Nissan's Leaf plug-in electric hatchback is an endearing car for people who don't mind metering their mileage, planning ahead and sometimes tapping the electricity at a friend's home while sharing dinner.
The first all-electric car offered in the United States by a mainstream auto manufacturer since the early days of the automobile, the new-for-2011 Leaf has seats for five, a roomy, straightforward interior and a surprisingly solid, stable feel.
Best of all for consumers who worry about the nation's oil consumption and the environment, the Leaf is rated at 99 miles per gallon of gasoline equivalent by the federal government for combined city and highway driving.
This equivalent is based on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formula that seeks to translate a full charge of the Leaf's 24-kilowatt lithium ion battery pack over seven hours at 240 volts into a comparison with a conventional, gasoline-powered car.
Simply stated, the Leaf's mileage rating — which amounts to 106 mpg in city driving and 92 mpg on the highway — is, by far, the top mileage rating for any major brand consumer vehicle. By comparison, the highest ranked mainstream, mid-size car to this point was the was the gasoline-electric hybrid Toyota Prius with a federal government rating of 51 mpg in city driving and 48 mpg on the highway.
The 2011 Prius can operate for short distances on electric power, but the on-board electric motor mostly supplements the car's four-cylinder gasoline engine.
The gasoline savings that the Leaf provides come at a luxury-car-like purchase price. Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2011 Leaf is $33,600.
It's true that some states offer incentives and rebates for this new electric car. And a taxpayer can claim a $7,500 federal tax credit for purchasing a Leaf, so the full price may be offset by lowering a buyer's Internal Revenue Service tax bill.
Another all-electric car, the Tesla roadster, also has the $7,500 federal tax credit but is a high-priced, two-seat sporty model that has a starting retail price of more than $100,000. And Chevrolet's upcoming 2011 Volt car, with on-board electric power plus gasoline engine, has a starting retail price of $41,000. Toyota's Prius has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of just over $22,000.
The test Leaf handled in a stable, solid way — more like a regular car than I expected. There was no lightweight, golf-cart feel. At more than 3,300 pounds, the Leaf tester had substantial heft and typical safety features like air bags.
Also impressive is how the weight is distributed in the Leaf. In some gas-electric hybrids, the weight of the engine under the hood competes with the weight of the battery pack that's typically under or aft of the rear seats. This can unsettle the suspension and create a sensation that the vehicle is carrying around three big guys in the back seat.
There was none of this in the Leaf. Without the engine heft in front, the Leaf's weight felt better balanced. The car was nimble and fit easily into parking spaces.
The 80-kilowatt AC electric motor generates 107 horsepower — more than the Prius has.
Torque is an impressive 207 foot-pounds, and since it's all electric, it comes on fast, smoothly and steadily. I beat everyone away from stoplights — and in stealthy silence.
The steering is electric, but it didn't have too much of an artificial feeling.
It was the brake pedal that took a bit of getting used to; it managed the regenerative brakes and stopped the car in the process.
The Leaf gear shifter also isn't a lever as much as it is a squat blob in the center console.
Seats have a decidedly thick foam feel, and the steeply raked windshield and uncluttered dashboard layout help give an airy, spaceship feel to the front seats.
Fit and finish on the test car was excellent.
Nissan says the maximum feasible range for the fully charged leaf is about 130 miles; I never matched that with normal driving. Normally, Nissan says, it takes seven hours to fully charge the car with a 240-volt system.
I didn't have the 240-volt charge system for the test drive. I also didn't have the optional quick charge port, which allows for the battery to charge to 80 percent of capacity in a half hour.
So, I plugged the Leaf into a regular, 120-volt electric outlet in my garage, using a large, brick-like portable power converter, a thick, bright orange cord and a gas-dispenser-like connection that plugged into the front of the car, above the bumper. With about 40 miles left, I'd plug it in overnight. By morning, the Leaf would be 90 percent charged.
All too aware of the limited range and the fact that there was only one other compatible charging station in my area, I watched the mileage like a hawk. I planned combined trips so I wouldn't need to sit at home and wait for the car to recharge.
One busy day, I asked a friend if I could plug in at her home while we ate dinner, because I worried about running low on power. But then I realized I didn't have the cord with me, and she admitted later she wouldn't be thrilled to power up my car on a regular basis, adding to her electric bill.