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Nissan Leaf: The Next Big, Little Thing

028 I love automotive public relations events. They have nice people, free soft drinks and snacks, and lots of brand new cars to play with. Does life get any better?

Way back when, the "One Millionth Corvette" event at Bowling Green, KY, was a very special event to me. They had Jim Perkins, Dave McClellan, and Zora Arkus-Duntov, who were the stars of that show.

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.

012 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.

004 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.

015 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.

020 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.

024 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.

006 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.

019 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.

003 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.


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Maybe they'll introduce a performance version- the Top Bud 420

or the entry-level stripped down model- the Stem

Technical marvel though it be, the Leaf is also an illustration of why the electric car isn't quite "there yet." As you noted, a car that can only go 100 miles before a lengthy recharge has a pretty constrained utility envelope compared to a conventional liquid-fueled car, whose range is functionally infinite.

People may drive 40 miles a day on average, but that doesn't mean they drive exactly 40 miles every day, day in and day out. Sometimes you have to do more traveling than others (I had my usual commute plus a 150-mile round trip to a hearing yesterday), and, depending on your job and life circumstances, you often cannot anticipate when the need for a long-range trip will arise.

The other problem is that sticker price. For the price of a Leaf, net of the tax credit, you can get a Honda Insight (equal carrying capacity, better range) or *two* Hyundai Accents (ditto) and have several grand left over to buy gas with. (Take away the tax credit and the math only gets worse for the Leaf buyer.) The Leaf and cars like it won't be competitive in terms of cost-benefit ratio until either the price of gas goes way, way up or the price of electrics comes down (as it inevitably will) over the course of a few hardware generations.

I like electrics because they are simple, have few moving parts, and are (nearly) silent in operation: the very reasons the Detroit Electic and their breed were popular a hundred years ago. I like sitting silently at a light, enjoy whispering through twisty back roads. They are technologically elegant, cheap to operate, and fine for medium-range use if you have a second car for long-range work.

So why are they all so plug-ugly and prohibitively expensive? There's a market that's not being filled -- for pretty, light, touring-style electrics. A car that AVERAGE people can afford, as a second 'errand-and-commuter' car, and is FUN. An electric can't blast down the Interstate at 75mph all day, so why try to compete with cars that can? A low, open voiturette-type electric could be as fun and useful at 45mph as an insulated closed car is at 70mph.

Some carmaker needs to play to the electric's abilities: Low-end torque, medium speed, limited range, AND the unique ability to put you outside without engine noise. Until that happens, electrics will always be just an eco-nerd curiosity.

One of the things that people never talk about when it comes to the Leaf or any other electric vehicle, is that you have to be a "home owner with a garage" in order to own one and effectively charge it. I suppose you can rent a house or an apartment, but you need to have a space to park the EV, and you need a way to get electricity to the vehicle. Homes and apartments with the necessary outlets, and security for them, are not common in cities. San Francisco is a prime example of a place where parking is on street for the majority of the populace, and you may end up parking many blocks away from your actual residence.

I'm sure there are secondary portable chargers, but guess what... they are called batteries and they are heavy. So perhaps you can wheel your battery pack home on a dolly and cart it up 3 flights of stairs to plug it into the outlet in your small apartment. The one that get's it's power from the coal fired power plant that spews carbon and particulate matter into the atmosphere and which contributes substantially to global warming... uh yeah... that's a greener option...?

The truth is that unless we actually start working from the perspective of solar/wind power and or using totally clean-burning renewable fuel sources EV vehicles are going to be shifting or redistributing pollution & global warming.

The law of conservation of energy is always to be reckoned with. If you have a large, heavy, and inefficient vehicle it is going to take the same amount of energy to drive it, whether that energy comes from gas or electricity. While electric motors may be more efficient than gas engines, if you take into account the powerplant that makes the electricity, the losses in powerlines and distribution grid, the drain during summer and prime use times, and the inherent losses within batteries themselves, you have a very different equation.

What's the answer. Solar and wind sources for electricity production. Solar charging of cars. Much smaller and much lighter cars. Why smaller and lighter? Because smaller and lighter means less energy is used overall. Compare bigger and heavier over the same course as smaller and lighter... smaller and lighter will always use less total energy to complete the course.

I'm fine with downsizing. I hope that we all get roof top solar panels and wind farms in our neighborhoods. I'd love to see a grid of free solar charging stations on every street... oophs but what about the snow belt in the north east? Darn it! Oh well back to the drawing board...

"Nissan admits that an electric car is not for everybody."

THANK YOU!!! Good Lord, it's about freaking time someone said it! I am SO TIRED of all the down-with-oil people telling us all that they are. I'm generally not a Nissan fan, but I am thrilled that they are at least smart enough to understand and admit this.

I think we're realistically about one, maybe two generations in battery technology away from making electric cars a viable option for the majority of people. Current technology is just too heavy, too big, too inefficient to make work in anything bigger than a compact car and at anything more than short ranges. Imagine trying to make an electric "small" SUV like a RAV4 or CRV or Equinox- you'll be fighting a losing battle of putting in a sufficiently large battery to give those weighty beasts any sort of range, but increasing the battery size only adds more and more weight, thus limiting the range improvement...The only way to get around it right now seems to be throwing a lot of money at the problem, limiting the car's utility (hello, Tesla!), or settling for a significantly reduced range that won't fit most folks' needs.

