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Nissan Leaf Test Drive and First Impressions

Steve Puma | Monday August 2nd, 2010 | 3 Comments

Earlier this week, I wrote about the launch of Nissan’s first fully-electric vehicle, the LEAF, and General Motors’ “parallel-hybrid” EV, the Chevy Volt. To briefly recap, the LEAF will have an MSRP of $32,780, leaving it close to $22,000 after Federal and State rebates. It has a range of 100 miles on a full charge, comes with an 8-year/100K mile battery warranty, and will be available for delivery to select cities starting in December.

I got a chance to test drive the LEAF, and, while I expected it to be a good car (Nissan quality, fully-electric drive), I hadn’t realized just how much I would like it. It’s fun to drive, and appears to deliver the experience that most small-car buyers expect and the range that they need, without sacrificing much. Perhaps the EV transition won’t be that difficult after all!

Not a blast from the past

Before I tell you about the test drive, a little ancient history: For a brief period of time, many moons ago, I worked in a Nissan dealership in San Diego. If there was one impression that working there left me with, it was that Nissan made great cars, of excellent quality, which people loved, but they were generally perceived as boring. The company never seemed to take a risk. If Toyota had something, then Nissan had one that was more conservative, less powerful, and not too much cheaper.

Now Nissan has something that Toyota doesn’t have, and neither does any other major auto manufacturer, at least not in the US: a fully electric vehicle with range enough for most drivers. And, counter to my ancient memories, this time, they were the first.

Non space-egg design

I watched the LEAF come and go several times, before I got my turn, and the LEAF is a very nice-looking small car.  Nothing about it screams “green”, or “I’m environmentally friendly”, unlike the Prius’s space-egg design. This is important, because EVs are not going to gain a very large foothold in the market if they all look like something straight out of the Jetsons. LEAF chief designer Masato Inoue relates that designers specifically avoided using an egg-shaped design: “Lowering the rear section of the roof is certainly better…but that sacrifices room in the rear seat. A great deal of effort was devoted to improving LEAF’s aerodynamics while retaining rear-seat spaciousness.”

As a result of this choice, the LEAF is a much bigger car than you expect it to be, in terms of passenger and cargo capacity. The four-door LEAF has seating for five, although it is really closer to four if your rear passengers are grown adults and not children. However, the seating was quite comfortable for me and my three male passengers, none of us particularly svelte.

In control

The driving controls are laid out in a fairly standard Japanese-minimalist setup: everything is where you expect it to be. In an interesting departure from expectations, the main gauge cluster includes a simplified display of range and charge rate (Humorously described by Mark Perry, Nissan director of product planning and advanced technology strategy, as looking like a “geiger-counter”). For more detailed information, you refer to the very large center console display, which contained mileage/efficiency, GPS and entertainment functions.

The display arrangement was similar in function and layout to what you would find in a Prius, but I found the LEAF’s display to be less cluttered, and easier to navigate.

Getting the LEAF “in gear” is pretty easy: lightly pull left and back on a large, shifter-like button, which takes almost zero effort. There are two modes: drive, which lets you use the full power of the engine at your discretion, and eco, which limits some of the acceleration, so that the range is extended.

Of course, I chose the drive mode, and the first thing I experienced was the power the LEAF had from a full stop, and it didn’t disappoint. It had a lot of power, which you don’t expect from a car this size, with a constant torque curve, as should be expected from an electric car. Eco mode was somewhat more restrained, and was more of a typical small-car experience.

The regenerative brakes are noticeable when they engage, but not in a bad way. As a matter of fact, Mr. Perry informed us that the LEAF simulates the feel of “engine braking”, and, this is more pronounced in eco mode, because it uses the regenerative braking system more, so as to add more energy to the battery.

Bottoms-up design

One thing that I was curious about was how the car’s interior would be heated on cold days, since electric motors don’t produce usable heat in the amounts that gasoline engines do. Nissan uses a standard air-conditioning system with an electric-coil heater. Since these items will reduce the effective range when they are in use, the center display keeps you apprised of how much range their use is costing you. (Every so often, you will see a line of text that says something like: “Air conditioner engaged -2 miles”, etc.)

But Nissan engineers took heating one step further: the LEAF has heated seats! I’ll bet that your reaction to this statement, like mine, was total shock, but it turns out to be a sensible choice: it is much more efficient to warm you up by heating your rear end first, instead of heating the entire car!

Gadget crazy and charged-up

My favorite non-driving items were the little tech touches, such as a choice of three startup sounds, one of which sounds like my Mac (apparently, people keep pressing the start button, when there is no startup sound). The GPS appeared to be quite nice, as was the entertainment system, which included various inputs for USB and iPods along with XM/Sirius satellite radio built-in. It was all quite easy to understand and to switch between functions using the steering wheel-mounted controls.

With the standard 110-volt charger that it comes with, the LEAF can charge from empty to full in 20 hours. With an inexpensive 220-volt upgrade (due to a Federal rebate), the time drops down to 8 hours. Publicly-available quick-charging facilities will allow the LEAF to achieve an 80% charge in only 30 minutes.

Fin

The bottom line: the LEAF is a “real” car. It is fun to drive, has a lot of power, is very comfortable, and has many features found on bigger and more expensive cars. With range enough for most trips, this car would fit perfectly in the “two-car” household, where an extended-range vehicle in only needed occasionally or on weekends. I very much enjoyed it, and I am seriously going to consider it when I am ready to buy my next new car.

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Steve Puma is Director of Business Development for SABA Motors, and a sustainability writer/consultant. His work focuses on clean transportation, including Plug-In Electric Vehicles, something he is very passionate about.

Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.


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