The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the most revolutionary family car you can buy.
Not in a technological sense. I mean, come on, electric cars have been around for more than a century. I’m thinking much further back than that, like 1776.
Consider this: Electric cars like the Leaf are about declaring your independence…from foreign oil. They also help you duck the road taxes that are tagged on to the price of gasoline, something the Tea Party would surely appreciate (the Boston one, although those folks today probably won’t complain, either.) Sure, the Leaf is made in Japan, but starting next year it will be built in Dixie, too, at Nissan’s factory in Tennessee. Until then, let’s not forget that French automaker Renault pretty much runs Nissan, so it’s kind of like when Lafayette came to help us out with those pesky British.
Of course, the Leaf may also about as un-American in spirit as any car currently available, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
First, the basics.
The Leaf is an electric car.
There’s no extended-range-parallel-series-hybrid-fuel cell powertrain to explain. The Leaf has an electric motor up front and a battery under the cabin floor. For all that matters, it really is as simple as that.
If you need more detail, it is specifically an 80 kilowatt AC synchronous electric motor that pumps out 107 horsepower. That’s not at lot, but with 207 pound-feet of torque it’s enough to accelerate the 3,400-pounder as quickly as most economy cars, including that golden oldie, the Toyota Prius. A good portion of that weight comes from the battery pack, which is comprised of 192 cells that are manufactured by a company partly owned by Nissan. It stores 24 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is enough to propel the Leaf for up to 100 miles between charges, according to Nissan, but the EPA rates it at 73 miles in mixed driving.
In either case, you’ll be spending a lot more time waiting for the Leaf to charge than you will driving it. Plugged into the 240V outlet that most owners likely will have installed in their homes, a fill-up takes 8 hours. It’s 21 hours using a standard household outlet, a practice Nissan refers to as “opportunity” charging since it isn’t something you want to rely on for daily use -- only when you’re stuck at your in-laws’ house for dinner and feel like mooching. An optional port is available for $700 that can get the battery to 80 percent full in about 30 minutes when plugged into a public high-voltage quick-charging station, but these mythical creatures are still few and far between.
The car itself is about the size of the Nissan Versa compact. In fact, it looks a little like one that was left out in the sun too long and melted. The droopy, curvaceous body fits right in next to a Murano, or last year’s Quest minivan in the company’s portfolio. As a car intended to be sold around the world, Nissan elicited input from its design studios in the U.S., Japan and Europe to create the car’s shape. If you ever wondered what the most generic vehicle possible would look like, I suppose this is as close as it gets.
Its most distinctive features are the bulging, knife-edge headlights that were engineered to redirect oncoming air around the side-view mirrors to reduce wind noise. In a regular car this sort of thing is often washed out by the engine and drivetrain sounds, but with a nearly silent motor driving the car it becomes more of an issue. Still, at highway speed, or even sitting at a light on a breezy day, the atmosphere makes itself mightily apparent in the void.
The interior of the Leaf is roomy for a car this size and could be used as a prop in a remake of “Logan’s Run.” The pale gray interior is so antiseptic that you’d probably feel comfortable having surgery done in the driver’s seat, which happens to be upholstered in fabric made from recycled water bottles. Utopia, we have arrived.
The stacked instrument cluster is retro-futuristic, too, in that we’ve seen it before in a number of Honda products. OK, maybe just retro, but it does have a nifty arc of dots that tells you how much electricity you are using or generating at any given moment. More detailed information is available in the screen on the center console that also houses the standard navigation system and satellite radio, along with a host of features accessible through your smart phone, such as the ability to program the Leaf to begin charging when off-peak rates are in effect. The Tron-style illuminated blue accents are a nice touch, too.
Press a button to start, engage, boot or whatever we finally decide to call it with electric cars, shift into drive and you’re off. The procedure is so straightforward that the valet at my parking garage didn’t even have to ask how it worked, and neither did I. This sort of familiarity is intentional. We wouldn’t want to scare the nice people back into their caves.
