Driven: 2011 Nissan Leaf

By Tom Martin

October 26, 2010

—Franklin, Tennessee

Thanks to being the first mass market, fully electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf is a fascinating car. Fascinating because it gives us one glimpse of the future, a look at the look, the feel and the intent of the cars many people will be buying in the second half of this decade. The Leaf also raises the question, “Might you want to jump on this train to the future now, or hold off as long as you can?”

Coverage of the Leaf has been extensive in the mass media, which is no doubt a further extension of the general trend to intermediation in life. The Leaf has some different ideas behind it and, in the view of the general media, if the ideas change that’s what important, experience be damned. We, of course, don’t buy that argument, so we’ll get to the experience soon enough. But first a review of the ideas embodied in the Leaf, for those of you who only caught the last 30 seconds of the nightly news coverage of the Leaf or who skimmed the coverage on Yahoo.

Of course, the Leaf is an Electric Vehicle (EV). Henceforth there probably will be some obfuscation of what an EV “is” as new variations come to market, so we should point out that the Leaf is a “pure” EV. That is, the Leaf gets all of its energy from being plugged in to the electric grid. Electric energy is stored in a 24 KWh Lithium-Ion battery pack onboard the Leaf (under the seats and in the floor beneath the rear passenger’s legs to be exact). The Leaf then draws power from the batteries to run an 80 kW electric motor. As it happens in the Leaf, the motor drives a transmission that is connected to the front wheels.

EVs immediately present the issue of range. Charging the Leaf takes various amounts of time, ranging from about 30 minutes to about 20 hours, depending on the type of charger that is available to you. Because all of those times are more than the 5 minutes or less that refueling at a gas station requires for a internal combustion engine vehicle, one must consider the total distance that the Leaf can travel on a charge much more than you must think about range in a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle.

For the record, a 30-minute charge (to 80 percent of capacity) is possible only with a DC fast charge from a $35,000 charger. Nissan hopes that such chargers will be deployed over the next few years, located in public places or in gas stations. Nissan believes that there will be 12,000 public charging stations by 2012, but those will be so-called Level 2 chargers, which require 8 hours or so to replenish a fully depleted battery. Quick charger deployment (for 30 minute booster shots) will lag this, but as costs fall and demand rises, more of those should appear particularly along major inter-city corridors. Nonetheless, for the time being, one must consider range when driving the Leaf.

The nominal range for the Leaf is quoted at 100 miles, based on the US LA4 cycle. The logic of this range is that 95 percent of the US population drives less than 100 miles in a given day. So, for a typical day, the Leaf will get you there and back. Of course, this statistic doesn’t address what percentage of US car owners drive more than 100 miles on some days. So, if you need to use the Leaf as a primary vehicle, it may only serve you well if you almost never drive more than 100 miles. Said differently: the Leaf is for those people who very rarely drive long distances and for those who have a second or third car than can be employed when longer (planned) trips are necessary.

Naturally, the actual range of the Leaf depends on driving conditions—including temperature, hills, and traffic—as well as driving style, load and equipment usage, just as it does with a conventional car. Nissan supplies an estimate of remaining range on the dashboard to help you figure how close to “empty” you are. There are also several displays to help you drive with a light foot and some reminders to turn off the AC. The standard navigation screen pops up when you reach 4 kWh (~17 miles) of remaining energy. The screen shows a map of your range and also shows the location of nearby charging stations.

But really, the Leaf is simply not the car for you if this sort of thing is going to be an issue very often. Just as you wouldn’t buy a Porsche 911 in order to carry four adult passengers regularly (or at all), you wouldn’t buy a Leaf if you periodically had to go 90 miles or more in a day in it. A critique of its range in some sense misses the segment that the Leaf serves, just as a critique of the 911 for its towing capacity or third row room misses the point. We suspect the Leaf’s range means that it is aimed at a pretty small niche, and Nissan’s goal of 20,000 units per year (<0.2 percent of new cars sold in the US) is consistent with that observation.

One might reasonably ask it this point “okay, I get that the Leaf isn’t for a road trip, it is for commuting; but why bother with all this EV stuff even for that?” Good question.

