2011 Nissan Leaf: First Drive

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The automotive world is tilting on its axis, and electric cars are about to become reality.

Have you bought in, drunk the Kool-Aid?

In other words, are you ready to drive a rechargeable car, something as mind-blowingly, reassuringly all-new as the 2011 Nissan Leaf?

If you\’ve hung in there through the spike in gas prices, the global recession and the bankruptcies at the American car companies, congratulations. You\’re probably as tenderized as you\’ll ever become, as prone to owning a real, pure, honest-to-goodness no-oil electric car as you\’ll ever be.

You won\’t have many choices, though, once you decide to wave goodbye to BP et al. For most of the next year, the 2011 Nissan Leaf will be your only mainstream electric-car choice. No Tesla Model S, no Ford Focus Electric–the Leaf is real, starting in December, while the others linger in development.

(While you\’ll obviously be tempted by the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, it\’s an extended-range electric vehicle. Which means you still have to buy gas, though not very often. To some, that makes you still part of the problem, though obviously you\’re trying to be part of the solution, too.)

This week\’s Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose gave High Gear Media our first chance for a first drive in the production-ready 2011 Nissan Leaf. I\’m curious as a reporter, but as a citizen too. You see, earlier this year I filled out an online form to get a spot in line to buy a Leaf, for my own use, out of sheer curiosity. It\’s a turning point powered by my favorite subatomic particle on earth, the electron.

The Leaf could be the alchemy that turns the whole auto industry on its ear. Or it could be the sales flop that forever pigeonholes electric cars into a very tiny, very expensive niche. Exciting, right?

Since I signed up in April, word\’s come down. While folks in Arizona, California, Tennesse and Hawaii take delivery of their gas-free go-go mobiles, I won\’t get my Leaf until April 2011. Pulling a few strings, I found a way into one early, when Nissan offered me the chance to circle San Jose in a prototype Leaf for some essential driving impressions.

Before we get to the intricate details of what\’s it like to drive, you need to know the basics–the stuff I\’ve already been through online. The Leaf can be ordered now through Nissan\’s own Web site. Placing a $99 reservation puts you on a list for a Leaf, and depending on where you live, you could get one as early as the end of this year. The smart folks who pre-registered for the $32,780 2011 Leaf (which qualifies for a $7500 Federal tax credit, along with many state tax and driving incentives) in five regions will be approached next month to place their final orders for the five-door electric wagon. All other possible hold-ups aside, in December, the folks in those five launch regions (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii) will start to take delivery of cars by December of 2010.

A Leaf spotter\’s guide

They\’ll be a part of history, owners of the first mass-market electric vehicles in all our lifetimes. But from a distance, it won\’t be all that easy to pick out Leaf owners–not as easy as it was to spot the first EV1 drivers, at least. The 2011 Leaf has some future in its folds and creases, but the silhouette clearly fits in the mold of some other Nissan (and Renault) hatchbacks with its high-hat stance and its overall proportions. The details nudge the envelope, starting at the nose where the Leaf hides its 110-volt, 240-volt and 440-volt charging ports behind a flip-up plate. There are very specific aerodynamic cues that Nissan engineered to extract every last erg from the Leaf\’s batteries, and they\’re smoothly integrated into the overall shape–though you\’ll notice the fins on the LED headlamps right away, and can see directly how they split the airstream to avoid drag caused by the Leaf\’s side mirrors.

At the haunches, the Leaf departs from the usual hatchback in the most striking ways. There\’s a shapely swell around the back of the rear wheels, and a vertical taillight rib that glows with LED precision on braking. It\’s a very light, everyday take on the \”car of the future\” that happens to blend in seamlessly with other Nissans, from the Versa up to the Infiniti G37. Hardcore fans will be able to tell Leaf SL models from the base variety, thanks to the small solar panel on the rear spoiler and other minor cues.

The Leaf\’s cabin is even more pleasant, though the prototype I drove in San Jose still wasn\’t 100 percent representative of the final car owners will get late this year. It\’s airy and light, with plenty of glass that doesn\’t wash out the Leaf\’s LCD displays too much. Ahead of the driver, the sculpted dash gets that LCD readout, which contains all the driving information in a fairly digestible way. There\’s no glowing-blue indication you\’re driving in fuel-saving mode as in a Honda CR-Z, but there\’s a leaf icon atop the instrument panel in a separate LCD screen along with readouts for vehicle speed and other functions. The LCD navigation screen dominates the center stack, but the sense of spaciousness in the cabin remains intact thanks to a low storage bin under the navigation controls, and thanks to a velvety upholstery material that\’s made of recycled plastic bottles and home appliances.

The shifter knob\’s countersunk into the center console, and an encircled P is pretty much your only hint that its function is somewhat related to forward propulsion. Thankfully, we\’re all getting used to pushbutton start–otherwise you\’d wonder exactly what to do with the Leaf\’s fob and where to look for the opaque start button that sits down near your right knee. With a tap on the power button, and a gentle tug left and down on the drive controller, I pulled out of San Jose\’s Santana Row in almost pure silence, into one vision of the future.

