2011 Nissan Leaf Electric Car: First Drive Review

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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.

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