Nissan Leaf production will come online in Smyrna, Tennessee. That will up potential Leaf sales to 150,000 a year, which is a huge step-change in volume.
Nissan says that people buy cars as "purpose-built tools," and almost no vehicle is a Swiss Army Knife, capable of delivering everything consumers want. Subcompact cars that are easy to park can't carry a family of six; seven-seat minivans or SUVs stretch to get even 25 mpg; and so forth.
"We believe range anxiety is a falsehood," said Mark Perry, Nissan's product planner for the Leaf team. Electric-car drivers adjust fairly quickly to their cars' abilities, stop worrying about the car in daily use, and simply plan to use another vehicle if they have to exceed the 100-mile range limit.
Primary car: most used, or go anywhere?
As to whether a Leaf could serve as a family's "primary car," Nissan points to data showing more than 90 percent of U.S. vehicles travel less than 100 miles a day. If the primary car is the one that is used most, they say, the Leaf can be that car. If it is the one that can go anywhere, it can't.
Will U.S. buyers get comfortable buying cars that can't go from San Francisco to Sacramento and back without a multi-hour recharge? We won't know the answer for several years.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is here, it's real, it offers modern conveniences just like any other car, and we think it offers an excellent demonstration of how appealing and competitive plug-in cars can be.
[For a complete list of Leaf coverage, see our Ultimate Reference Guide to the 2011 Nissan Leaf.]
Distinctive, groundbreaking lines
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's exterior design is distinctive, even polarizing. Like the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid in its day, the Leaf doesn't look quite like anything else on the road. Nissan said its stylists went "right up to the edge of unusual," but tried to keep the car "iconic but not weird."
The lines are rounded, but with a few subtle clues that this is a different kind of car. Without a tall radiator or engine under the hood, for instance, the entire nose can taper down. And no grille opening disturbs the sweep of the body back from the front bumper; instead, there's a hatch under the Nissan logo that opens for access to the recharging ports.
The swept-back headlights actually bulge into vertical fins that sit proud of the hood and fender surface to channel and direct airflow past the door mirrors. It's all in the interests of reducing air turbulence, to cut the aerodynamic drag that reduces battery range at higher speeds. Nissan quotes a drag coefficient of 0.29.
Moving from front to rear, the side doors are probably the most conventionally styled part of the Nissan Leaf. At the rear, the hatch is almost a hexagon, with tall vertical tail lamps along its upper sides.
Oh, and that decal in the photos? The cars we drove were pre-production demonstrators, and the "Zero Emission Vehicle" decal for the cars sold to individual buyers will be about one-third that size. And it's a dealer option, so if you don't like it, you don't have to display it.
Conventional interior, with twists
Inside, the Leaf is somewhat less radical, though in some ways, its economy car roots are more evident. (It's built on a heavily adapted platform from the company's Versa compact, though the Leaf is larger, with a wheelbase 6 inches longer and a wider track to accommodate the battery pack in the floor.)
The seats, upholstered in a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, are comfortable, and headroom is ample. To cut current draw, the seats are manually adjustable, but mirrors, windows, and locks are all electrically operated.
We did note, however, that while the steering wheel adjusts for tilt, it does not telescope (unlike that of the Chevrolet Volt, which does).
Rear-seat passengers (including those well over 6 feet tall) sit high, with the seat cushion above a portion of the battery pack. But because part of the pack is in the floorboards below their feet, their knees will be higher than the seat position might indicate.
The gray molded headliner, which looks to be covered in the soft-touch nap informally called "teddy-bear fur," is actually hard to the touch and deflects easily--a sign of the focus on weight saving to maximize range.
If you ended up in the driver's seat of a Leaf without seeing the outside first, you wouldn't know on first glance it was electric--until, perhaps, you noticed that there's no "shift lever." Instead, the mode selector is a mouse-shaped object on the tunnel--with a "P" (for Parking) button on top--that you pull back and left once for Drive, and again for Eco mode.
Info display, smart navigation, web apps
Then there's the instrument panel itself, which has digital gauges visible through the steering wheel, a small "eyebrow" panel above them that includes a digital speedometer, a clock, and a thermometer, and then a large rectangular information display panel in the center of the dash.