Measuring EV performance

When we talk about performance on other High Gear Media sites like MotorAuthority or MustangBlog, we\’re usually talking about horsepower, handling, or even safety. With the 2011 Leaf, we\’re having to redefine how we even measure those traits–and for a first drive in the Leaf, what the most important lessons to draw will even be.

The Leaf\’s a dramatic change from your usual comfort zone, for sure. It\’ll accept electricity from either a 110-volt, a 240-volt or a 440-volt plug–but the first is the only one you\’re likely to have available in your home, or on the road on a moment\’s notice. Part of the Leaf program includes a home visit from Nissan contractors to set you up for Leaf ownership with a 240-volt charging station. And frankly, part of the visionary plan is for the rest of the world to chime in and come up with up to 10,000 240-volt charging points and up to 250 440-volt quick-charge points in the next 18 months.

It\’s like rebuilding the oil infrastructure, to some degree–and it defines the Leaf driving experience in almost every way. For one, you\’ll want to start out the driving experience with a fully charged battery–to avoid the \”range anxiety\” that GM will use as a bludgeon to beat down the Leaf and try to convert green-car buyers to its range-extended 2011 Chevy Volt, which has a backup gas-powered engine to charge its batteries. Range anxiety means always wondering exactly how many miles more you can drive, and it\’s first and foremost the message of the Leaf, from the moment you press that power button and glide smoothly up to speed.

Normally, we\’d talk about horsepower, cylinder counts, and transmissions. With the 2011 Leaf, it\’s all about kilowatts and driving range. The Leaf uses proprietary batteries co-developed between Nissan and NEC, and mounted between the wheels under its floor. The batteries put out more than 90 kilowatts of power, and the electric motor turns out 80 kilowatts–which Nissan says gives this roughly 3200-pound hatchback the ability to scoot to 60 mph in under 10 seconds.  Capped to a top speed of 90 miles an hour, the Leaf will deliver a driving range of around 100 miles on a full charge, according to all the most carefully laid plans.

No gimmicks allowedAs our prototype Leaf rolled out of the valet-parking spot, after being gawked by a half-dozen H&M shoppers, Nissan\’s Paul Hawson explained how engineers took the Leaf\’s driving feel very seriously. Conscious of the reputation earned by other electric cars, from the questionable Aptera to even GM\’s fully-baked EV1, Lawson says the company knew their first electric-car offering couldn\’t feel or drive like a toy. \”It couldn\’t be a gimmick where the only good thing about it is it\’s an electric car,\” he offers.

Before our first mile has elapsed, it\’s clear that the mission\’s been fulfilled. The Leaf feels more solid, in fact, than the last 2010 Versa I drove. The steering feel is very light, and the regenerative braking doesn\’t make much notice of itself at all. It\’s markedly different from the acceleration in, say, the Tesla Roadster; pull off the accelerator pedal and the Tesla begins to back down quite quickly, relieving almost any use of the brakes in normal city driving. With the Leaf, you\’ll certainly need the brakes more frequently, though at the speeds of less than 60 mph we were able to reach in city traffic, it\’s nothing more than a mild tap.

At higher speeds, the steering firms up a bit, and the Leaf begins to feel a little less perky–which underscores the fact that the new crop of electric cars aren\’t vehicles you\’d want to drive cross-country. Not only is charging a constant issue, but driving faster than 60 mph costs even more in driving range. And improving that means either new-age batteries with much better energy density–or simply, plenty more batteries, which kills the vehicle\’s optimization.

Drive it as a medium-distance commuter car, though, and you\’re likely to agree with the whole Leaf philosophy. As Bengt Halvorson noted last year in a drive of the Leaf powertrain tucked inside a Versa body, there\’s very little to distinguish the Leaf driving feel from a lightly damped compact hatchback like the Versa, save for noise. And that means it\’s mission accomplished, according to Hawson.

The central issue in electric cars, it turns out, has always been noise. Relieve the car of its noisy internal-combustion engine, and all sorts of other sounds creep into the cabin. With the Leaf, the patter of tires slapping on pavement starts right away, turning into a low boom at 30 mph or more. There\’s also a bubbly, whispery whir that Nissan\’s programmed into the Leaf to warn visually impaired pedestrians that an EV is coming–and maybe like us, the first time you hear it you\’ll start singing the Jetsons theme song in your head, too. (There\’s also a fairly commonplace beep when the Leaf rolls in reverse, but it doesn\’t remind us of anything except the insipid backup tone in our Prius.)

