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2011 Nissan Leaf Review
Nissan launches the first mass-market EV, and it actually works
By Derek Kreindler, Photography by Nissan, Oct. 13, 2011

The last electric car tested by AutoGuide was the Tesla Roadster 2.5S, a six-figure sports car that was really just a two-seat roadster that happened to have an electric motor in the back of its Lotus Elise-derived chassis. Car guys would call the Tesla a “no-compromises sports car,” which in plain English means a “useless, impractical toy.”

FAST FACTS

1. The Leaf if the first full-electric mass-market vehicle.

2. With a real-world range of 70 miles the Leaf can charge up to 80 percent in 30 minutes using a quick-charge station. A regular 220 V outlet takes 7 hours.

3. A full charge is expected to cost around $2.15 in electricity.

4. Priced at $32,790, in the Nissan lineup, only the Armada, Murano CrossCabriolet and GT-R have a higher entry price.

We won’t disagree with either assessment, but we came away from our Tesla test drive smitten with the idea of electric vehicles. We say idea because we’d be fools to disregard the many issues surrounding EVs. The limited driving range means that electric vehicles aren’t quite for everyone, plus their sticker price puts them out of reach for most new car buyers. Manufacturers generally lease EVs to customers for a short period (roughly three years) in small batches, as a sort of customer-driven R&D program, but Nissan is set to bring EVs to the mainstream with the introduction of the Leaf, a fully electric vehicle that is available for outright purchase right now.

TRYING HARD TO FIT IN

If the Leaf looks like a bigger, slightly goofier version of the Versa hatchback, that’s because it is. The Leaf has been designed to feel like a “normal” car and Nissan has succeeded on this front – pop the hood and all the hardware associated with the electric powertrain has been shaped to resemble an Internal Combustion Engine. A traditional gearstick sits in the usual spot, even though the car has no real gears. The regenerative braking is seamless, and drivers can still use the conventional brakes to slow the car without it feeling harsh or abrupt. Nissan has hidden most of the battery pack underneath the floor, a neat trick that allows for good weight distribution and efficient packaging.

2011 Nissan Leaf Right Side

The biggest change comes upon hitting the start button. The Leaf fires up without a sound, and largely insulates you from other noises, save for the white noise of other vehicles and the hairdryer-like whine from the electric powerplant. The Leaf isn’t supposed to be a quick car, but stepping on the accelerator will make for a fairly entertaining time, as the instant torque of the electric motor makes it easy to pass other vehicles. The low rolling-resistance tires hamper what’s otherwise a decent chassis, but the Leaf can still be chucked into corners if you’re perverse enough to drive this car in anger.

MONEY SPENT UNDER THE HOOD, NOT ON INTERIOR TRIM

2011 Nissan Leaf Interior

The interior of the Leaf isn’t the greatest. The dash is full of hard plastic and the design doesn’t look particularly well thought out, with a glossy black panel housing the HVAC and stereo system amid a sea of light colored hard plastic. It’s about one step up from a Versa but still far behind what’s considered acceptable, and on a car that costs more than $30,000, we came away very unimpressed. The Leaf redeems itself ergonomically, as cargo room is adequate and the back seats are surprisingly spacious, offering ample head and leg room for full-sized adults. Trips to the supermarket and school runs are perfectly conceivable in the Leaf, though these activities will have to be planned around the car’s battery life.

Nissan claims that the Leaf can get about 100 miles off of a full charge, based on the EPA electric vehicle cycle. This distance is fine for urban buyers, but as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. On a conventional gasoline powered car, accessories are powered via a battery that is constantly recharged by the alternator. The alternator, in turn, is driven via the engine’s crankshaft. Since the Leaf has no crankshaft, those functions directly impact the battery life and vehicle range. Functions like cranking the A/C on a hot day while stuck in traffic, playing the stereo, using the navigation system and even having your headlights on has the potential to decrease your range, and cold climates reduce it even further.

2011 Nissan Leaf Interior

Nissan presented us with a number of scenarios based on different conditions and accessory usages, but drivers can expect about 70 miles of range at the low end to 120 miles with minimal accessories being used. Leaf models equipped with the navigation system can search for nearby charging stations, but for now those are few and far between.

CHARGE TIME AND RANGE ANXIETY

The Leaf lacks the Chevrolet Volt’s range-extender, and while the Volt can keep on trucking when the batteries go out, thanks to its on-board gasoline engine, the Leaf is a pure electric vehicle. Once it runs out of juice, it becomes a roadside attraction, so owners will have to not only carefully plan their journeys, but think about charging times as well. Nissan claims that a 480 volt “quick charging” station can re-charge the Leaf’s battery to 80% capacity in about 30 minutes, but a full charge using a 220V outlet (like your washer or dryer uses) will take about 7 hours. A conventional 110V outlet will take an excruciating 20 hours, and Nissan strongly recommends that buyers install a home charging dock in 220V configuration so that users can charge the car overnight. A full charge is estimated to cost $2.15 in electricity on average.

2011 Nissan Leaf Motor

THE VERDICT

In isolation, the Nissan Leaf is a fantastic step towards electric vehicles entering the mainstream. It has enough power, cargo room and passenger space to accomplish all the usual day-to-day tasks, but issues of range and re-charging will for now prevent the Leaf and EVs from becoming a mainstream option. Nissan should be proud of being the first to bring a true EV to the mass market, but it must also pay the price in the form of a lack of infrastructure, as there are few public quick-charging stations, and even fewer homes equipped with the necessary hardware to make painless charging a reality for America.

2011 Nissan Leaf Left Side

Nevertheless, the early adopters of the Leaf will feel strongly enough to take the plunge on such a new technology, with the payoff being the status of having a “green” or “CO2 free” vehicle. Eventually, the costs will come down, the infrastructure will be more widespread, batteries will get cheaper and more robust, and electric vehicles will become a viable option for more and more consumers. In the meantime, we’d recommend the Leaf only for motorists in an urban core, who have a conventional vehicle for long trips but don’t mind an EV for short commutes or quick trips. Caveat emptor, regardless.

LOVE IT
  • As capable as any normal car
  • Lots of torque keeps things interesting
  • Shows that EVs aren’t just a pipe dream
LEAVE IT
  • Range impacted by basic things like air-conditioning, headlights
  • Charging infrastructure isn’t there yet
  • Works only as a second car

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