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Test Drive: Nissan Leaf

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I just had the opportunity to test-drive the new Nissan Leaf here in sunny Seattle, and had enough time with the car to garner some first impressions, take some pictures, and shoot a little video.

The Leaf, as you are probably aware, is Nissan’s new plug-in electric vehicle, and the first of the new generation of consumer EVs to be released here in the States. Sure, you’ve got the Tesla, and even the more family-oriented Model S, but they’re beyond the reach of the average city-dweller. Priced at just under $33K ($25K including the government rebate), the car is really competing with Accords and Legacys and the like. While it’s easy to suggest that it also competes with the Volt, the pricing and technology really set the two apart; all they’ve got in common is an electric motor. I tried to keep all that in mind when comparing the car in my mind with others on the market.

Exterior




The Leaf is slightly larger than I pictured it. Its closest relative, as far as I can tell, is the Nissan Versa, though the Leaf is a bit longer. While the rear is a bit too rounded for my taste, the lights are boldly designed (and newly re-sculpted for aerodynamics) and the front end is aggressive-looking and unique. I’m told that the body and interior are both “99.9%” final, subject only to the most minor of tweaks.

There is a solar panel (optional) on a small wing protruding from the roof that trickle-charges the car’s 12V battery. I found myself hoping that it would leak a bit of power into the main batteries, but that would be less than useless. Why not have it trickle charge an emergency battery that will take you 1 mile, though? That’d be great.


Opening up the bonnet revealed the modest guts of the Leaf: mostly empty space with piping, brake fluid, and the 12V taking up as much space as the engine itself. The emblem plate pops up to show the charging ports, which are amazingly cool-looking, though anyone who works with industrial electric devices will probably not be impressed.

Interior

The interior seems spacious; perhaps this due to the lack that bulky component usually found in cars — the engine. Seriously, though, the portion of the car dedicated to passengers is more than average for a car this size, I feel. There’s space in the boot for “two golf bags,” or quite a few grocery bags, and the seats of course fold down to make room enough for a Christmas tree or what have you. The rear seat is unremarkable, but seemed comfortable and fairly roomy.

The cockpit area is a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. The steering wheel is pretty standard, with the usual media and navigation controls built-in. The split instrument panel is a little weird at first; it seems the high-priority items and low-priority items are mixed. The speedo next to the clock, live power level next to the temperature, and so on. But despite this conceptual mix-up, the readouts are clear and responsive. I must have missed where it indicates you’re driving in “eco” mode, which conserves and harvests energy, so that probably could be a little more prominent, but everything else was easily viewable. The dash extends rather far before meeting the windshield, giving you the feeling you’re farther back in the car than you are.

There are a couple readouts unique to the Leaf: the range meter, of course, which provides a live estimate of your range, taking into account A/C and other factors. Then there is the power draw indicator, which shows the rate at which you’re sucking (or replenishing) energy. The dots seem to be on an arbitrary scale, so don’t try to make mathematical sense of them. Lastly, there is a little tree display that “grows” trees if you drive conservatively, and cuts them down when you waste energy with quick acceleration or (I would guess) A/C. A karma readout, if you will.

Radio and navigation are handled by a touchscreen and a few hard buttons; it seemed as or more easy to navigate than others I’ve used. The environment controls are a little over-stylized; there’s a lot of wasted space there, though that may be room for optional dash components (I forgot to ask). Overall the cabin has an air of simplicity, symmetry, and a little bit of newness for newness’ sake.

Drive

Here’s a little video from inside the car — not essential viewing exactly, but what is? Thanks to Nissan’s Mark Perry for holding the camera. On a related note, sorry for the shaky camera.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=13895705&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=1&color=ff9933&fullscreen=1&autoplay=0&loop=0

There’s much less to put here than in a normal car, especially a manual — which, I should say, I am used to driving. There are two drive modes, normal and eco. Both are “geared” to be pretty tame, I felt; I couldn’t draw a curve of the throttle response, but it certainly wasn’t tuned to provide jump right off the mark, like so many cars around this price. Launch was controlled and smooth; this car is perfect for navigating parking lots. Of course it was very quiet. We didn’t get on the highway, but on a five-lane city street it seemed adequately insulated from street noise.

“Shifting” is accomplished with a simple knob that either goes forwards or backwards, switching into the other mode of drive if you are already in drive, or reverse or neutral. Not a lot going on there, though the shifter is given an inordinate amount of space on the console. I would have liked a little more feedback that let me know I’d “hit” the drive mode, but I think it’s pretty foolproof.

I had a high-ranking Nissan guy in the car with me, so I didn’t try to make any 11s, but I did exceed the speed limit for most of the drive. You get 0-60 in about 10 seconds, not that it really matters — acceleration is fast enough to merge onto the freeway, overtake a slow driver, or quickly juke into an open slot in traffic.

Eco mode adjusts two things: the throttle response curve and the amount of energy harvested by regenerative braking or natural motion (i.e. rolling down hill). The full amount of power is still available, but it’s concentrated much more closely to the floor. It slowed us noticeably when going down a hill. Hypermilers will enjoy being able to switch in and out of this mode quickly.

Handling seemed normal for a car of this size. Having only driven it for a few minutes, I don’t feel qualified to make any real observations other than that it went where I wanted it to.

Conclusions

I have always said I wouldn’t buy a new car until I could get a plug-in, and I’ve been looking forward to the Leaf as the first real example of what might be worth picking up. I have to say I was not disappointed. For a city car, travelling distances of 5, 10, 20 miles, it’s absolutely great. It’s got plenty of room for cargo, space for a few friends, it’s quiet — it’s a bit larger than I’d prefer, but for most people it should be a good size.

Nissan is trying hard to downplay the notion of the Leaf going on longer trips, focusing instead on how practical it is for the more common type of driving: commutes and everyday city driving on the order of tens of miles. That can’t eliminate the anxiety a Leaf owner would have, though, if they needed to make a trip that pushes the boundaries of what the car is capable of. As an all-purpose car, you’re better off with gas for now, of course, but that’s because the Leaf represents a generation of vehicles that isn’t yet supported by our infrastructure — a 50-year-old infrastructure based very effectively around petroleum. While thousands of charge stations will be going up over the next year or two, one still feels restricted, as if one is on an electric leash.

The Leaf is a car I’d recommend to anyone who’s already game, but it’s not going to change anyone’s mind who isn’t already interested in getting a plug-in. That’ll happen a few years down the road. But for those legitimately on the fence, I think the Leaf may be a worthy investment.

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