One possible answer is economy. The Leaf costs about $27,000 to buy. You pay $32,780 for the car, and you get a $7500 federal tax credit. Assuming you have enough taxable income to use the credit, and assuming you can wait the period of months between buying the Leaf and getting the tax credit after you file your 1040, you’ve paid $25, 280 plus various other fees. You may live in a state or municipality that offers additional incentives, which would lower the price further. Then, you probably have to hire an electrician to wire your garage for a 220 volt charging dock, which means you’re out another $2000 or so, bringing your total to around $27,000 (plus tax, title, and license). That certainly is competitive with the Camry and Accord crowd (as is the size of the Leaf), so let’s call the price of the car a wash.

But powering a Leaf is a less expensive proposition than powering an Accord. If you drive 10,000 miles per year, an Accord should cost you about $1200 per year for gas. The same mileage in a Leaf would involve about $250 for electricity. Tossing in an oil change, the Leaf costs about $1000 per year less to run. So, if your payments for the Accord run $450 per month, with the Leaf it is as if your payments were $370. For some people that is a real difference, at least if the depreciation on the Leaf is comparable. Nissan will have a lease offer for the Leaf, which will make comparisons of depreciation easier (and it will incorporate the Federal tax credit for those who don’t like to wait).

The second answer to this “why bother?” question is that you want to be a part of the solution to global warming rather than a part of the problem. The “well –to-wheel” or “mine-to-wheel” efficiency of EVs is generally higher than with conventional internal combustion cars, so there is a certain way in which this makes sense. If this is your only point of interest, you may want to consider the limited (16 percent or less) role that consumer vehicles play in the greenhouse gas emissions of the US, and you might be concerned that the Federal government has failed to pass greenhouse gas legislation for the other sources (e.g. power plants). But we can appreciate the desire to be proactive.

Another possible answer to “Why bother with an EV?” is the driving experience. Recall that our experience with the first pure EV in recent times, the Tesla Roadster, was a positive one, to put it mildly, from behind the wheel.

So, what is the Leaf actually like to drive? After being briefed and given a few hours behind the wheel of the Leaf, we can imagine that your view of the Leaf’s driving dynamics could legitimately range from nearly fervent desire to abject horror, because it mainly comes across as a well-executed compact sedan, in the modern Asian mold. There are some exceptions to this, though.
From launch the car makes a bit less sound than, say, a Camry. You don’t hear internal combustion sounds, of course, muted though they are in mid-priced sedans especially those with V-6s. With the Leaf, you do hear a little gear whine or inverter squeal instead. This audible difference is most noticeable at low speeds because as velocity rises, wind and tire noise predominate. At 40 or 60 mph, the Leaf sounds essentially like other cars. If you jumped from the Leaf to an Accord at speed (professional driver, closed course, do not attempt) you’d probably notice a difference in the frequencies of the sonic signature, but not really a significant difference in overall volume. We’d say all the talk about how quiet the Leaf is doth protest too much.

Once underway, we couldn’t wait to pin the throttle, given our experience in the Tesla. As we noted there, electric motors make maximum torque from a stop, making low speed bursts interesting. The Leaf has a bit of this instant-on characteristic, but being a large-ish car with a relatively small and affordable battery that must be squeezed for 100 miles of range, Nissan has naturally restricted the total amount of oomph on tap. We clocked a casual sub-10 second 0-60 run, which should give you some idea of the alacrity of velocity acquisition (or lack thereof). The Leaf gives a nice pop from a stoplight, but beyond that it feels, well, like a normal economy car. It does seem less stressed even if not faster than those cars, since a car like the Accord or Camry will thrash a bit with the throttle floored and the Leaf really doesn’t sound any different when you mash it and when you’re cruising. In summary: the Leaf’s straight-line performance is enjoyable but not thrilling.

Handling is, like the acceleration, pleasantly good. Roll control is excellent and the balance feels good, though of course tilted toward understeer at the limit. Turn-in is nothing special and grip seems modest, but we did think the Leaf was somewhat more entertaining than the Camry or the Altima. This despite the fact that the steering is so close to devoid of feedback that we can effectively say there is none. The differences in handling between the Leaf and the well-known mid-priced sedans aren’t going to get a car enthusiast to plop down his cash for the Leaf, though. Still, if the Camry, Accord, or Altima are your target cars, you’ll be gaining a little in driving dynamics if you choose the Leaf.

