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.
Similar to hybrid vehicles, the Leaf uses its regenerative brakes to recapture kinetic energy. A couple of power gauges indicate when it is replenishing its batteries. On the freeway, the heavy power usage caused the range meter to lose about 15 miles, but back on city streets, low-speed driving raised that number right back up.
Climate control remained off for most of that route, not a problem with external temperatures in the low 60s. For fresh air, we cracked the window. A helpful screen showed how many miles using climate control would have taken from the car's range.
After this journey, it was easy to plug the car into an outlet using the included adapter. A hatch in front of the Leaf covers two ports, one for any conventional AC source, and the other designed for DC quick charge stations. When plugged in, three blue lights glow at the top of the dashboard, blinking to indicate charging status.
With the battery level in the red, the Leaf indicated it would take more than 20 hours for a full charge from a 110-volt source, and about 9 hours from 220. The Leaf uses a battery pack made up of 48 modules each containing four lithium ion cells, the total rated at 24 kilowatt hours.
The Leaf comes standard with navigation, a Bluetooth phone system, and an iPod connector. The navigation system is standard Nissan issue, showing 2D or 3D maps in good resolution, and rendering some landmark buildings in urban areas. But the maps lack the lush and rich detail of those used by BMW and Audi. Hard-drive-based, the navigation system responds quickly to inputs, with an easy-to-use onscreen keyboard.
Along with showing traffic and routing around bad traffic jams, the Car Wings telematics service includes a Google map connection. To use it, a driver finds destinations with Google maps on a computer, then saves them online with Car Wings. Once in the Leaf, Car Wings can download those destinations to the navigation system.
Route guidance works just as well as with any Nissan, reading out street names to indicate upcoming turns and showing useful graphics. But route guidance defaults to the quickest routes, prioritizing use of freeways, for example. This behavior is not optimized for the electric Leaf, where the shortest distance route will preserve its range. And although the route might be littered with stop signs and traffic signals, the Leaf revels in those conditions.
A voice command system allows control of navigation and the phone system but does not work with the stereo. Its options for entering destinations proved very limited, as it is only able to draw from saved destinations or the vehicle's home address. Voice command does not let you manually enter a street address.
Given the need to keep energy use to a minimum in the car, it is no surprise that Nissan avoided using a name brand audio system with a big amp. Instead, it uses a simple six-speaker system. The sound quality was adequate, about average for a midsize hatchback or sedan.
Nissan hides a CD slot behind the LCD, not the best arrangement for access. But most people will probably rely on Bluetooth audio streaming, the USB port for an iPod, or the satellite radio. The various audio screens are well-styled, with graphics indicating the audio source. For an iPod, the system shows a typical music library, with categories for artist, album, and genre, among others. Scrolling through iPod selections, the LCD is reasonably responsive, but finding a particular artist or album can be tedious. Although the car has a hard drive, it does not record or save music.
The car's Bluetooth phone system offers a modern set of features. It includes two different phone books, one downloaded from a paired phone and the other stored in the vehicle. With voice command, the system lets you dial by a contact's name. The call quality, aided by the car's silent running, comes through clearly.
Given its range and the lack of quick chargers currently deployed, the 2011 Nissan Leaf only works for a very specific type of driver. The Leaf is best-suited for anyone with a garage who commutes less than 40 miles to work every day. People who fit this profile number in the millions, and the Leaf's primary benefit will be that it costs about 70 percent less than a car powered by gasoline to keep running. For this reason, along with its zero emissions and general drivability, we give its power train high marks. As more electric cars hit the market, the Leaf will lose its unique character, but for now, it stands alone.
Although its big headlight casings will be a sore point for some people, they actually serve the purpose of funneling wind around the side mirrors. We also found the rear profile of the car very pleasing. The design is overall very practical, the hatchback allowing for easy cargo access, and the high roofline making for comfortable seating. The electronics interface also looks good and is smartly arranged, earning the Leaf good marks for design.
The cabin electronics are also very good, with some elements that run closer to average. For example, the stereo is no different than you would find in many a midsize car, and the voice command system is limited in functionality. But the navigation system is excellent, and the connectivity from the Car Wings telematics system boosts the car's cabin tech score.
|Model||2011 Nissan Leaf|
|Power train||80-kilowatt motor, 24-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery|
|EPA fuel economy||106 MPGe city/92 MPGe highway|
|Observed fuel economy||n/a|
|Navigation||Standard hard-drive-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Backup camera|
|Price as tested||$35,430|