The other problem with current battery tech is that it does a *terrible* job at regulating for different environments- specifically cold weather tends to just kill EV ranges, between the cold messing with battery chemistry and running electricity-gobbling heaters and such. My understanding is the Volt has some pretty significant temperature management equipment for its battery pack, but of course such things add more weight and thus reduce range. The Leaf doesn't, but then it probably loses a lot more off its range when in cold climates (mountains, mid-west or northern US winters). Realistically, future-gen batteries will need to solve for cold-weather performance reduction before EVs will be viable for a lot of the country as well.

The last problem is probably the hardest (and most expensive) to fix, and that's the power grid itself. I think the grid as it is right now is probably fine for the current EV demand (re: low demand, not many in use), especially given that most if not all of them see to have functionality to be programmed to charge during off-peak hours, and don't draw dramatic amounts of power from the grid anyways. But the power grid itself is in dire need of improvement almost everywhere in the country, with new and cleaner methods of power generation being an important part of that wherever possible. I know I'm rather lucky and spoiled to live in south eastern washington, where we have hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, wind farms, and a nuclear power plant all available to provide us and a large chunk of the surrounding area with electricity; I know most parts of the country don't have all or necessarily any of those options at their disposal, but for those places there needs to be a concerted effort to find solutions to that do work, while keeping environmental impacts at a minimum. I do seem to recall reading something to the effect that even a relatively "dirty" coal plant generates less pollution than the cars its electricity could potentially replace, were it used exclusively for charging EVs. No idea if that's true or not, but even if it isn't true an improved power grid and more sustainable energy sources is a good thing for a lot more than just charging EVs.

Skoda Yeti, didn't you read MochiMochi's comment? How green can we go when the electric energy source comes from coal, which instead of drilling a hole to get it we have to literally move mountains to extract?

At least with gas companies I can choose where it's cheaper to buy it, instead of relying on what seems to be a monopoly of one company.

My country has but one electric company (it subsidizes with a couple smaller ones so it doesn't get into legal trouble) and an inefficient one at that (an old power station that blew up a couple of years ago proves my point). We have no choice but to pay the ever-increasing electric bills (many resort to mess with the electric meter thingies, which is getting harder to do due to evolving technology and tougher punishments).
It's still not cost-effective (especially with our incredibly shrinking wallets) to put up solar panels and/or windmills.

You do realize, guys, that "Skoda Yeti" is a spambot.....

Cookie: "You do realize, guys, that "Skoda Yeti" is a spambot....."

He sounded convincing. Compared to other spambots anyways.

for 90% of most people's needs. These are great. Again, you will need to have a spot to add the charger... but the range should be more than sufficient for many/most people. Folks do not always have over 30 mile commutes (some even try to plan around not creating a petrol based life style so effected by gas prices by being much closer to their needs any way they can). For those off times ski trips, camping, what have you... a person could have a used car that uses gas or simply rent something.

SirTweakALot: "Maybe they'll introduce a performance version- the Top Bud 420 or the entry-level stripped down model- the Stem"

Or maybe they'll build a black & white Police version and call it "The Fuzz."

Mochi said: What's the answer. Solar and wind sources for electricity production. Solar charging of cars. Much smaller and much lighter cars.

Wait, wait.

What's the question?

Solar and wind are bullshit (the former for at least a decade or two, the latter basically forever) for mains grid production.

Solar charging of cars simply isn't going to work, period (for people who actually drive every day) - the energy density is far too low, period, even if you could get 100% efficiency, live in Arizona, and never park in the shade, and always keep the panel roof clean.

Smaller and lighter cars? Possible, but a niche market. People have "families", it turns out, and like to transport them.

EVs are going to get better and more popular and cheaper - but they're not going to be solar anytime soon (and never directly).

We are one of the few countries that equates the need fro 3000+ lb vehicles to transport 4 people. Last I checked my 2 match backs have 4 seats, 4 seat belts. I grew up in a family and we never felt the need for large cars. Pinto station wagons, Isuzu I Mark 4 door diesel car... they were reasonably efficient and had trunks/doors that opned up and let people in.... just like bigger SUV's. We could have rented something if we need a mammoth... but I cannot recall that happening.

It is just some odd perception family equals 4WD SUV or mini van.... maybe it is "needed" for some due to lifestyle, but again.. I am sure it is far from needed for all families.

Our grid is a POS, no doubt. Many countries are operating at 50% wind... Netherlands. But they have always planned better than the USA. However, we will need to make changes in time.

I agree with many of the above comments. I am happy that we are working towards electric but frustrated that it seems to be taking so long to go mainstream. These little cars limit their market with price, size, and styling to those "eco-nerds" when really we should all be interested in going electric - especially with gas prices guestimated at $6 per gal this summer. Come on - let's get serious about electric!

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