Nissan Leaf: Is it worth feeling 'green?'

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by Tom Voelk / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on May 19, 2011 at 10:40 AM

Updated Thursday, May 19 at 4:41 PM

The automotive world is entering an amazing new era.  Cars have never been so stylish, safe, and reliable.  Powertrain choices are dizzying- gas, diesel, natural gas, and hybrid.  Electric cars are no longer just a prediction found in the pages of Popular Science.  They’re real.  You can go down to your Nissan dealer and buy a Leaf, IF you got on the list months ago.  If not, there’s a pretty long wait.

Leaf has a pretty strong buzz for a very quiet vehicle.  Retailing for around $26,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit, it’s the first affordable mainstream car that’s purely electric.  That’s something to get charged up about if it fits your lifestyle.  Its biggest competitor these days is the Chevrolet Volt.

Home and The Range

What’s the difference between the two cars?  In ideal traffic and weather condition using a very light throttle foot, the electric Leaf’s claimed range is 100 miles vs. 40 for the Volt.  However, the Chevy has an on-board gas generator that won’t leave you stranded (unless you run out of both juice and gasoline at which point you deserve it).  Reach the end of the Leaf’s battery range and you either charge up or get towed home.

Much has been written and discussed about the two approaches with Nissan stating the Leaf never ever produces emissions and the more expensive Chevy crowing their generator eliminates the dreaded “range anxiety”.  Both are true unless you start arguing that electric cars only redirect their tailpipe emissions but that’s an article for another day. The extra distance Leaf covers over Volt’s electric range might make it perfect for some families.  It comes down to this-  Buyers need to size up their lifestyle and buy the vehicle that suits their needs.

If the all-electric experience amps you up, know that it takes 7 hours on 220 current to fill Leaf’s 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack which is made up of 48 compact modules mounted in the floor.  220 is the kind of current your dryer uses.  On regular 110, that rises to a very inconvenient 21 hours so in the Leaf’s case installing a 220 unit is important.  It’s only delivered with a 110 trickle charger, so an electrician and approximately $2,000 will be needed (though there are tax incentives).  My house has a detached garage, making it more expensive to set up.  Live in an apartment or condo?  That might make it tough.

I’m seeing an estimated 75 miles per charge driving the Leaf hard.  I’m not changing my driving style much since I have just a few days with this car and want to see what happens in a mix of regular highway and city use.  With no access to a 220 charger, I’m limited to how far I can travel.  The folks at Edmunds managed to wring 132 miles out of the battery but did so by driving at a steady 35 miles an hour with the AC off and windows barely cracked on an 80 degree day.  Do that on public highways and you’ll be lynched by an angry mob if the heat doesn’t get you first.

Leaf can be quick charged at the rare commercial charge station. Yes, they’re beginning to pop up.  I’ve seen exactly one.  Catch up on your email, it takes 30 minutes for an 80 percent top off, doing it often can reduce the life of the battery.

Looks Familiar, But It Isn’t

Pop the hood and it almost appears that there’s a gas engine under it but Leaf is propelled solely by a 107 horsepower electric motor.  Push the power button (Leaf is keyless) and there’s only a faint buzz and whir before a brief spacey music interlude signals you’re good to go.  At low speed an external chime warns pedestrians you’re silently skulking around.  There’s no real transmission, a mouse-like selector is pushed forward for reverse, back for drive (twice for “eco” mode). 

Horsepower may be low but the torque is satisfying.  0-60 in 9.5 seconds is about the same as a Prius.  Feels faster though. The great thing about the Leaf is that it drives like a regular car, not a golf cart or a kit car cobbled together in a garage.  There’s no gasoline engine sound of course, just an occasional faint high-pitched whine.  Coasting and braking helps to charge the battery, the brake pedal has a more linear feel than many hybrids.  One of the many data screens displays what percentage of power is being used for propulsion and different accessories.  Want to go farther?  Stop cranking AC/DC (the band that is).

Steering is pretty numb but the low center of gravity makes cornering fun.  At highway speed the cabin is fairly quiet.  Because there’s no engine noise to mask other sounds, engineers paid attention to wind noise (blade–like headlamps direct air away from the car’s side) and made sure that things like windshield wiper motors were quieter.

