Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Few people realize the electric car is over 150 years old. It actually predates the gasoline-powered car by roughly 50 years, giving it a half-century advantage in terms of development time. So why has the electric car yet to prove a viable form of personal transportation?
With the all-new 2011 Nissan Leaf, you could argue the electric car's time has finally arrived. Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's CEO and president, is a big supporter of the electric car and wants to lead the automotive world into a battery-powered future. In his own words, the 2011 Leaf "reflects Nissan's standing as an innovative and exciting brand with a clear vision of the future of transportation."
We've all heard this "future of transportation" claim before, attached to everything from hybrids to biodiesels, but the 2011 Nissan Leaf does manage to reinvent the electric car as we've known it so far.
First, it costs just $33,000 (before a $7,500 federal tax credit), yet it has room for five adults. While neither statistic is particularly impressive from the standard set by the automobile as we know it with the internal-combustion engine, no previous electric vehicle could offer this combination of real-world pricing and real-world functionality. Add in the Leaf's long list of standard high-tech features, including Bluetooth hands-free calling, GPS navigation and a full-function iPod interface, and you've got an earth-friendly vehicle with enough premium features to satisfy even luxury buyers.
The first question most people ask when they encounter the 2011 Nissan Leaf is, "How does it drive?" It feels almost anticlimactic to respond with, "Like any other car," but that remains the most accurate way to describe life in a Leaf.
The 80-kilowatt electric motor is fed by a 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, providing the Leaf with 107 peak horsepower and up to 207 pound-feet of torque. While not exactly supercar territory, these numbers move the 3,354-pound Leaf from zero to 60 in 9.9 seconds. That's more than enough pep to keep up with traffic, particularly when combined with the Leaf's instant-on throttle response that's characteristic of an electric motor drivetrain.
Of course this sense of power is offset by the range gauge within the instrument cluster. A series of hash marks, accompanied by a large number that starts around 100 after a full charge (and drops immediately once under way), never lets you forget the Leaf's limited range and cumbersome refueling process. The onboard computer constantly monitors both battery status and driving conditions, and it will update the Leaf's range every few seconds to reflect city crawling or highway cruising (the latter eating up energy much quicker than the former).
This means that while the Leaf can hit 90 mph and cruises easily at 75 mph, a foreboding sense of ever-dwindling travel range dominates the driving experience. This can make even aggressive drivers think twice about goosing the throttle. And while the car's slippery exterior shape sports a mere 0.29 coefficient of drag, it feels downright irresponsible to travel at speeds above 70 mph when you see the range dropping faster than unemployment payouts.
Riding on low-rolling-resistance, 16-inch Bridgestone Ecopia tires and sporting electric-assist steering with a relatively quick ratio, the Leaf manages to feel at least as sporty as a typical economy car and far more interesting from a driver's perspective than a Toyota Prius. Credit some of this to the battery pack, which is mounted under the passenger floor and provides not only a low center of gravity but also a 40 percent increase in structural rigidity compared to a conventional five-door hatchback.
Of course, all of the above assumes the 2011 Nissan Leaf is left in its standard driving mode. A second mode, called Eco, reduces throttle response, increases the level of regenerative braking force and modulates the climate control system to save energy. Nissan says this can add about 10 percent to whatever range is left in the battery when Eco is engaged. We only tried this mode once and indeed noticed a subdued throttle reaction and aggressive (but not intrusive) regenerative braking force whenever we lifted off the go pedal. If you're looking for maximum efficiency, or simply want to ensure you reach your nearest charging station, keep Eco mode in mind.
If the $33,000 price of entry doesn't feel like an environmental gift from heaven, trust us when we tell you the Leaf's five fully functional seats are. We've driven the Corbin Sparrow, Mini E, Tesla Roadster and Wheegos, and none of them can take a family of five out to dinner. The Nissan Leaf can, and did so twice during our time with the car. The wide doors make entry/egress a snap (even for a 77-year-old grandfather), and the comfortable rear seat handled two teens and their mom with only a small complaint about a lack of toe room under the front seats (call it the downside of that battery storage location).
The driving position is standard hatchback, feeling relatively high in the cabin but with effective armrests and a supportive seat offering a range of positions. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who can't get comfortable in the Leaf's front seats, assuming they aren't a member of the NBA.
The car is also eerily quiet at any speed below 70, not only because there's no exhaust noise but because of the work Nissan directed toward cutting wind and road noise. The company utilized specific air management techniques in the design of the Leaf's headlights, mirrors and antenna, resulting in luxury sedan serenity at highway speeds.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's real-world functionality extends beyond its conventional driving dynamics and five-passenger capacity. It offers a range of safety features such as stability and traction control, a full battery of airbags and, on SL models like our test car, a standard back-up camera. Storage space is limited with the rear seatbacks up, though a prudent grocery run is possible. Fold the seats and you can carry a not-too-large large-screen TV or several 15-watt solar panels.
Visibility is excellent because of the Leaf's large windows and narrow roof pillars, but many of the controls will take some getting used to. The shifter is short and wide, there's a computerlike startup sound when the vehicle's start button is pressed, and dual display screens track not only speed and range but power application, regenerative braking force and even earth-friendly driving behavior (it grows trees when you're good).
Of course the biggest break from a conventional ownership experience comes in the form of a limited driving range and the need to plug the Leaf into a charging station at every opportunity. Nissan claims a 100-mile range for the Leaf, but the EPA recently certified the car's range at 73 miles. During our test period the Leaf consistently indicated a range of approximately 88 miles, even with much of our driving at highway speeds. That figure is a combination of how far we drove between charges and what the range was indicating when we plugged it in. We never actually ran it out of power, so the remaining range may have been an optimistic — or pessimistic — prediction by the car's onboard computer.
Every Leaf includes a portable 120-volt charger that will work in conventional wall outlets but requires up to 18 hours to charge a depleted battery. A better option involves home installation of a 240-volt charger that can recharge the Leaf in 4-8 hours. The installation cost of this charger can range from $1,000-$4,000 and is eligible for a tax rebate to cover half the cost (up to $2,000). This device not only cuts charge time but also provides online monitoring of battery status and the ability to e-mail the owner when the Leaf is fully charged.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is less about Nissan's corporate profits and more about the task of demonstrating the viability of automobiles that offer alternative energy solutions. This is often reflected in a higher degree of build quality and attention to detail than a comparably priced conventional vehicle might receive.
As a result, you'll notice the Leaf's tightly fitted body panels, advanced information displays and refined user interfaces. Most of the car's interior materials are on par with an economy hatchback, but the construction of the interior components feels a cut above the average economy car.
Who should consider this vehicle
Few people drive more than 100 miles a day on a regular basis, but potential owners of a 2011 Nissan Leaf should assume the car will never drive more than 100 miles between charges. That means you must either have an alternate form of transportation for longer trips or must commit to never driving more than 100 miles without several hours of charge time built into the travel plan.
Beyond its range limitation the Leaf is as functional as any five-passenger, five-door hatchback on the market. Environmentally minded buyers, anxious to break their oil addiction and willing to pay the pre-tax-rebate costs of buying a Leaf and installing a quick charger, should revel in the car's perky performance, high-tech features and silent operation.
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