After two dozen miles or so, our brief test drive complete, we rolled in for a recharge for the next driver and their turn. The Leaf displayed 76 miles with the climate control turned off at departure; after the drive, the Leaf still showed 63 miles of driving range, after showing brief flashes of 113 miles of driving range during our test. It easily could handle daily commutes for most drivers who don\’t have to fill up their gas tanks more than once a week. But of course, keeping a charge is the big question mark in owning a Leaf–and there\’s a technologically savvy set of tools that help drivers find their way from charge to charge, while Nissan plans and hopes for a much different universe it hopes will take shape in the next few years.

Hearts and brains

The heart of the Leaf\’s drivetrain may be its batteries, but the brain lives in its standard navigation and battery management center. What looks like an ordinary LCD panel for GPS information also displays all the tools drivers will need to help keep a charge in their Leaf, whether at home or on the road.

First, on charging. Nissan will supply owners with a 110-volt port on the Leaf that will recharge the car, eventually, from a household outlet. Plug in an extension cord on an empty Leaf and, well, 22 hours later you\’ll be something close to fully charged. That\’s not the plan, though: Nissan has taken pre-orders for the Leaf, specifically, so that it can conduct home assessments to fit garages with the 240-volt connections needed to recharge the Leaf in about eight hours. So far, Nissan\’s found that all its pre-registered Leaf fans fit a great pattern: they own their own homes, and have garages where plugging in at night won\’t pose a problem. That\’s why, by the end of 2011, Nissan foresees 10,000 charge points capable of doing 8-hour fill-ups will be in place.

In the gleaming bright world of the future, fast-charging 440-volt stations will become more prevalent. By the end of 2011, Nissan expects 250 of these quick-charge ports will refuel Leafs to 80 percent of their battery capacity in under 30 minutes–and as Nissan execs are quick to point out, the average stay at a fast-food joint is roughly 20 minutes.

Most of these points will be known to the Leaf and to its owners via the car\’s on-screen display, or through their mobile phones. Running alongside the navigation functions embedded into the Leaf is a monitoring system that keeps tabs on how quickly the Leaf is consuming its electricity. Cycling through its displays, owners of the Leaf will be able to see an infographic that shows how far they can get on the car\’s current state of charge–and when that charge reaches a critical point, the instrument panel and power management center will automatically display the nearest charging points. Those points can be updated dynamically, or at the driver\’s request through a tap on the LCD screen.

The system has more esoteric functions available for pure EV geeks. Owners will be able to disable climate control, for example–and a page will show them how many more miles they\’re enabling by saving power. It\’s not quite as direct as the glowing red and blue gauges on a Ford Fusion Hybrid or a Honda CR-Z, but Nissan says these functions will teach newbie EV drivers to extract the maximum mileage from their new cars.

From the same system, drivers can program the Leaf to recharge when power rates are cheap. The system also will set timers for the car to be pre-warmed or cooled for drivers without consuming battery energy. Instead, the Leaf will tap the grid to bring the car to a comfortable temperature. On top of that, Nissan will offer a heated steering wheel and seats, because it believes those warming sensations are psychologically more important than heating or cooling the entire cabin.

The iPhone generation will be pleased to know that most of these functions can and will be enabled from their magic tricorder devices. Nissan is developing an app that will let drivers ping their car and check on remaining mileage, set timers for charging or to set the timer to kick in the climate controls.

2011 Nissan Leaf

A real car–with a catch

If it sounds like the Leaf may be too daunting, or not useful enough for your needs, you don\’t have to take our word for it. I\’ve signed up to buy a Leaf for a few reasons–tax incentives, the need to replace a car, the inherent gadget-freak thing–but I\’m not alone. By early next year, Nissan expects more than 5,000 Leaf owners will be rolling out their oil-free message, each one an evangelist for easy living on the electricity grid.

Nissan has wrapped a big chunk of the company\’s future in electrification, in the gamble that the $32,780 Leaf will suit the needs of hundreds of thousands of drivers around the world. The competition for oil will only increase, they say, while the available supplies shrink. Gasoline would have to average $1 a gallon again for the Leaf\’s refueling to be uncompetitive. And all incentives and credits tallied, the Leaf is a good deal. The base price drops when the Federal credit of $7,500 is applied, putting the Leaf in the $25,000 range–and will be eligible for a range of state tax incentives and HOV-lane spiffs that other vehicles like the range-extended Chevrolet Volt will not. In Georgia, for example, the Leaf earns the buyer an additional $5,000 tax credit, dropping the price to roughly $25,000 before taxes–and that\’s in addition to the credits available for the charging station itself, which can cost from $1500 to $2000 depending on the difficulty of the installation. That makes it less expensive than a mid-line Toyota Prius.

It\’s not a vehicle for every driver, but the 2011 Nissan Leaf feels just like a real car. That\’s a critical message for the company to get out as it pivots on this point in history, as it goes after the 70 percent of the world\’s drivers that it estimates can live easily with a daily driving range of 100 miles. There\’s little reason to believe people can change–but ample evidence that habits do. In the past decade, the world\’s grown used to charging cell phones, laptop computers and other devices, after all.

At Nissan, the biggest question in its history now is, why not automobiles, too?

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