Just Like a Normal Car. Sorta.

With a top speed in the mid 90s, Leaf easily cruises at highway speeds but the faster it goes the shorter the range.  And that’s the interesting thing about electric cars, an owner needs to pay attention to dynamics they’d ignore in a regular automobile.  Extremely cold conditions cut distance and using anything electric, especially the heater, makes the situation worse.  So, unlike a gas vehicle that can be quickly refilled, electric car owners may need to plan a little before heading out for the day.

To help out, Leaf has its own app that uses the CARWINGS telematics system (free for 36 months).  Wake up in the morning and you can remotely heat or cool the Leaf’s cabin without leaving your Frosted Flakes.  That’s not just a gimmick, if it’s plugged in it doesn’t use the battery and that extends range.  Use the app to schedule charge times to take advantage of lower power rates at night.  It also warns if the car isn’t connected to power when it’s scheduled to charge.

Remarkably Unremarkable

The cabin has a two-tier instrument panel similar in concept to Honda Civic. Overall Leaf’s interior uses a flowing zen-like motif available in a rainbow of colors, as long as your rainbow is light beige.  Armrests are covered in a nearly white fabric that I have to believe will not survive well with kids as frequent passengers.  Plastics are hard but look decent and a few splashes of “piano black” trim help to dress things up.  With no engine, the temperature gauge is for the battery.  Bluetooth and iPod connectivity is standard.

Getting lost is bad for efficiency so a touch screen nav system is standard.  A bonus?  It can find the nearest charging stations.  Plug in at a new location and the navi will automatically remember it as a charge station.  I found this out by heading to a listed “charge station” only to arrive at a fellow auto writers’ house.  I then discovered my house had been listed as well.

Leaf’s user interface is simple and straight forward, everything from the navigation, to the sound system is easy to use.  The climate control is electric so heating and cooling is fast, no need for the engine to warm up.  Cupholders are good for both a regular cup ‘o joe and Godzilla, my giant coffee mug.  A sunroof is not on the option list but there is a solar panel on the SL model that helps charge the 12 volt system that runs things like the average sounding stereo system. The sun visor won’t block old sol from the side and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust for reach.

Bring An Extra Friend

Leaf has a clear advantage over Volt in back.  It seats three to the Chevy’s two.  Leg, head, and foot room is good for an average sized adult sitting behind a similar sized human. The floor is completely flat since there’s no drivetrain or exhaust system.  No armrest and just one map pocket though.

The cargo hold is a very deep well.  Leaf has split folding seats but if you need a flat load floor or a spare tire you’ve come to the wrong place.  Leaf scores as well as an average midsized sedan in the TP trunk test, six packs of Kirkland’s finest.  Pretty decent for a car that straddles the size of a Versa and Altima.

Looks Different For a Reason

Part of what gives Leaf a decent range is great aerodynamics.  The undercarriage is remarkably smooth, easier to do when you don’t have drive components and an exhaust system to deal with.  The blade headlight design diverts air away from the car, pretty different looking.  In the styling department, I’ll give Nissan props for giving the distinctive Leaf a much different design than Prius.  While I wouldn’t call it beautiful, details like the LED tail lamps and the blue tinted chrome are interesting. 

The eco green thing isn’t everyone’s bag of mulch, but the economic green thing always is.  The cost-per-mile of electric vehicles is about 25% of the cost of a gas powered vehicle with fuel at three bucks a gallon vs. $0.11 kWh for electricity.  In the Pacific Northwest our electricity costs are low and in large part green hydroelectric.  In theory, electric cars should be cheaper to maintain since there’s no complex gas engine or transmission.  Nissan covers the battery for 8 years or 100,000 miles.

Summing up, Leaf is like driving a car with a three to four gallon gas tank, one that takes 7 hours to fill.  Those who often travel long distances will need a second car, urban dwellers with the means to install a home charger could find this vehicle perfect.  Clean and quiet the Nissan Leaf makes new technology feel remarkably familiar.

HERE’S A LINK TO THE EDMUNDS ARTICLE: http://blogs.insideline.com/roadtests/2011/05/2011-nissan-leaf-driving-it-to-the-bitter-end.html

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