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.
The Nissan Leaf is the first of many new electric cars designed for everyday use.
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.
This power display rewards efficient driving by growing trees, which becomes kind of a fun geek game.
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.
This map shows straight line range, along with charging stations.
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.
This energy usage screen includes how much using the climate control will affect the range.
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.
The Leaf's plug-in port is in under a hatch in the hood. The car comes with an adapter for a standard grounded outlet.
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.
The navigation system uses the same maps as other Nissan cars, but includes a database of charging stations.
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.
The motorized LCD is not the most convenient way to load CDs, but the car also has an iPod port.
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|