As the first mass production electric car, the 2011 Nissan Leaf follows in the tire tracks of the Model T. The Leaf might be the herald of a new era in automobiles, which could profoundly affect the way we drive. That's a lot of weight for a simple suburban runabout to carry, and is bound to bring unrealistic expectations.
Although priced in the realm of top-trim midsize sedans, the hatchback Leaf lacks power-adjustable leather seats. Its ride is too firm for luxury and it doesn't handle like a sports car. It also suffers from a range of about 100 miles and a recharge time counted in hours. And running the climate control system shaves about 15 miles off the range.
But taking into account what the Leaf is not, it still proves to be a practical car, with a roomy interior that can fit five people in its comfortable, cushy seats. Nissan uses recycled materials in the seats, headliner, and interior panels to push its environmentally conscious theme. Cargo space is ample with the deep well under the hatchback, and navigation comes standard.
Most importantly, push the accelerator and the car takes off easily, more than keeping up with traffic. That 100-mile range is a serious limitation when thinking of a weekend getaway, but in an urban or suburban area, most people will be able to drive to and from work, run a few errands, and even go out to dinner.
The Nissan Leaf starts up with a pleasant set of musical notes as the digital instrument cluster comes to life. Owners of hybrids will be familiar with the quiet that ensues--the sound of an engine not coming to life. No whirring of a starter motor, no clatter of injectors, and no bark as contained explosions push cylinders.
Instead of a big, mechanical shifter, an easily palmed plastic puck sits on the console, a shift pattern printed nearby. Pulling the puck to the left, then dragging it to the back puts the car into standard drive mode. A tap on the accelerator, which feels no different than gas pedals in most other cars, sends the Leaf gliding forward.
With the windows down, you might notice a whistling whirring sound, a noise generated to let pedestrians hear the car. With its electric power steering unit, the wheel turns easily, movement aided by low rolling resistance tires. In fact, the wheel feels a bit numb, not transmitting much road feedback, reasonable tuning for this car's mission.
Rolling down the road, the suspension's firmness comes through. Speed bumps deliver a noticeable thump through the cabin, but the car does not vibrate much over rough pavement. The Leaf deals with imperfections in the road quickly, absorbing then leaving them a distant memory.
A display above the steering wheel shows the car's speed in bright numbers, while next to it a digital circular gauge indicates power usage. Keeping the circle full causes a representation of a tree to grow, starting with its trunk and on to the upper branches. The Leaf makes growing trees a game, saving each one and starting another. Over an hour of driving we managed two and a quarter trees.
Under the ring of the steering wheel sits the main instrument display, this one in color and showing the all-important remaining range on the right superimposed on a bar graph for the battery level. On the left a similar bar graph shows the battery temperature, but that serves the same practical purpose as the temperature gauge for a car with a gas engine--if it goes significantly above half, it probably means something catastrophically bad has happened.
The center LCD also offers lots of information about energy usage, with a couple of screens showing battery draw and recharge, along with miles per kilowatt-hour, a number that hovers around 4.5. Another screen shows the Leaf's remaining range superimposed on a map, but as the map display shows distances as-the-crow-flies, it is not really useful.
Nissan integrated a database of charging stations with the navigation system, which can be updated through the car's Car Wings telematics service. After spending a night charging in the CNET garage, the car automatically added CNET as a charging station to its database, keeping a record of place it has been plugged in. What the charging station database lacks is any information about the voltage of the charging station, 110, 220, or a Level II or Level III rapid charger. But it is early days yet for charging infrastructure.
All the energy-usage displays and the tree-growing game discourage lead foot behavior, but flooring the accelerator produces a powerful push forward. And unlike a gas engine car, there is no power dip during gear changes--the Leaf just accelerates steadily on. Going up a steep San Francisco hill, the car charged forward, its 80-kilowatt motor showing no sign of lagging.
Although the electric motor only churns out 107 horsepower, its 207 pound-feet of torque give it strong initial acceleration, enough to chirp the front wheels. At speeds of 20 to 30 mph, it still has a lot of acceleration headroom, but on the freeway a push on the accelerator makes it bolt forward less promptly.
Cornering is not the Leaf's strong point. The tires are optimized for easy rolling, not holding a death grip on the pavement. But its weight feels low to the ground, helping it maintain stability. It doesn't exhibit any bad behavior when taken through a turn quickly, but the numb steering makes it easy to oversteer, which could lead to a driver error-caused accident.
During a driving excursion starting in San Francisco, the Leaf traveled 30 miles down the Peninsula and back, then made a few stops around the city, finally settling back into the CNET garage. The route involved freeway speeds of 65 and 70 mph, stop and start traffic, and tackling steep hills, and covered a total distance of just under 70 miles. Back at CNET, the car showed it could go another 18 miles.