The 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car is clearly one of the most revolutionary vehicles to be sold in the U.S. in many years.

It's a first battery electric car that relies solely on plugging into grid electricity for its the energy that powers it. Unlike the 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car, it has no onboard gasoline engine to provide power beyond its electric range.

As such, it will the first electric car sold in volume--20,000 this year and next, perhaps 100,000 or more starting in 2013--by a major automaker since the 1920s. That's pretty revolutionary.

[See our 2011 Nissan Leaf Ultimate Reference Guide for every article we've published on the Leaf electric car.]

Three different High Gear Media editors have now driven the 2011 Leaf, two in Nashville and one in Portugal. We sat them down for a virtual roundtable on the Leaf's pluses and minuses.

  • Marty Padgett is High Gear Media's editorial director, the current owner of a 2004 Toyota Prius, and a longtime automotive journalist who's test-driven more than 500 cars.
  • John Voelcker is the editor of Green Car Reports.
  • Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield is lead writer for sister site All Cars Electric, and the past and present owner of more than a dozen electric vehicles

Here's the edited transcript:

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

In one sentence, what's your overall take on the 2011 Nissan Leaf?

Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield:  The 2011 Nissan Leaf is an all-electric family car, competing directly for the same consumers that previously purchased the 2004-2009 Toyota Prius.

John Voelcker: The 2011 Leaf is the first "real" plug-in electric car sold in volume by a major automaker in most of a century.

Marty Padgett: We toss the term "game-changer" out pretty regularly, but the 2011 Leaf puts battery power behind that verdict.

What does the Leaf do well?

NGB:  Its proprietary battery management system and informatics is second to none. It is accurate, simple to understand, and even offers handy pointers to the nearest charging station when running low on power. Driving is simple and easy, with responsive acceleration, intuitive controls, and sure-footing. 

JV: The Leaf is roomy, modern, and feels just like a regular car, only it's quieter. And the graphics for info specific to the electric drive are very good, as is the integration with the navigation system.

MP: In almost every respect save driving range and fueling, the Leaf behaves like a conventional gas-powered car. That may not overcome "range anxiety" in our time, but it sure as hell makes it easier for non-geeks to see this replacing an internal-combustion car in their garage.

What are its bad points?

NGB:  Visibility: Without a rear-view camera, the 2011 Nissan Leaf SV presents problems with reverse parking due to the Leaf's large rear. The SL trim does away with this issue by including a rear-view camera.

Floor Layout: Thanks to a hump in the rear of the trunk, the 2011 Nissan Leaf does not have a completely flat load bay when the rear seats are folded down. It's a shame Nissan omitted a false floor in the trunk as this would have negated the problem entirely.

Steering: If you love the steering response in the 2004-2009 Toyota Prius, you'll love the 2011 Nissan Leaf. If you like more responsive steering, you won't. The Leaf's steering is light and rather vague.

JV: I wasn't wild about the steering feel--it's numb--and was a little surprised to hear electric motor whine, which is completely absent from the Chevy Volt. Also, inside, the Leaf looks and feels slightly appliance-like, meaning it's serviceable but far from stylish or luxurious. That'll be familiar to Prius owners, but may not prove as compelling as other compact vehicles.

MP: Price fluctuations. It has no control over them, but the fact that Californians and Georgians can buy a Leaf for much less than buyers in Florida makes for a distorted value proposition that will be difficult to absorb in the second-hand, used-car market. But hey, only 10 percent of Leafers are buying the cars outright--most people will lease them for $350 a month. I bet those few owners are likely to hang on to them as collector's items, like the ur-Macintosh or an Atari 2600.

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

What's the driving experience like?

NGB:  Through town, the Leaf is very quiet. At freeway speeds, the noise from the cabin is more noticeable, but still well within acceptable levels. There's no gearchange to worry about, or an automatic gear-shift.

Driving is intuitive and simple. Everything is within reach and gives a feeling of high build quality. There is little understeer or oversteer, and regenerative braking ensures you can drive the car with one pedal.

JV: It drives like a "real car," which is the revolutionary part for a battery electric vehicle. There's not a lot of punch on the upper end, but you can merge into fast freeway traffic OK. Its sweet spot is around 40 mph, when it's silent and smooth.

MP: A little bit Jetsons, a little bit Versa. There's a great feeling of interior space, heightened by the light upholstery, which is more Versa. The whine and burble at take-off sounds sounds like a muted cartoon noise, hence the Jetsons. I can only think driving a Leaf is what driving an everyday economy car will feel like in 2025.

What's your single favorite feature of the Leaf?

NGB: As a total geek, the concept of being able to hook your Leaf up with an iPhone to check your car's state of charge is a dream come true. Remote charge-starting, texting when it's finished, even reporting if someone has unplugged your car mean no more worry about your car's state of charge. The Leaf's remote pre-heat and cool functions save you time and discomfort in extremes of weather and can be activated from your phone. 