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With only one gear in the transmission, the shiftless power delivery is so smooth that the Leaf puts many luxury cars to shame around town. The accelerator feels slightly disconnected, but you get used to it. I can’t quite say the same for a brake pedal that feels like it has a Super Pinky ball lodged under it.
The ride is comfortable, but it’s the handling that’s the real surprise. This thing is actually a bit of a kick on twisty roads. The position of the 660-pound battery pack low and to the rear of the car gives the Leaf a BMW-like near 50/50 weight distribution that helps it devour sharp turns and traffic circles, even if the fuel-efficient low-rolling resistance tires limit its ultimate abilities. It’s just a matter of time before some intrepid early adopter replaces the Bridgestone Ecopia rubber with a set of sticky Potenzas and wins a couple of autocross trophies.
Hopefully the competition isn’t too far from home and takes place during the spring or autumn. Unlike the more complex climate-controlled battery packs in cars like the Tesla Roadster and Chevrolet Volt, the Leaf’s pack is air-cooled and at the whim of ambient temperatures. This can affect range significantly on very hot or cold days.
While I have spoken to people who easily managed to get more than 100 miles per charge, the time that I spent with the car was during a sub-freezing stretch and that 73-mile mark was tough to reach. And that’s without using the heater, which knocked about 10 percent off of the projected range every time I turned it on. It took so long to warm up when I did that it was hardly worth the bother, anyway. More energy-efficient heated seats aren’t available, but should be coming to later editions. Making up for this somewhat is a function that allows you to program the car to turn on the heat or air conditioning while it is still plugged in, so you can pull out of your garage all warm and toasty or cool and frosty with a full battery in tow.
In any event, over time the capacity of the pack will diminish. Regular use in extreme temperatures and frequent quick charges, which heat up the cells, will hasten the effect, but as hybrid owners have come to know, that’s part of the deal. An 8-year/100,000-mile warranty protects it against actual defects.
What’s clear is that, as with any car, your mileage may vary. The difference here is that the stakes are much higher. While the navigation system does a good job of keeping you informed of your limits by letting you know beforehand if it thinks you’ll make it to your chosen destination, and lists available charging stations along the way, on one occasion it directed me to one that didn’t exist. Luckily I had a backup nearby and plenty of juice left. Trust is something that needs to be earned.
Although Nissan hopes to be selling 250,000 of these worldwide by the end of 2012, it is fully aware of the Leaf’s niche role as a commuter device parked next to something more conventional in the garage to be used for longer trips. At a base price of $32,780, it is not exactly the cheapest second or third car on the market, but a $7,500 federal tax credit makes it more accessible to the masses and incentives of up to $5,000 in states like California and Georgia brings the grand total down to $20,280. A 36 month, $349 lease with $1,999 down is also available.
Regardless of cost, the bummer is the realization that this is a vehicle that was designed to fit the congested, exurban, 90 percent of drivers travel less than 50 miles per day world that we live in today, rather than the “go west, young man” America that built it.
There will be no road trips in the Leaf. If there are, they will be very long…in duration. Figure 15 days coast to coast if you can string enough charge points together along the way. If Jack Kerouac had owned one of these “On the Road” would’ve been either a short story or an unfinished work.
Then again, maybe I’m being a pessimist. Manifest Destiny was achieved on horseback, wasn’t it? I’m sure 73 miles at a stretch sounded pretty good back then.
Patience is indeed a virtue, and the Leaf has many others for those who don’t mind waiting. The rest can pay for the roads. That is until the government figures out how to tax the juice used in electric cars to pay for blacktop. You know it’s just a matter of time before they do.
Vive la Révolution!
2011 Nissan Leaf
Base Price: $32,780
Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Motor: 80 kW AC synchronous electric motor
Power: 107 hp, 207 lb-ft torque
EPA Range: 73 miles combined
MPG equivalent: 99 combined
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.