Among other functions, the Leaf's navigation system will calculate your range and show you a map with the areas you can drive to clearly highlighted. And if you start to get close to emptying the pack, at 4 kWh remaining, it will also calculate how far you are from the nearest recharging point.
We saw this function in action when we dipped down to 12 miles of calculated range remaining, and it's simple and easy to use. The system displays an alert, shows charge points, asks if you want to be directed to one, and then does just that. (In this case, it directed us back to a charging station located at Nissan's offices.)
The system also displays energy usage, range remaining, and how it is affected by the electric load from the climate control and all other subsystems. You can watch available range go down when you turn on the air conditioning, for example, and then watch it rise again when you turn it off.
The system can also be controlled by a special app on smart phones that will let you pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin while the car is still plugged in, saving battery pack energy for actual travel.
Charging time can also be controlled remotely, and if the car stops charging, you can be alerted. Nissan stresses that these functions will work on any web-enabled phone, not just the latest smart phones running apps built for them.
Get up and go, gradually
Gentle acceleration in any car conserves energy and increases range, but in an electric car, the challenge of "refilling" means that economic driving habits are more important.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's 80-kilowatt electric motor will accelerate briskly if you ask it to, but you have to press the accelerator fairly far down to do so--unlike modern gasoline cars, whose accelerators often feel tuned for stoplight drag racing.
If you press the pedal gently, the Leaf moves away gently. Push harder, and the speed picks up. Kick it all the way down, and the Leaf surges away smartly. "We wanted the car to encourage drivers" to drive most economically" said Nissan's Mark Perry, without eliminating any of the low-end torque that electric cars are known for.
Assuming you press hard enough, the Leaf offers sufficient torque for passing at speeds of 40 to 70 mph, the kind of situation you might encounter if you were merging onto a freeway along an uphill entrance ramp and you had to change lanes to avoid a fast-approaching car.
The Eco mode, however, is no fun at all. Nissan says it cuts acceleration 10 percent, but it feels like more. The regenerative braking also increases, but the hit to acceleration is significant. If a driver floors the accelerator in an emergency, however, the car will override Eco mode temporarily.
Driving conservatively, we covered more road miles than the decrease in remaining range indicated. During the day, we covered roughly 80 miles in two Leafs, the second of which we took right down to the "Power Is Limited" warning that indicates less than 5 miles of projected range.
We strongly suspect that Nissan leaves a larger margin of remaining energy in the battery than the displays indicate, just as a car with 2 gallons of fuel remaining will show totally empty on the gas gauge. We look forward to road tests that run the car completely out of energy, and will be curious to see at what mileage that happens.
Serviceable, not sporty
The Leaf provides a 0-to-60-mph time of around 7 seconds, and Nissan quotes a top speed of 90 miles per hour. A few test drivers observed 94 mph on the speedometer, but given the vastly increased energy to propel a car at 90 mph versus 60 mph, it's a range-sapping exercise that most drivers will likely avoid.
Handling and roadholding on our pre-production model was good, if not exceptional. The car will understeer through hard corners, if pushed, but it's not particularly rewarding to push.
The electric steering is light and somewhat numb. While it has an adequate return action, it seems to exert the same return-to-center force regardless of how far off center it is.
And tossing the Leaf around on twisty roads reveals the basic physics: It's a tall car riding on fairly small tires, with most of its 3,600 pounds of mass quite low in the 600-pound battery. Body roll isn't bad, but this is not a sports car by any means.
One surprising experience: The 2011 Leaf is more sensitive to buffeting by side winds than any other car we've driven recently, including some tall crossovers.
On the other hand, at 17 feet, the turning circle is exceptionally tight for a front-wheel-drive car. It's one advantage of not having and engine-and-transmission package up under the hood: the front wheel wells could be pulled further into the center of the vehicle for better turning radius.
Well-built but basic
Because the Leaf will inevitably be compared to the Volt, we can say that its interior looks and feels less luxurious. That's not in any way a knock on the Leaf; it simply reflects the car's more straightforward approach.
Interior volume is substantial. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls the Leaf a midsize car, based on its 113 cubic feet of interior space. That puts it in the same category as cars from the Toyota Prius to the Chevrolet Malibu.