But if you’re shopping within the Prius/Insight/Volt segment the story is different. The Leaf is more organic-feeling, with a dynamic refinement and a joie de vivre that those cars just don’t have. The other mid-price high milers have a bit of a hair-shirt, “This needs to hurt or we won’t know its working” attitude that the Leaf, thankfully, avoids. As an example, the regenerative braking can be felt on the Leaf, but the software comes close to simulating the progressive feel that you get with conventional power brakes. This simply isn’t the case with some other hybrids. Similarly, the acceleration of the Leaf engages the driver, whilst in the Prius and Insight it comes across as a chore. And it certainly feels like the Nissan engineers paid some attention to handling, whereas the other big hyper-milers seem resolutely focused on isolation from the road.

We thought the ride quality of the Leaf was perfectly acceptable, but honestly the roads around Nissan’s Franklin, Tennessee marketing headquarters are the object of envy for anyone living in a big city or in the snow belt and so aren’t much of a test. The primary ride is firm, which we prefer, and with WR’s simulated urban blight technique (when we swerved to hit sewer grates or manhole covers), the Leaf felt solid though the bumps were clearly communicated. This is not a magic carpet, above-it-all ride package, but it isn’t rough or unrefined.

The interior is comfortable, with firm, well-shaped seats (covered with an alcantara-like material made from recycled soda bottles). Width is pleasant in front, though in back it would be a squeeze for three passengers. Rear seat headroom is adequate for a six foot tall person, and leg room is ample though not class-leading. The only real issue is that some of the batteries are under the floor in the rear seat footwell, so your legs are pushed up a bit which eliminates thigh support. This may not matter much in reality, since by definition you won’t be back there for 400 miles per day on a road trip in the Leaf.

The final element of driving a car like the Leaf involves its user interface for efficiency management. There can be an involving element to monitoring all the ways the driver uses power. Combine that with good feedback on how to be more efficient and the car can become a bit of a game.

In this area, the Leaf supplies a modest amount of data. There is an LCD analog sweep graph that moves up if you are using little power and down when you are using a lot. There is also a “grow some pine trees” display that accumulates periods of low energy usage—if you frequently use only small doses of energy you start growing trees. And then there are more LCD analog gauges to show electric motor discharge and regeneration, climate control drain, and “other.” It sounds like a lot of information, but we didn’t find it terribly engaging since most of the displays are variations on the same theme. Frankly, Nissan doesn’t seem to have conceived of the displays in either a game-like fashion or in a way that makes you feel you really know what is going on. We assume that some of this could be changed with a software update and we hope Nissan sees the opportunity here. The Leaf needs some additional points of involvement to really connect with both efficiency and driving enthusiasts. Maybe the same software update could remove the steering numbification code.

All quibbles aside, we do think it makes sense to step back and consider Nissan’s achievement with the Leaf. It is the first EV at a true mass market price. It is more interesting to drive than most other high mileage cars. It has plenty of room and creature comforts. Within its market, it seems like a good value. Given the fundamentally different technology at play here, the Leaf checks the boxes in an impressive way.

We also think Nissan is wise to actually get a real car out into the market to start learning. What will people pay for a quick charge? Who actually buys these things? What do they miss once they own them? What do they love? You can’t figure that stuff out with focus groups and clinics.

Still, we couldn’t escape the feeling that Nissan also passed on a golden opportunity. The Leaf could have been more impressive. Frankly, the styling is too hybrid derivative outside and Japanese generic inside. The drive is too econobox normal. And the electronic toys are too primitive in this post-PlayStation, post-internet era. These omissions don’t make the Leaf bad, and we could be wrong about the reaction the car will engender, but these weak spots point to ways in which the Leaf could have genuinely impressed the next generation of buyers. To be fair, Chevrolet has made the same wise decision/mistake with the Volt. Either way, we’re still waiting for the EV we both want and can afford.

2011 Nissan Leaf
Motor: One electric motor
Output: 107 hp/208 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 9.8 sec (est)
Top Speed: 89 mph (est)
Range: 100 mi
Base Price: $32,780