JV: This may sound trite, but Nissan took significant risks to put the Leaf into production, so it's simply that the Leaf exists and that it's going on sale at high volumes all over the world.

MP: I like the burble of sounds.

Biggest dislike?

NGB: The Leaf has a safety feature to prevent it from being driven away without the driver's seatbelt being engaged. Wearing a seatbelt is a smart choice for anyone, but to require a seatbelt to be engaged before the car will drive is a big annoyance for anyone who needs to do quick parking-lot manoeuvres or driveway switches. 

JV: Nissan needs to work on the steering feel. It's linear, numb, and feels disconnected from the road surface. And the placement of the charger in a hump across the middle of the load floor is just plain dumb.

MP: The steering is noticeably electric, but then again, it was the same in the Saturn Ion, too. I suppose I'd like it to be inexpensive enough for civilians to have their own 440-volt home chargers too. I've heard of some that do, but we're not all Silicon Valley venture capitalists.

How does the Leaf compare to the 2011 Chevy Volt?

NGB: As I haven't yet driven the Volt, I'm only able to answer with what I know of it. I prefer the Leaf's more conventional 60/40 rear seat over the Volt's two individual seats. Gaining an extra passenger space and more flexibility in the load bay is important for most consumers. Obviously, the Volt's range-extended mode offers drivers a larger range, but at the expense of burning gasoline, not to mention far more parts that will need servicing sooner or later. 

JV: The Volt is more luxurious inside, performs slightly better, and is more fun to drive. But it's also $8,000 pricier, and we think the Leaf is more stylish outside. Most important, the Volt dispenses with range anxiety, so it can conceivably be used as a household's only car. That'll be more challenging with the Leaf's range of up to 100 miles, which then requires several hours of recharging.

MP: Strikingly different. It's not a benefit to either that they're lumped together for comparison. The Volt is heftier, more substantial, less airy, more conventional, more "safe." The Leaf is all about lightness, low-impact driving and driving feel, and less of a hit on the wallet. We've said it before: the Volt is a PC, the Leaf is a Mac (with the pricing reversed, of course).

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010, with Marathon CEO Mary Wittenberg

2011 Nissan Leaf electric car at NYC Marathon, Oct 2010, with Marathon CEO Mary Wittenberg

What's your biggest worry about the Leaf over the next couple of years?

NGB: We're facing an unknown when it comes to just how well the 2011 Nissan Leaf will perform when subjected to the daily rigors of life all over the U.S. It will have to prove itself in the colder Northeast, as well as in the warmer South. Not only that, but it will need to perform consistently and predictably on range, giving users a clear indication of just how far they can travel before they need to recharge. Early indications are that the Leaf will do just that, but the real testing won't happen until the earliest adopters get their cars. 

JV: My biggest worry is range anxiety: that potential buyers won't see past the 100-mile limit to think hard about how they'll use the Leaf, especially when it's the second or third car in the household.

MP: That the economics of this entire $6 billion project will not scale quickly enough to drive down the price--which will slow adoption. And my 30,000-foot worry is that even with starting to switch our driving fleet to electric cars, the U.S. won't be able to reduce its oil consumption in a meaningful way, to avoid the political agita that comes with it.

Are American drivers *really* ready to plug in a car every night?

NGB:  Some are. For now, that's all that matters. With rising gas prices and incentives in states like California to promote the use of all-electric cars, plugging in your car will become second nature. Just like PCs and Macs, some consumers will prefer the familiarity of gasoline-powered cars.  If American drivers can overcome the over-hyped problem of range anxiety, there is no reason for them not to get as used to plugging in their car as they already do with their cellphone. 

JV: Early adopters are ready, no question. And unlike 10 years ago, every American is now used to recharging mobile phones overnight. The Leaf's mobile app can be set to help, too, by reminding owners if they've forgotten. I'm not hugely worried by this one.

MP: Unequivocally. My partner will be driving our Leaf every day, and he's looking for an excuse to skip one more stop on the way to his office. No gasoline, no stop.

So is this the electric car that Americans can buy without worrying?

NGB: Of all the electric cars coming to market in the next twelve months, the Nissan Leaf offers the best option for anyone who wants to buy a purely electric vehicle. Nissan has a wealth of knowledge from its past experience with electric cars, and a nationwide dealer and service network to ensure that no one is left out in the cold if things go wrong. As the only mainstream electric compact car from a mainstream automaker, the 2011 Nissan Leaf has to be the choice for anyone wishing to go electric. 

JV: Yes. It's not coming from some startup, but from a major global automaker that's been selling cars here for 50 years. That's hugely reassuring to nervous buyers.

MP: Americans are worriers. You're asking us to overturn 200 years of cultural predilection overnight? You may as well ask us to turn off the Real Housewives of [fill in your region here].