Forget about answering the question "Who killed the electric car?" That's because Nissan is bringing the electric car back from the dead. Sure, the Tesla Roadster has made the electric car cool again, but the 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first, full-electric mainstream vehicle to be put on sale for the American consumer. Unlike past electric cars (including the GM EV1), the Leaf can be purchased outright instead of leased, so there's no being forced to give it back to the manufacturer after two years to be studied and then destroyed.
The Leaf stores its power in a lithium-ion battery pack, making it one of the first vehicles to use this advanced battery technology. Lithium-ion batteries promise better acceleration and range than comparably sized nickel-metal hydride ones. Nissan says recharging at home with a special 220-volt charger will take 4-8 hours. A commercial quick-charge station can do it in about 30 minutes. Fully charged, the Leaf is estimated to have an effective range of about 100 miles.
Of course, 100 miles is about a third of the cruising range available in a conventional car, so the Leaf's primary drawback is readily apparent. Unlike a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, there's no backup gasoline engine to keep you moving once the Leaf's batteries are depleted. Instead, you'll be stuck with a rather lengthy recharging engagement, and that's if you manage to reach an available electricity source in time. Our take is that the Leaf is best suited for drivers doing a lot of routine commuting or making shorter trips, as well as owners with a two-car household and a garage.
For all that, the 2011 Nissan Leaf promises to be a very useful vehicle. A Leaf will hit the register with a price tag of about $25,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit (residents of certain states are eligible for additional credits as well). Buyers are advised to purchase the $2,200 home-charging station, but even this piece of hardware has its own tax rebate of 50 percent. The Leaf's running costs should also be appealing, since the cost of recharging should be a fraction of what you'd pay for a tank of gasoline.
An electric car is definitely not for everyone. Long-distance commuters, one-car households and apartment dwellers interested in a fuel-efficient or green-oriented car should instead consider a Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota Prius (be it the regular version or new plug-in hybrid), or even a Volkswagen Golf TDI diesel. But for those who have been waiting to buy a real electric car, the arrival of the 2011 Nissan Leaf is a revolutionary event.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is an all-electric four-door hatchback available in SV and SL trim levels.
Standard equipment on the SV includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, keyless ignition/entry, full power accessories, cruise control, automatic climate control, height-adjustable driver seat, tilt-only steering wheel and 60/40-split-folding rear seats. Also included are cloth upholstery made from recycled materials, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth, an advanced trip computer, a navigation system and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface.
The Leaf SL adds a spoiler-mounted solar panel, automatic headlamps, foglamps, a rearview camera and a cargo cover.
Additionally, every Leaf comes standard with Nissan Connection, a remote vehicle access system that reports battery recharging data and can activate the climate control via a cell phone. Optional are a home charging station and a quick-charge port, which allows for charging to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes at a public charging station.
Powertrains and Performance
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is powered by an 80-kilowatt synchronous electric motor fed by a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. Output is 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. At the same time, the power delivery of an electric vehicle is vastly different from that of gasoline, diesel or even hybrid vehicles, so take the Leaf's power ratings with a grain of salt.
Nissan estimates a range of 100 miles, but this depends on driving style, traffic conditions, cruising speed and battery age. In fact, even ambient temperature plays a role in determining cruising range, because extreme temperatures are detrimental for battery performance. The EPA has given the Leaf an energy efficiency equivalent rating (MPG-e) of 106 mpg city/92 mpg highway and 99 mpg combined and an estimated driving range of 73 miles.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf comes standard with antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. A rearview camera is optional on the SL.
Interior Design and Special Features
Because the Leaf's battery pack resides under the floor beneath the seats, the rear seat is quite comfortable for adults. The front seat provides no shortage of space for even tall drivers and the seats themselves are quite supportive and comfortable, though the vehicle's short range makes sure they'll never be enjoyed during a long-haul road trip. The cargo area is on the small side for a hatchback, however, and even when you fold the rear seats, the cargo floor is not flat.
The Leaf's cabin is dominated by a split-level instrument cluster similar to that of the Honda Civic. The center control panel features a touchscreen, which controls the standard navigation system as well as special features like cruising range. You can even program the start time for the recharging system to take advantage of lower rates for electricity. Interior quality is about the same as other economy hatchbacks, but overall fit and finish is noticeably a cut above.
Anyone who has driven or at least stood next to a hybrid will know how quiet it is when operating in electric-only mode. It can be eerie or cool, depending on your point of view. With the 2011 Nissan Leaf, its serenity never ceases, and you can detect only a high-pitched whine under heavy throttle. This quiet creates the adverse side effect of making wind and road noise more noticeable at highway speeds, but overall the Leaf is impressively quiet.
As an electric car, the Leaf benefits from an abundance of torque available from the first touch of the accelerator pedal. The Leaf feels sprightly and gets up to speed with no drama -- as an urban runabout, it certainly excels. Press on the brakes and the pedal is firm and sure, without the sort of strange, vague feel indicative of most regenerative braking systems.
With its battery pack mounted low in the body and a well-tuned electric power steering system, we've been pleasantly surprised by how well the Leaf takes turns. Its responsiveness is typical of that seen in other well-engineered compact family cars, and in most ways the Leaf feels pretty normal to drive.