Nissan Leaf — Plug and play

By Al Vinikour

Many things will make a believer out of someone but the best way I know of is to experience something first-hand. Thus, when tasked with “field testing” the 2011 Nissan Leaf, dubbed the world’s first affordable, zero-emission car, I was skeptical because all one hears is “Green,” or "Environmental Friendly.”

It gets to the point that it’s easy to become numbed to manufacturers’ claims that they’ve created the next sliced bread. However, after spending time with the 2011 Nissan Leaf I have completely gone over to the “Clean Side.”

The first thing noticeable is that Leaf looks like a normal, decent-looking compact hatchback. But for all you crab-lovers out there who overcame your initial revulsion of those creepy crawlers and now love them, you know that looks truly can be deceiving. Step inside and you’re entering a whole new world of technology.

Truth be told, however, all the technology in the world isn’t going to make you comfortable in a vehicle that isn’t built that way. Don’t include Leaf in that category. The room and comfort of this vehicle is at the top of surprises found in this little package.

There are no protuberances to annoy those with larger thighs or long legs. Whether behind the wheel, a front-seat passenger or even a rear-seat passenger, Leaf has all the legroom one would need in a vehicle. Even with the front seats in their most rearward position there’s more than enough rear-seat legroom to make the tallest individual happy.

First and foremost, Leaf is a 100% electric, zero-emission vehicle. Don’t bother having a scavenger hunt looking for a tailpipe because you won’t find one. Its lithium-ion battery pack comes with an 8-year/100,000 mile warranty. The battery itself is housed in the floor for optimum vehicle packaging and weight distribution and by not intruding into the cabin space allows for 5-passenger seating.

Range on a full charge is 100 miles, although battery capacity decreases with time and use — plus the usual factors such as speed, weather conditions, passenger load, etc. However, a full charge on a 120V line will take 21 hours, but on a 220V setup it will take 8 hours. Additionally, a DC Fast Charge that will give 80% capacity only takes about 30 minutes.

On a real-world drive through a variety of roads in Tennessee, Leaf performed like a champ. Nissan lists its top speed at 90 mph. I had it up to 80 mph (which is also the real-world equivalent of speeding) and even driving it at a regular pace — including passing slow-moving vehicles — it didn’t lack for performance. 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque doesn’t sound like much but when propelling this less-than-3,400-pound vehicle it’s more than adequate.

It's front-wheel drive and the transmission is a single speed reducer with a shift-by-wire drive selector. It takes a time or two to get used to the shift lever because it’s “different” but once that’s mastered the world is your Leaf. Final drive radio is 7.9377:1. (Try that gearing with a high-performance V8 and you’d redline at about 4-feet.)

Driving the Leaf on curvy roads is a real hoot. The turning radius is unbelievable, at 17.1 feet curb-to-curb. The car is responsive and solid, with no discernable body sway on turns. Nissan worked long and hard to reduce wind noise and it shows. My driving buddy and I kept the radio off so we could listen for any kind of extraneous sounds, but the only real identifiable one was the electric whine similar to one hears when driving a golf cart.
However, unlike some vehicles in this segment, Leaf is no golf cart.

Since 90% of the U.S. population drives less than 100 miles per day — including commuting, running errands and anything else one needs a car for, Leaf could be the only vehicle a family would ever need. If they wanted to drive longer distances for weekend trips they can always call Enterprise…they’ll pick them up.

There are two trim levels on the 2011 Leaf — SV and the upscale SL. SL gives you the option of ordering the Quick Charge Port, which can’t be purchased after the sale. It also includes a few extra doo-dads but the standard equipment on Leaf SV is outstanding! It even includes such high-end items like Nissan’s Navigation System, an AM/FM/CD with MP3/WMA CD-ROM playback capability audio system, a huge array of convenience, exterior and safety features and a really cool Energy Consumption Monitor that gives you all the up-to-the-second data you need for range management.

Speaking of safety, tests show no damage to the battery pack during a 40 mph frontal off-set crash test. Furthermore, there is no internal pressure effect by rapid cooling in ice and there’s water-tightness to high-pressure car washers and water-tightness in full submersion.

Among other benefits to Leaf ownership are no oil changes, no engine to worry about and some mind-blowing cost-per-mile figures. For instance, even a vehicle getting a respectable 25 mpg would cost $1,800 at $3.00 per gallon for a 15,000-mile run. That equals 12-cents per mile. Leaf’s cost would be $396 (at $0.026 per mile), an average of $0.11 per kWh or about $3 in energy cost for a complete charge. Even if gasoline went below $1.10 per gallon, Leaf would still have an advantage.

Range anxiety, that sinking feeling when you think the Leaf will run out of charge before getting home, should be curbed by 2012 when over 12,000 public charging stations come on line.

Another pleasant surprise is the price. Leaf’s base price is $32,780. However, there’s a $7,500 Federal Tax Credit and other credits given by states and other entities that really do a hatchet job on the price. Besides the environmental impact of the Nissan Leaf, think of it as a well-earned present for yourself for all your hard work.

There are not many opportunities to save a lot of money and have a great time.

Base price: $32,780                  
Engine:  80 kW AC synchronous electric motor/laminated 24 kWh lithium-ion battery, 192 cells 

Horsepower: 107

Torque: 207 pound feet                                                                                                           
Drive: front wheel

Transmission:  Single Speed Reducer/Shift-by-wire drive selector 

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase:  106.3 inches

Length: 175.0 inches

Curb weight: 3,370 pounds

Turning circle: 17.1 feet

Range: 100 Miles

0-60: N/A

Also consider: Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-in, Mitsubishi i-MiEV

The Good:

• Good looks                       
• Extremely fun to drive
• Soft spoken
• Roomy                                           
• Affordable

The Bad:

• The range needle showing less availability than you need to get home

The Ugly:

• The world outside the Nissan Leaf. Inside, life is beautiful