Reintroducing the Electric Car
Historically, electric vehicles have not been viable mass-market devices due largely to their laughable driving range, exorbitant cost and recharging times that were best measured with a calendar.
Today Nissan is taking another stab at the electric car with the 2011 Nissan Leaf. Technology has evolved, the political lens has shifted and perhaps now electric cars like the Leaf can finally be genuine alternatives to traditional fuel burners for the masses.
Or we might find that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A Modern Electric Vehicle
To date, EVs have been treated by their manufacturers as a kind of experimental vehicle, something to help fulfill EPA's ZEV mandate but otherwise not taken very seriously. GM's EV1 was the most serious modern attempt from a major manufacturer at a dedicated EV platform, but it ultimately proved too costly and too impractical.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is different. A five-door hatchback, it's practical, spacious and quiet transportation. It can accommodate up to five people. Its luggage compartment is more than just an afterthought. And provided you live in one of the 15 states in which the 2011 Leaf will be available, you have the option of actually purchasing one — truly unusual, as EVs are typically lease-only.
Base price is $34,540. Equipped with a few odds and ends, our Nissan Leaf tester costs $35,110. That's before a federal tax credit of $7,500 plus any state incentives — in California there's an additional $5,000 credit available, which would bring the expense of our tester down to $22,610.
Little in the cabin telegraphs the 2011 Nissan Leaf's electric heart. There's the nublike console PRND selector à la Prius and the power consumption bubbles in the instrument cluster, but otherwise it's pretty standard fare. Its dual-tiered instrument panel is similar to that of modern Hondas. Nearly all of the Leaf's interior controls from the multifunction display to the buttons and switches are lifted from Nissan's corporate parts bin. No zoomy graphics here, which might disappoint those expecting a bit more Buck Rogers in a car like this.
The cabin plastics are hard and the seat fabric durable rather than plush. Though the Nissan Leaf clearly is not trimmed like a luxury car, it's a step up from penalty-box econocars, and its tall roof and ample forward greenhouse really enhance the sense of space inside. Six-footers have plenty of headroom, and the front seats are road-trip worthy even if the driving range isn't.
A single, mysteriously iconed button located to the right of the multifunction display reveals the Leaf's electric-ness. Here you can access the Leaf's power consumption history, program its charging schedule and peruse a very cool map that illustrates in real-time the margins of the Leaf's driving range.
External visual cues are few, barring the silly decals on the doors (which are, thankfully, optional). The dual recharging ports are hidden beneath the central flap between the headlights. If you didn't already know about the Leaf's unique powertrain, you might mistake a Leaf in the wild for little more than an economy car styled like an aquatic creature.
The Leaf's Unique Powertrain
Sitting beneath the 2011 Nissan Leaf's hood is a large electric motor generating 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. The motor is fed electrons by a 24 kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery pack neatly sandwiched in the floor. That's it. Well, that and a bunch of power electronics, inverters, high-voltage cabling, plus a cooling system or two.
Stowing the batteries low in the car pays dividends in the way the Leaf drives. It's nimble and precise, and the stiff chassis gracefully absorbs insults from the road. Curb weight is 3,354 pounds, which is fairly dense for a compact car. A sporty one it is not, though the Leaf's slalom performance of 63 mph and 0.78g skid pad result are respectable showings. Its steering is obviously assisted electrically, which is to say it feels rather synthetic — while precise, the effort is too light, which lends it a video game-y impression. Perhaps that's apropos for an all-electric car.
Nor does the Nissan Leaf's brake pedal offer the natural bite and response you'd get with traditional stoppers. It's not surprising, as we've yet to drive a regenerative system that can seamlessly juggle the duties of recharging the batteries and manipulating the conventional hydraulic brakes. We'd also welcome a stronger "engine braking" effect (regenerative braking) upon "throttle" lift. Still, the stopping power is there when you cram the Leaf's pedal to the floor — braking from 60 mph consumed 126 feet in our testing.
Leaping From Stoplight to Stoplight
Torque down low arrives instantaneously when you flex your right ankle in the 2011 Nissan Leaf, and you can modulate the thrust like a rheostat. It's exceptionally linear. There are no gearchanges since there is no transmission coupled to the electric motor — it simply drives the front wheels directly through a 7.94:1 final-drive ratio.
