2011 Nissan Leaf Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2011 Nissan Leaf

New Car Test Drive
© 2011 NewCarTestDrive.com

The Nissan Leaf is the first mass-production all-electric vehicle to go on sale in the U.S. As such, it has no direct competitors at the moment, although the Mitsubishi iMiev, Ford Focus electric, Mini E, and Prius plug-in hybrid are all on their way to market in the near future.

Leaf is a four-door compact car that seats five.

The promise of the Leaf is an operating range of 100 miles, a top speed of 90 mph, and a 0-60 acceleration time of about 7 seconds flat. With ordinary house current, the Leaf will charge up overnight. With a 240-volt home, business or rental charging unit, it will charge in four hours.

The name Leaf comes from the original concept vehicle and is an acronym for Low Emission Automobile of the Future, which suggests its mission. The Leaf is a zero-emissions vehicle, with no engine, no tailpipe and no harmful emissions at all. Nissan says the Leaf uses recycled water bottles for its seat coverings, and a range of other wood and plastic recycled and recyclable materials in its interior and exterior design, making it the greenest production car ever built, about 94 percent recyclable.

With this car, it is necessary to talk about money as an intrinsic part of the car's charm. While the base price nationally is $32,780, there is a federal tax credit for electric cars of $7,500, which brings the price down to $25,280. In California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, and other states there is a $5,000 state incentive, in the form of a check, for buyers of electric cars, which drives the cost down to $20,280 in those states. If you elect to purchase a personal charging dock for your home, office or condo, there is an additional federal tax credit of $2000, which would bring the cost down to $18,280 plus tax and license fees. However, all Leafs will be subject to a $700 charge for inspection at the port. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include $820 destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)

The Nissan Leaf's lease deal is attractive. It requires a $1,995 down payment, and a monthly fee of $359 for 36 months with a mileage limit of 36,000 miles.

In some states, an electric car also means unrestricted access to the HOV lanes on the highways no matter how many people are in the car. Nissan says, using a national average for electricity rates, a full overnight battery charge will only cost a dollar. That means for most American commuters a five-dollar-a-week cost of going to and from work.

Model Lineup

Nissan Leaf SV ($32,780); SL ($33,720)

Walk Around

Why does the Leaf look the way it does? Purely for the best electrical and aerodynamic function possible, because it operates so quietly. So quietly, in fact, that Nissan worked with a number of groups to design and build a noise generator that operates between 1 mph and 18 mph, so that blind pedestrians and their guide dogs can hear the car coming toward them. After 18 mph, the tire noise and wind noise generated by the body are enough of a noise signature to be heard.

That hatch in the nose is where the electric charging system terminal resides. Those raised headlamp units that stand proud off the front fenders were designed to split the air into two paths, so that the two paths would go around the outside rearview mirrors as quietly as possible. A similar low-noise treatment was done to the antenna. The big mouth on the bottom carries cooling air into the motor compartment and, interestingly, Nissan has made the underhood area look like a conventional four-cylinder engine and 12-volt battery. The slippery shape, which includes a completely flat bottom, generates a wind-tunnel coefficient of drag of only 0.29, among the best of all cars, because aerodynamic drag drains power and creates unwanted noise.

Nissan has equipped the Leaf with a system called Carwings, a smartphone application that can check state of charge, charging status, a start-charging command, and a remote switch to start the heating or cooling system. It can also tell the driver if the charger has been inadvertently or deliberately disconnected.


Nissan has made sure that nothing has been left out of the Leaf package, with voice-guided navigation, cruise control, electric air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and locks (the seats are manual), 60/40 split folding rear seats, AM/FM/XM/CD six-speaker sound system with AUX and iPod inputs, Bluetooth, and a trip computer (with instant and average energy use, driving time remaining, outside temperature and autonomy range).

Special instruments include a large speedometer, battery temperature, power meter, remaining energy, capacity level, distance-to-empty, and an ECO mode indicator. The palm-sized floor shifter offers Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and one more notch to the rear, Eco mode, which changes how the throttle and brakes work to give the best possible mileage performance from the battery. The Leaf navigation system is programmed to show all available public charging stations as well as a continuously updated circle of driving range overlaid on the nav map. There is a separate screen for charging timer to take advantage of low electricity rates at night, and a climate control timer screen.

Inside, the Leaf is simple, clean and modern, with the instrumentation packaged in a beautiful blue-tinted array of center, left, and right modules.

The seats are comfortable and well fitting, the adjustable wheel is comfortable to use, and there is plenty of light coming into the car from the large windows and narrow pillars. There is more room inside the Leaf than it looks like from the outside.

Driving Impressions

We had as much driving fun with the Leaf as we've had in a long time, because it is so very different from the normal and usual. The electric motor provides tons of silent torque to get away from stoplights, and still has plenty of power for 40-70 mph passing maneuvers. And it will go better than 90 mph on level roads. If your goal is hypermiling, getting the absolute most out of each battery charge, the instruments will help you all the way, including one at the top left that first completes a circle and then grows virtual trees as you drive.

The operating guts of the Nissan Leaf are a 600-pound laminated lithium-ion battery made up in a series of four cells to a module, and 48 modules, for a total of 192 batteries in the pack, made for Nissan by its battery partner, NEC of Japan. It uses a combination of lithium ion, manganese and graphite to generate electricity, which means there are no hazardous materials in the battery itself, and the flat battery, centered in the car under the floor for best handling, is permanently sealed and encased in a thick aluminum case.

The battery is capable of 90 kilowatts of power with a capacity of 4 kilowatt-hours, and will be warranted or eight years or 100,000 miles of operation. Through an elaborate electronic control system, the battery connects to a synchronous AC electric motor rated at 80 kilowatts and 280 Newton-meters (or 207 foot-pounds) of torque. The onboard battery charger, which comes into play automatically every time the accelerator pedal is released or the brake pedal is applied, through regenerative braking, is rated at 3.3 kilowatts.

The underpinnings of the welded unibody chassis are mostly derived from Nissan's worldwide network of B-sized cars like the Versa, with struts up front and a torsion beam suspension at the rear, simple, cheap to build, and largely effective. Everything in the car operates electrically, from the A/C system to the power steering, and it all works very well as a package. It turns in with authority, makes, quick left-right transitions, brakes very well, and in general drives like a normal Nissan small car.

Although design is subjective, we think the Leaf is really cute, with a combination of Japanese Nissan and French Renault design ideas inside and out, and it is not a small car, even though it looks small, as EPA rates it bigger than 100 cubic feet inside, qualifying it as a compact car. There is room for six-footers front and rear, and a very good storage trunk.

The ordering window for a Nissan Leaf has been open since August 31, with a $99 deposit required, and deliveries in the U.S. will start in December. With an average operating cost of only about 2.6 cents per mile versus more than 12 cents for a comparable gasoline car capable of 25 mpg, near-zero maintenance costs, and enough juice onboard to get most people where they need to go and back without worry, the Leaf would be a good deal without all the incentives, rebates and refunds, but, when those are all factored in, the Leaf looks like a very good deal indeed for the American family commuter.

Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Nashville, Tennessee.

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