An electric car with a backseat, steers and brakes well, snappy in-town acceleration, quiet (of course), intelligent nav system helps alleviate range anxiety.
100-mile range is a rough guideline based on city driving in good weather, price is high if you don't utilize credits and rebates, extra-cost 240-volt home charger is a practical necessity.
Who killed the electric car? Well, if your definition of the word "car" implies practical transportation, something with a backseat and a seating capacity of at least four, you could argue that there wasn't a real electric car before the 2011 Nissan Leaf.
The famed GM EV-1 was an impractical two-seater that you couldn't actually buy, and the more recent Mini E, another lease-only special, was in reality an engineering exercise in which people actually paid to participate. The electric Tesla Roadster is an unashamed sports car derived from the diminutive Lotus Elise, a contortionist's dream. Oh sure, there are a handful of old Toyota RAV4 EVs floating around out there, but only in fleets. No, the 2011 Nissan Leaf just may be the first practical electric car that real families can actually buy and own.
But the Nissan Leaf introduction has been a series of teases. First there were pictures and an auto show concept. Then we drove a heavily modified Nissan Versa fitted with prototype Leaf bits for about a half-mile in a Dodger stadium parking lot. After that, a staffer was invited to Japan for a brief drive at the proving ground. Until now we'd never actually driven one on real roads on familiar home soil.
Our admittedly brief 45-minute drive was confined to city streets in and around Santa Monica and Malibu, but that's actually a good test environment because, let's face it, an electric car with 100 miles of range (more on that later) isn't going terribly far from home. There will be no high-speed runs to Vegas, no ski trips to the local mountains.
In this urban/suburban context, the 2011 Nissan Leaf drives like an utterly normal car. Its 80-kilowatt electric motor (equivalent to 107 horsepower) delivers almost all of its available torque from the word "go," so it feels sprightly and gets up to speed with no drama.
Press on the brakes and the pedal is firm and sure. It's hard to feel where the electronic regenerative braking ends and friction braking from the four-wheel disc brakes begins because the Leaf's engineers have blended the two seamlessly.
Electronic power steering (EPS) is tough to configure to avoid the lifeless and disconnected feel of a video game, but electric cars and hybrids must use EPS because they can't rely on the engine to always be running and thus pumping fluid for conventional hydraulic steering. Here in the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the engineers have once again got it right, because the Leaf's EPS system imparts a natural and progressive steering feel.
Bottom line: There are no golf cart tendencies here. The 2011 Nissan Leaf drives like many other well-engineered compact family cars.
Of course the electric motor that powers the Nissan Leaf is utterly silent, so there is a quietness to the driving experience that's somehow still surprising, even though the logical part of our brain fully expects it. But low engine noise (no engine noise in this case) can have the side effect of making wind and road noise more apparent.
Nissan's engineers tell us they took pains to reduce these noise sources to meet the low noise level produced by the powertrain. They point to the aerodynamic shape of the protruding headlights as one such example.
Because the battery pack hangs under the seats and floor where it doesn't interfere with cabin space, two rows of seating are possible. In fact our 6-foot-2 test driver had no shortage of space behind the wheel, while the rear seats were quite suitable for adults.
Leaf owners won't ever spend much more than an hour at a stretch behind the wheel due to the battery's limitations, but the ride is smooth, and the seats are comfortable and supportive.
Up to this point, the 2011 Nissan Leaf seems like any other hatchback with four seats and a decent amount of trunk space under the hatch.
But an electric car is functionally alien. First and foremost is the 100-mile range and the fact that if you run out of juice, you're walking. A depleted battery takes 7 to 8 hours to fully recharge on a dedicated 240-volt charger, and 18 or 19 hours via a standard household 110-volt garage outlet.
Furthermore, the 100-mile estimate for cruising range is a nominal value that is highly dependent not only on driving style but also on temperature. Beach weather is best; high heat or extreme cold do the batteries no favors. With respect to gasoline cars, the saying goes "your mileage may vary." With an electric one, it should read, "your range may vary — a lot." Assume the predicted range value could be 40 miles lower or, if conditions are perfect, 40 miles higher.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf tries to alleviate so-called "range anxiety" and uncertainty in a number of ways. Its instrument panel contains a display that coaches you to be as efficient as possible in your driving style. The navigation system, a standard feature, has dedicated screens that constantly recalculate the remaining range based on how aggressively you're driving. The car even will estimate and display the range implications of running the climate control system and other accessories that ultimately share the same battery.
Furthermore, the navigation system's map illustrates how far you can go, and it can be set to display the location of any nearby industry-standard SAE J1772 240-volt chargers the Leaf uses. That list is very small at present, but once these and other electric cars hit the streets, new public charging stations are expected to be added all the time. In recognition of this, the Leaf's navigation system has a unique auto-update feature that uses cellular networks to update this crucial map data.
But a Leaf owner shouldn't count on charging away from home, and the long time necessary to recharge through a standard 110-volt outlet is a non-starter. Folks who buy a Leaf need to have a dedicated charger installed in their garage. Nissan is partnering with Aerovironment to help blend this into the purchase experience, but shoppers need to know that the charger is essentially a must-have option that could cost around $2,200 installed, before any applicable tax credits.
Here the Nissan Leaf seems to be taking a page out of the Prius playbook, in that this alternative-fuel vehicle has unique styling that looks different from other Nissans. The Leaf is fundamentally different and so it looks different. It's much the same on the inside, as the cockpit is dominated by a unique and prominent shift knob. It's easy to use, so it's a case of no harm, no foul. The Leaf we drove appeared to be well assembled, but we hesitate to make a firm conclusion because it wasn't a fully fledged production sample.
Anyone who wants to reduce our country's dependence on foreign oil, reduce smog or reduce a personal carbon footprint will be happy in a 2011 Nissan Leaf. But even though the 2011 Nissan Leaf is classified as a zero-emissions vehicle, the electricity always comes from somewhere. If your local power plants are coal-fired, your carbon footprint might actually be smaller with a gasoline hybrid.
Above all, Nissan Leaf buyers need to have a reasonable commute or a small radius of operation. For longer trips, they'll need to have another car that runs on gas or diesel. They also need to have a garage in which to install that 240-volt charger. This last qualification may ease a bit as more public chargers appear over time, but for now, renters and curb-parkers should probably cross this one off their shopping list and see how the charging situation evolves.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-hosted event, to which selected members of the automotive press were invited, to facilitate this report.