This power delivery characteristic is inherent to electric propulsion, so get accustomed to hearing similar refrains as EVs become more commonplace. Same for the Leaf's exceptional silence — there's a faint whir from the electric motor, a bit of wind rustle and road hum at freeway speeds, and that's about it. The serene, tomblike atmosphere in the Leaf will spoil you.
Torque production is ample enough that if you romp on the "gas" at around 20 mph, the Leaf squirts forward with an enthusiasm that might surprise you. It's not something you'll do frequently, as it saps electrons like New Year's Eve at the Bellagio, and the specter of running out of juice always trumps your inner urge to hoon. But it's nice to know the grunt is there if you need it.
With that said, the 2011 Nissan Leaf's sprightliness is limited to squirting between city speeds. As its velocity increases, its grunt wanes. We clocked it to 60 mph in 9.9 seconds (9.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and through the quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 77.8 mph.
Although the EPA's window sticker prominently rates the 2011 Nissan Leaf at 106/92 city/highway mpg-e, this doesn't tell you much. You have to look more closely at the sticker for the useful information, which is that it consumes 34 kWh per 100 miles.
Our 2011 Nissan Leaf test car consumed 34.3 kWh per 100 miles over the duration of its short stay with us, a value that reflects a somewhat diligent driving style but certainly nothing resembling the full-on hypermiling nonsense we'll inevitably witness once Leafs (Leaves?) become more commonplace. Likewise, we didn't measure the Leaf's ultimate range for fear of being stranded and eaten by dingoes.
To date we've measured the electricity consumption of only two other cars, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt and 2012-ish Toyota Prius PHV, which logged 39 and 23.2 kWh per 100 miles, respectively.
Fed from the same $0.31 per kWh outlet as used in our Volt vs. Prius PHV comparison test, the Leaf's running costs were thus equivalent to a 29.8-mpg gasoline-fueled car.
However, all the usual caveats regarding electricity costs apply. That is, it varies wildly. Using Washington's cheap $0.08 per kWh rate, the Leaf's running costs are equivalent to a 110-mpg car. In Hawaii ($0.286 per kWh), it's like a car that nets 36 mpg. Were you to recharge the Leaf at the $0.13 per kWh average electricity rate of the states in which the car will be available in 2011, the Leaf's running costs equate to a 67-mpg conventional car.
Ultimately, though, running costs are probably not a very significant factor in the decision of whether an EV is right for you.
Recharging Time Is a Bigger Factor
The concept of range anxiety is commonly accepted as the Achilles' heel for EVs. Not so. Despite advancements in battery chemistry, the true fundamental bugaboo of EVs, including the 2011 Nissan Leaf, is their long recharging times.
Think about it. The Leaf's limited driving range (Nissan claims 100 miles; EPA's testing pegs it at 73 miles) would be far less of an inconvenience if you could recharge that sucker in a few minutes. Were there ample availability of chargers with gas-stationlike refueling speed, you could hopscotch across the entire country in 90-mile bites without a worry in the world.
So in the context of modern traditional motoring, the albatross draped on the Leaf is a familiar and elderly bird. If you deplete the Leaf's batteries, you're going to wait a minimum of 8 hours (240-volt charger) to replenish its charge. Stuck with a traditional 120-volt wall socket? 21 hours. Running out of juice is sitting-on-your-ass anxiety, not range anxiety.
Yeah, but Still
None of this is meant to imply that the 2011 Nissan Leaf isn't suitable transportation for certain folks. On the contrary, the Leaf excels at being an otherwise normal car, which represents its most significant accomplishment. Its price point puts it within the reach of mere mortals, too. A Leaf can make sense financially and practically if you're willing to adjust your lifestyle to accommodate it — which Americans have been loath to do.
GM's EV1 of more than a decade ago resurrected the idea of the modern electric car. It was ahead of its time and so is the Leaf. But that time is now getting closer. One breakthrough in the ability to charge batteries quickly is all that separates us from our electrically propelled future.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.