Nissan Leaf: The Next Big ...er, Little Thing
At the time of this writing, Nissan has a "Drive Electric Tour" event underway where any goomer like me can go drive a new Nissan Leaf. Though it's best to make a reservation, I saw a few folks show up and get to drive a car without one. Our group tour started exactly on time, and a very nice Nissan guide took us through three small display buildings before we got to see the cars up close, get in line, and drive one. There didn't need to be any big-name automotive celebrities here, the car was the star of this show.
The event took place in my hometown of 50 years, which also happens to be the location of Nissan Motor Corporation's headquarters. By good fortune, starting in 2012, the Leaf will be built about 20 miles from here in Smyrna, TN, at the huge Nissan plant where I used to work; the battery plant construction there is already underway. Also, according to the local TV news, the plant is currently running at 80% capacity; Leaf production will bring it to 100%.
I had a little fun with the Nissan people by asking them what the plural of "Leaf" was... none of them could answer. Is it "Leafs" since it's a proper name, or is it "Leaves," those things that change colors and fall from the trees when it gets cold? Research into this non-vital topic continues.
Oh yeah, the car. This is Nissan's first all-electric model sold or leased in the United States. It has a real motor, not an engine, and Nissan is quite proud to say that it has no tailpipe. There are 600 pounds of lithium-ion-manganese batteries right under your tush, and that centrally-mounted weight helps stabilize the car's handling.
The batteries have been under development for 18 years, except for the conventional one that powers the radio and other non-essentials. That battery is recharged with onboard solar panels.
Even with great pains at weight savings, the Leaf weighs in at about 3500 pounds. I think this is a good thing, as most cars its size weigh much less. Factor the extra weight in a collision, and you shouldn't go spinning around like a top if you have a head-on crash with a regular, mid-sized vehicle.
The Leaf's motor is an 80 kW Alternating Current unit. That translates into 107 horsepower and 207 lb.-feet of torque. It has a portable 120-volt trickle charge cable and a 3.3 kW onboard charger. Nissan says there are faster charging systems available for your home and/or office.
So, what if you're out shopping and both you and your Leaf start to run down? Well, some Cracker Barrel restaurants and Best Buy stores are already beginning to install chargers. Other retailers will be soon to follow.
Every Nissan Leaf comes with 4-wheel ABS, Vehicle Dynamic Control, and Electronic Brake force Distribution/ Brake Assist, plus a Traction Control System, a Tire Monitoring System, and a tire repair kit.
The bumper covers and interior door panels are made from recycled plastics. So are the seat covers. The bumpers look fine as do the seats, but the door panels, though nicely sculpted, were way too hard and cheap-feeling for a $34,000+ car... which gets us to pricing.
The better-equipped Leaf SL (Over the SV) lists for $33,720, and you can get up to a $7,500 federal tax credit. But hey, what if you have no income and are living off of savings? Then you do not get the tax credit.
Also, that price does not include sales taxes, title costs, license fees, or shipping. Plus, there are a few nick-nack options like a trunk organizer.
To help offset the high price tag of this machine, one might remember that there will never be many of the regular maintenance costs that a gas- or diesel-engine car has. No anti-freeze, no tune-ups... in fact, the only filter in the car is the one that helps keep your interior cabin smelling April fresh. The guide said the Leaf has an 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty on the powertrain, which should be very comforting.
At first, photos of the Leaf's styling left me a little cold, but it's starting to grow on me. I'm not a fan of cars with large bug-eyed headlights exposed to the sun's damaging rays, but its looks are easy to get used to.
Today's cars' headlights seem to dull on their own in a few years; how will these more-exposed plastics age? Will a cottage industry of headlight polish/restoration kits thrive? I guess we'll find out.
Its rear haunches still look a tad exager- rated, otherwise the car's profile might be confused with a Nissan Versa. Overall, the car seems to sport a classic "French" automotive look. The rear is pleasant enough, and is lit with LEDs. As another measure to save energy, all of the lights on the outside of the Leaf are energy-saving LEDs except for the high beams.
So I get in the driver's seat with another Nissan representative in the car, and I'm immediately lost. No key or keyhole is to be found. He shows me a key fob that he's holding, which is the actual key, then he says to push the "Start" button on the dash. I do that, and the gauges come to life. Then he says to move the console-mounted drive selector over to the left towards me, then pull back. We are now ready to leave space dock.
I babied the car the whole drive, except for one full throttle (Gas pedal? Rheostat? Accelerator!) launch at a green light, after warning him, of course. Being electric, all torque was immediately available, and the car did quite well.
I listened and felt for any indications of the regenerative braking bits and pieces, but they were seamless and silent. They even seemed smoother than most cars that have just brakes.
If you really want to save some power, you can repeat the shifter-to-the-left-then-back action, and the car goes into "Eco" mode. Yes, power is reduced; it felt like 2 of 6 cylinders (If it had cylinders) had just lost their plug wires.
The Leaf's speed-sensitive electric power steering was as light as a feather, yet tight and controlling. I've heard bad things about electrics, even driven a couple of no-road-feel systems (Think HHR), but I could not tell much difference between this one and the Miata's hydraulics. To my dismay, their highway drive course was pre-set, so I didn't get a chance to see how the car drove on my more-familiar county back roads.
But it felt totally under control at all times. Nissan says the car will do 90 mph; I'll take their word on that.
Now some tech-geek stuff, which by no surprise, is a weakness of mine. Somehow through your telephone, you can either get the car's heater or air conditioner going before you even get in it. Both are electric, and our guide said the heater works and feels like a hair dryer. More wizardry includes an AM/FM/CD radio with MP3/WMA CD, XM, audio input jack, and a USB port.
And Nissan is offering CARWINGS™, which will connect your Leaf to your computer so you can check how your battery is doing, begin charging, and turn on the HVAC at your leisure.
The gauge cluster looks inspired by the current Honda Civic, with a digital speed reading located above another information pod. The display is almost animated enough to allow you to play some dashboard video games.
I think the Leaf would make a great city car, but it does not fit my needs. I once drove my Mazda Tribute non-stop from St. Louis to just south of Nashville, 344 miles, on one tank of gas. Not counting its initial charge, the Leaf would have had to stop four times along the way to rejuice, or I would have had to push it or have it towed home.
Nissan admits that an electric car is not for everybody. They say that most people drive about 40 miles a day; the Leaf has a best range of 100 miles. And of course, your mileage may vary. Things like heaters and high-speed driving (Over 65 MPH) really strain the charge.
But in a place like San Francisco, the car should be a hit. Its instant torque could easily pull any Bay Area hill, the small size would be easy to park, and being a Zero-Emissions vehicle, even a Prius owner would be "green" with envy (Did I just say that?).
--That Car Guy (Chuck)
Photo credits: Friday, March 25th, 2011, was a cold and overcast day when I took these pictures.