The Nissan Leaf was the first mass-production all-electric vehicle to go on sale in the U.S. for the 2011 model year. Since then, the Ford Focus electric, Mini E, Mitsubishi iMiev, and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid have hit the market to give the Leaf a run for its money.
Leaf is a four-door compact car that seats five. Nissan says LEAF is an acronym for Low Emission Automobile of the Future.
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. It's all-electric, you never need to pull into a gas station in this car.
The Leaf is a zero-tailpipe-emissions vehicle. However, that word tailpipe is important because no vehicle is truly zero-emissions when production and distribution are taken into account. In an attempt to score more points with eco-warriors, 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. Nissan claims the Leaf is the greenest production car ever built, and is itself 94 percent recyclable.
The 2012 Leaf comes with more standard features, including heated exterior mirrors, a battery heater, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. A quick-charge port now comes standard on the top-of-the-line 2012 Leaf SL.
However, Nissan says, using the national average for electricity rates, a full overnight battery charge will only cost one dollar. Federal and state tax subsidies may help you at tax time, but you'll have to check the details carefully as it varies dramatically among the states.
The benefits of owing an electric car such as the Leaf may not all be measured in dollars and cents, either. In some states, an electric car means unrestricted access to the carpool/HOV lanes on the highways even while driving alone. For those who slog through stop-and-go traffic twice a day, this perk could bring welcome relief. However, it's worth keeping in mind that in crowded cities like Los Angeles, the congested commute lanes don't move much faster.
These days, car design tends to be less by imagination and more by wind tunnel. Designers and engineers took great care to make the Leaf as aerodynamic as possible in order to achieve the least amount of drag, and subsequently, the maximum amount of range.
Like all electric cars, the 2012 Nissan Leaf is extremely quiet. So quiet, 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, to warn visually impaired pedestrians that a car is nearby. At speeds over 18 mph, the car is loud enough on its own to be heard.
The Leaf's electric charging system terminal resides in a hatch in the nose. 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.
Inside, the Leaf is simple, clean and modern, with the instrumentation packaged in a beautiful blue-tinted array of center, left, and right modules.
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.
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.
We had as much driving fun with the Leaf as we've had in a long time, because it is so very different from driving a traditional, gas-powered car. 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 hyper-miling, 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.
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 solid deal for the American family commuter.
Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Nashville, Tennessee, with Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles, California.