Nissan is taking an early step in the electrification of the automobile, developing the Leaf for mass production by the end of 2010. The car is designed as a practical, everyday driver with seating for five and a hatchback for cargo. Range will be a little over 100 miles, suitable for most people's commutes.
When Nissan first released pictures of the Leaf, we thought it looked oddly proportioned. But seeing it in person, the car actually looks good. It has some unconventional design elements, but it fits the mold of a midsize economy car well.
The headlights are the most controversial design features of the Leaf, but there is a good reason for their protruding shape. The headlight casings serve to split the airflow over the side mirrors, improving the aerodynamics and reducing wind noise. Nissan also uses LED headlights on the Leaf, as they draw less energy.
Lifting a hatch on the front of the car, just below the hood, reveals two plug-in sockets. The one on the right is the standardized SAE J1772, also used by Tesla. The one on the left is a proprietary Nissan design that allows charging of the Leaf's batteries to 80 percent in 30 minutes.
The power-train layout of the Leaf is made up of an electric motor driving the front wheels through a single-gear transmission, and about 500 pounds of flat lithium ion batteries set in the chassis. The battery placement and distribution keeps the weight low, improving the Leaf's stability.
The hatchback area is particularly deep, providing a lot of vertical room. The low floor might prove a problem for weekly grocery runs, as the grocery bags would sit inconveniently low. For production, expect some sort of shelf back here.
The Leaf's drive selector is a joystick set into the console, designed to be operated with your palm. Pushing it to the left lets you select drive, reverse, and neutral. Similar to the Tesla, regenerative braking kicks in as soon as you lift off the accelerator, immediately slowing the car.
Nissan uses a bilevel instrument cluster, with displays showing speed, range, and when the batteries are draining or being charged by the regenerative braking. Graphic symbols of trees multiply in the top display when you drive more economically.
Navigation will come standard with the Leaf, along with Bluetooth phone integration. This interface uses a touch surface for virtual buttons. The car will also be connected, letting you run some functions remotely, using a PC or smart phone.