2011 Nissan Leaf
The 2011 Nissan Leaf delivers good news and bad news.
The good news is that it’s electric, the first popular-priced, battery-powered, road-worthy car on the US market. It is cheap to operate, emits no pollutants and uses no fossil fuels, except of course for the coal and natural gas burned by the power companies.The bad news is that it’s electric, with no on-board backup, which means that it has limited range and likely cannot serve as a family’s only car. Without an extensive network of public charging stations, it won’t be making vacation trips.
Nevertheless, it is a substantial automobile, comfortable and confident in any traffic situation from stop-and-go city traffic to rapid freeway motoring. It gives up little to its gasoline counterparts except that it can be refueled only by plugging in for at least eight hours.
The Leaf likely could make a one and one-half hour run from Chicago to Milwaukee. But Chicago to Nashville, with recharging, would take two to three days.
There’s the rub. According to Nissan, it has a range of up to 100 miles, OK because the company’s research shows that 90% of the population travels less than that in a day. With a 440-volt charger, it can be topped up in about half an hour. Again, bad news: Such stations mostly don’t exist yet, and in any case won’t be available to individual owners. They must be part of a public infrastructure—like the nation’s network of gas stations.
The 100-mile range is under ideal conditions; normal driving is closer to 70 miles. Though frequent 440 charging can shorten the battery life, the battery pack comes with an eight year, 100,000 mile warranty.To charge the Leaf from a 110-volt household outlet takes up to 20 hours. If a 220-volt outlet is available—similar to what you’d use for an electric kitchen range—it takes about eight hours.
Still, if you don’t take long trips and your routine driving doesn’t take you more than about 30 or 35 miles from home, you could get along just fine with the Leaf. Your range will be determined by a host of factors, including how aggressively you drive, the wind and weather, how many people and the amount of cargo you’re carrying, and whether you’re running accessories like the heater and air conditioning. A digital readout constantly updates to tell how many miles you have left.
Of course, you’ll never drop dollars at a gas station. Nissan put together a simple comparison of the Leaf with a gasoline-fueled car that averages 25 miles to the gallon, with gasoline at $3 a gallon. Over 15,000 miles, the gasoline cost would come to $1,800.
The cost of electricity to run the Leaf, according to Nissan, averages about 11 cents per kilowatt hour, which translates into a fraction of a penny per mile, or a total of $396 for 15,000 miles of travel.
In appearance and concept, the Leaf resembles the gasoline-engine Nissan Versa four-door hatchback, which is marketed as a compact but has enough passenger and cargo volume to qualify as a mid-size car. The Leaf has about the same interior space but is 16 inches longer to accommodate the 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. It weighs 3,375 pounds, nearly 600 pounds more than the Versa.
Despite that, and an 80 kilowatt motor that delivers 107 horsepower, the Leaf has plenty of punch because an electric motor delivers maximum torque, or twisting force, from the get-go. The zero-to-60 miles an hour acceleration time, according to both Nissan and independent tests, is a respectable 10 seconds. Top speed is about 90.The transmission is a single speed, like a World War II Schwinn balloon-tire bicycle. The feel is similar to Nissan’s continuously-variable automatic transmission, without the noise. In fact, the Leaf is so quiet the engineers had to add additional sound deadening to muffle wind and road sounds. The car emits a warning at low speeds if it detects pedestrians.
In ordinary driving, the Leaf has a heavy steering feel but handles competently around curves. There are two driving modes. In “drive,” it has a light, quick feel, with easy coasting. In “eco” range, regenerative motor braking helps recharge the battery pack, and you have to push hard on the accelerator pedal to accelerate rapidly. Two gauges to help you drive economically are confusing because they point in opposite directions.
With a $33,600 base price, the Leaf is more affordable than the new Chevrolet Volt, which has a sticker price of $41,000. Both are eligible for a $7,500 federal tax credit, as well as state and local tax breaks. But the Volt has an onboard gasoline engine to maintain a minimum charge in the battery pack.
The Leaf’s features include full safety equipment, regenerative braking, automatic climate control and navigation, LED headlights and pushbutton starting. The test Leaf had the $940 SL package, which includes a roof-mounted solar panel to recharge the 12-volt accessory battery. There’s even an iPhone app that lets you remotely heat and cool the Leaf before you arrive.