I shift the 2011 Nissan LEAF into its normal drive mode, touch the accelerator and start driving down the San Jose streets. The electric car is always silent. It only has an electric motor, therefore I never hear the sound of a gasoline engine.
The 5-door, 5-seat compact hatchback has plenty of room. Sitting behind me is an electric utility executive who is 6″5″. I did not need to move the driver seat forward; his legs are not pressing against my seat. If the car had 4 people his size, it would be a 4-seater, not 5. On our both of the split back seats can be lowered to carry lots of cargo, be it luggage, work equipment, or everything for your favorite sport.
Driving the car was a no brainer. The friendly joy-stick knob gives me the choices of P (park), R (reverse), N (neutral) and D (drive). Touch ECO for the electricity saving mode.
Nissan engineers have been working hard to get all the software controls ready for market. Acceleration, steering, and braking are smooth. Having driving two early prototypes, this time the LEAF felt ready for the average driver who wants the car to respond just like a conventional gasoline powered car. The car feels ready for delivery to the 17,000 who have made $99 deposits with Nissan.
I did not get the chance to push the car to its limits, since a long line of journalists and utility executives were waiting for their turn to drive. My 2 miles of driving on flat city streets did give me the impression that this beautiful car is ready for the roads. In normal mode the LEAF has acceleration to smoothly enter a freeway. The LEAF did not accelerate as quickly as my test drive of the Chevrolet Volt.
Your Mileage May Vary
The LEAF is designed for an average range of 100 miles on a full charge (LA4 drive cycle). Carlos Tavares, Executive Vice President of Nissan Motor explained that the LEAF range estimate varies widely with type of driving. When not running air conditioning or heating, 138 mile range is expected in leisurely driving with slow acceleration and slow stopping. Drive on the highway while running the AC during summer heat, and only expect 70 miles. Blast the heat during cold winter expressway driving, and only expect 60 miles per charge. Sustain 80 miles per hour uphill, and the range is even less.
I put the LEAF in ECO mode which provides about 10 percent more electrical range. Push the accelerator to the floor and I automatically leave ECO mode. To encourage electron-efficient driving, the dash board provides encouraging driving feedback. My telematics display grew lots of trees when I drove with careful acceleration and deceleration. Ford was the first with this type of display, growing leaves on cars like the Fusion Hybrid. So in a LEAF, you grow trees.
While driving, visibility was good in the front, side mirrors, and rear view. The LEAF has two large LCD displays, one behind the steering wheel, the other central on the dashboard.
This car is high-tech. The LEAF included an advanced GPS navigation system with icons for 8 choices. For the test drive, I used the map navigation. You can control and monitor battery charging and even pre-heat/pre-cool and charging control with your smart phone. If the charge indicator warns you that your range has diminished, you can even map display the nearest charging stations.
The LEAF has Internet/smart phone connectivity to the vehicle, intelligent-key with push button start, Sirius/XM satellite radio capabilities, and roadside assistance with the vehicle wirelessly notifying a support center. The SL model which I drove includes a back-up camera.
We Will Buy the LEAF
I love the look and feel of the car. The test drive reinforced earlier impressions. In fact, we will buy one. My wife and I were one of the first to complete the online reservation for Nissan LEAF SL including our $99 refundable deposit. Living in a city, Marci only needs a 40-mile range for her speech therapy work at two schools; living two blocks from transit and car sharing, I rarely need one. For long-trips, or times when we both need a car, we will probably keep our hybrid as a back-up and for driving longer trips rather than flying.
We hope to place an order with a dealer in September. Nissan plans to start delivering the LEAF before the end of 2010, and deliver over 20,000 next year. Nissan may not catch-up with orders until 2012. Initial production is in Japan. In 2012, Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee, plant begins with an eventual capacity of making 150,000 LEAFs per year.
Initial deliveries will be in five states: Oregon, California, Washington, Tennessee, and Arizona. An on-board fast charge receptacle will be included in models delivered as part of the DOE supported program in five cities. Nissan is likely to make fast charging an extra priced option starting 2012. Nissan, like all automakers, needs SAE fast charge standards which are still being debated. My test drive model included a 50 kW DC fast charger. The car was sufficiently recharged in 20 minutes to accommodate the day’s ongoing test drives.
The LEAF is ideal for many like us who live in a city where range is rarely an issue, and where transit, car sharing, and car rental are also available. The average U.S. suburban household has two vehicles, so the EV could be ideal as one of those two.
If you are not ready to order a LEAF, next year you may get to rent one or use one in a car sharing program. Enterprise Car Rental has ordered 500 LEAFs. For many people however, the LEAF will not be the best vehicle because the range limitation will not meet their work or personal demands. These people should consider a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt which was equally impressive to drive. For many people who live in multi-unit dwellings with no ability to install a garage charger, one of the Top 10 hybrid cars might be a better choice.