The first of the mass-produced electric cars is here--a first drop in what is likely to be a flood of new vehicles. Within its range limitations, the Nissan Leaf works very well, with the bonus of undercutting the running costs of a gasoline-powered car significantly.
The Leaf represents a risky move for Nissan: the company could be taking the lead on an entirely new automotive market, or impracticalities of range and recharging could lead to a flop. But current sales interest in the Leaf, along with industry development, points to the former.
The Leaf's headlights, sure to be a sore point for some, stick up high to channel air around the side view mirrors. Nissan found in testing that the side mirrors not only caused a lot of drag, but also produced a lot of noise as they cut through the air. In gasoline cars, that noise is masked by the sound of the engine.
A hatch at the front of the car covers two charging ports. One port works with standard 110 and 220 volt outlets, and uses a J1772 standard plug, while the other works with DC rapid chargers, and is a proprietary Nissan design.
What looks like a little four-cylinder engine under the hood is actually the power control module for the lithium ion battery pack and electric motor. Below it sits an 80 kilowatt motor that turns the front wheels.
With no tailpipe, the Nissan Leaf earns its zero emission label. However, emissions may be associated with generating the electricity that runs the Leaf. In the U.S., electricity generation varies greatly by region, but overall, coal plants generate the most, at just under 50 percent. Nuclear comes in second, at about 20 percent, with natural gas in third. All of these generation means are domestically sourced.
The rear design of the Leaf is an intriguing as the front, with long taillights embedded into the rear pillars. In this SL-E trim car, a solar panel embedded in the roof, near the spoiler, helps recharge the car's 12 volt accessory battery.
Steering is necessarily run through an electric power steering unit. It turns easily, but the feel is numb, without much road feedback. However, as the Leaf is far from a sports car, a very responsive wheel is not all that necessary.