The Leaf produced a little more wind noise than we'd expected, and a slight but discernible motor whine that was entirely absent in the Volt. At freeway speeds, wind whistle is evident.
As with any electric car, however, when operating in battery mode, the absence of engine, transmission, and other mechanical noises brings all other sounds into much greater relief. Nissan had to redesign its wiper motor to reduce noise that had never before been apparent. Overall, the Leaf is likely still no noisier than a standard compact car.
The low-rolling-resistance tires exhibited little road noise on the largely excellent secondary roads around Nashville. Our Volt test, by contrast, frequently took us over some pretty appalling pavement in small, budget-starved Michigan towns, which allowed us to assess its tire noise much better.
Overall, the Leaf's sweet spot for silent operation appears to be around 40 miles per hour, where it is almost eerily silent.
2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010
While the split rear seatback folds down, the Leaf does not offer a flat floor in the cargo area. Instead, the onboard 3.3-kilowatt recharger is housed in a box several inches tall that stretches from wheelwell to wheelwell across the middle of the deck.
Build quality on our cars was good, even though these were pre-production vehicles that will never be sold to the public.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Six airbags, no safety ratings yet
The 2011 Nissan Leaf comes with six airbags: front and side bags for the front passengers, and side-curtain bags that cover the length of the front and rear side window openings.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released crash-test ratings for the Leaf.
And while Nissan believes it knows how the Leaf will do on the newly stringent test procedures for 2011 cars, it isn’t sharing those expectations. It will wait for the official ratings to be released, which it hopes will take place within a few months.
It did note that the battery pack suffered no damage in its own 40-mph side offset crash tests. Other Nissan Leaf safety systems include standard anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, traction control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Two trim levels
The 2011 Nissan Leaf comes in two trim levels: the base model, with a price of $32,780. It includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, dual power mirrors, chrome door handles, and a rear air deflector over the liftgate.
Inside, cruise control is standard, along with an intelligent key and push-button ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. And, of course, the smart navigation system.
The SL model adds a backup camera, automatic headlights, and a photovoltaic solar panel atop the rear window air deflector. Based on early orders, Nissan expects that 75 to 80 percent of 2011 Leafs will be sold as SL models, for an additional $940.
Early Leaf buyers will likely be eligible for a host of tax credits and rebates at the Federal, state, and even local level. By cleverly combining these incentives, and adding private corporate green-incentive programs, it could be possible to pay less than $15,000 for a brand-new Leaf.
Though of course, purchase and installation of a home 240-Volt charging station will cost another $2,000 or so. Crucially for buyers in California, the Leaf will also be eligible to operate with only a single occupant in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes on that state's freeways--at least for several years.
Colors available include one unique to the Leaf, known as Blue Ocean, which Nissan expects to be 30 percent of the total based on early orders. Beyond that, in order of popularity, are silver, white, red, and black. We think the Leaf looks particularly striking in red.
A winter package will be offered when the Leaf is rolled out in cold-weather regions roughly a year hence. That package, consisting of heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, has not yet been priced. It is designed to keep a driver and front passenger comfortable using far less battery energy than full cabin heating.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Pair of charging ports
The Leaf's standard charging port, by the way, is the J-1772 standard plug, which lets a Leaf use any of the thousands of 240-Volt charging stations now being rolled out in the U.S.
On the SL model only, there is also a $700 option for a Japanese high-voltage fast-charge outlet for which there are presently almost no chargers in the U.S. That system, known as Chademo, is not now accepted as an international standard, though discussions on defining a single international vehicle fast-charge standard are now underway.
The Department of Energy will fund installation of 400 Chademo chargers on a trial basis over the next year. So while owners are taking something of a risk in ordering a fast-charge option that's not yet standard, it offers at least the potential of much quicker recharging down the line when charger costs have fallen and more are installed in the U.S.
For the first year, the 2011 Nissan Leaf will be charged the same insurance rates as a standard compact car. Over time, Nissan says, it expects those rates to decline somewhat, due to the Leaf's likely lower average annual mileage and/or average speeds from more local use.
The first Nissan Leafs will be delivered to dealers this December.
Nissan provided airfare, lodging, and meals to enable High Gear Media to bring you this first-person drive report.