2011 Nissan Leaf

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — No fuel tank. No tailpipe. No gasoline engine. Is this a car or some kind of video game toy with a joystick? We discovered that the revolutionary Nissan Leaf, the first mass-produced all-electric sedan hatchback in North America, is indeed a car — albeit a very unconventional car.

It's a car that a family can live with and drive exactly like their compact sedan. Well, not quite like their compact sedan.

The Leaf fuels up from an electrical outlet and needs to be carefully monitored for range so that the driver does not find him or herself stranded without a charge. It can create the newest of psychoses termed “range anxiety.”

The Leaf can go 100 miles on average on a charge depending on your driving habits and outside temperature — cold-weather climates will swipe a bit of range. Nissan says these 100 miles will add about $3 to the average electricity bill. At today's prices, $3 will buy a gallon of gas just about anywhere in the U.S. meaning that at current pump prices the Leaf will return about 100 miles to the equivalent cost of a gallon of gas. One hundred miles per gallon sounds attractive and then you have to reload (recharge).

As to charging, there are three possibilities — slow, moderate and fast. What Nissan calls "trickle" is simply plugging into a 110/120 volt electrical current found in all homes. It will take as much as 20 hours for a complete recharge. Most owners will pay to have a 220/240-volt plug installed. This will take about eight hours, no problem overnight. And Nissan says commercial 440-volt fast charging stations are being developed, which will handle a full charge in about 30 minutes. What the cost of recharging at a 440 station will be is unknown.

As for the driving dynamics, the Leaf is a winner. It's roomy for four adults. It's loaded with modern-day features including navigation and upscale audio system. It is quick — extremely quick — at slow speeds because of its prodigious torque (206 pound-feet), and it handles much like any small sedan. And it's extremely quiet. It feels like a car that most people would enjoy driving.

Leaf could be a great "around town" car or a very efficient commuter and car-pooling vehicle if your roundtrip is 75 miles or less.

The Leaf sells for $32,780, but there's a $7,500 federal tax credit bringing the cost down to around 25 grand. And several states have added tax credits of around $5,000.

The Leaf goes on sale in select markets in December, but the 2011 supply of 20,000 vehicles is sold out. Fear not. Nissan expects to rapidly increase supply in 2012, and going forward.

— Jim Meachen