Review: Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf is more than a very nice car. It is the car of the future we’ve been promised in countless sci-fi movies. It is spacious, smooth and silent, effortlessly whisking you along with only the whir of its electric motor. You almost expect to hear it make that doot doot dootdootdootdoot sound George Jetson’s space car made.

The Leaf is not without its faults, but Nissan is to be commended. The world’s first mass-market mainstream electric car isn’t for everyone, but a whole lot of people who might have never considered an EV ought to. The Leaf is that good.

We hear you back there muttering about range.  Get over it. The feds peg the Leaf’s 24-kilowatt-hour lithium battery at 75 miles, but we consistently saw 80s and 90s during a week of Bay Area driving. We never experienced “range anxiety,” that nagging fear of being left far from home with a dead battery.

The Leaf was our sole transportation for one week. We drove it as often and as far as we typically drive a conventional car and never came close to running out of juice, even though we charged up only at home using a 120-volt socket and an extension cord.

Obviously that kind of range isn’t going to work if you commute from the farthest exurban rings of a megalopolis, and you aren’t taking any road trips in the Leaf. But it’s perfect for urban commuting or a second vehicle. Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn once told us 95 percent of the world’s population drives less than 100 kilometers [62 miles] per day, so the Leaf’s range isn’t the big hurdle that its critics suggest.

Frankly, only an idiot will run out of juice in this car. The Leaf’s remarkable dashboard display clearly and concisely provides comprehensive real-time info regarding how much energy you’ve got, how much you’re using and how far you can go. It will, for example, tell you how many miles of range you’ll lose cranking up the heater or how much you’ll gain switching to eco mode (more on that in a sec).

But wait. There’s more. Push a button and a circle appears on the navigation screen showing how far you can go. Another button displays a list of public charging stations (eight within 62 miles of San Francisco). Pick one and the navi system directs you to it. An idiot light warns you when you’re down to 4 kilowatt-hours of juice.

Keep going and the car will limit your top speed to 55 mph, then slowly reduce your top speed to maximize remaining range. About the only thing this car doesn’t do is tap you on the shoulder and say, “Please plug me in.”

Once you do plug in, you’ll want to do it with a 240-volt line like your dryer uses. That means buying a charging station, which will run you $2,200, but a federal tax incentive covers half of it. (Nissan will help arrange installation and include the cost in your monthly car payment.)

Drain the battery completely and you’ll need 7 hours to charge it. You can use the portable 120-volt trickle charger included with the car but you’ll need up to 20 hours if the battery is dead. That said, we only used the trickle charger and had no problem topping off the battery overnight. The feds say you’ll pay $561 a year for the juice, assuming you drive 15,000 miles annually and pay 12 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity.

One day we’ll have lots and lots of so-called Level 3 DC “Quick chargers” that will let you plug-and-go in as little as 25 minutes. We aren’t there yet, but when we are, the Leaf will be ready. It is 440-volt capable out of the box. Nice.

OK, now that we’ve allayed any fears of range anxiety and told you how long you’ll need to charge up, what’s the Leaf like to live with?

Very nice, actually.

That big honkin’ battery provides juice to an 80 kilowatt (107 horsepower) motor with 208 pound-feet of torque. While those numbers look paltry, electric motors provide all their torque the moment they start spinning. That makes the Leaf snappy off the line. Stomp it and the Leaf moves with the gusto of a V-6 up to about 40 mph. Top speed is limited to 90 mph, and Nissan says the Leaf will do zero to 60 in around 10 seconds or so. Slow, but then this is a compact that weighs almost 3,400 pounds.

A trackball-like gear selector on the center console lets you choose “eco” and “drive” modes. The Leaf feels like a conventional car in drive, with ample acceleration and minimal regenerative braking. We spent most of our time in eco, which Nissan says boosts range about 10 percent. It increases accelerator pedal resistance so the car speeds up a bit more slowly (acceleration eats up a lot of juice) and ramps up regen to return more energy to the battery. You can toggle between the two modes with a flip of the selector; we’d often use drive mode to, say, merge onto the freeway, then switch to eco once we were up to speed.

Speaking of brakes, the regen was unobtrusive even in eco mode, and the pedal lacks the mushiness often experienced in hybrids. Of course the Leaf has ABS and traction control.

Out on the road the Leaf is so smooth, it seems to float. Press the accelerator and you’ll think you’re gliding. There is none of the lag, vibration or noise associated with internal combustion.

The Leaf is so quiet, so serene, it’s eerie. (A speaker at the front of the car emits a low whine up to 18 mph to warn pedestrians it’s coming, and the car beeps like a truck in reverse.) After a week with the Leaf, our conventional car felt crude and primitive.

The suspension is soft and the ride comfortable. A 3,400-pound compact cannot be called nimble, and the 16-inch tires howl when pushed, but we were impressed by the Leaf’s handling. The 600-pound battery is down low between the axles, which lowers the center of gravity. The electric power steering provides decent feel and feedback, though it is a bit slow.

The Leaf is a compact that doesn’t feel compact. There’s loads of room even if you’re over six feet tall, and all that glass gives the interior a sense of spaciousness. There are, however, pretty nasty blind spots at the rear quarters. The seats are comfortable, even in the back. All of the controls fall readily to hand, and the menus for the audio and navi system are intuitive.

This car is packed with features. Cruise control, six-speaker stereo with XM radio, Bluetooth, power everything and navigation are standard. We drove an SL-E, which adds a backup camera and a small rooftop solar panel to trickle-charge the 12-volt battery. It also featured options like floor mats and the “eco design package” with “Zero Emissions 100 Percent Electric” decals on the side to out-smug Toyota Prius drivers.

As we said at the start, the Leaf is not perfect. There isn’t much cargo room, even with the 60/40 rear seats folded down. The interior is awash in plastic, some of which feels cheap. Our car had a light beige interior to keep the interior cool and minimize the use of range-sucking A/C, but it’ll get dirty faster than a toddler at the park.

This car’s biggest problem is the styling. We found it ugly, but it grew on us. After a week, we found it odd but endearing.

There’s a reason for the funky styling. Half the energy you’re using at 55 mph is needed to push all that air out of the way. That’s no big deal when you’ve got a 15-gallon gas tank and a gas station on every corner. But aerodynamic efficiency is paramount to maximizing range. Hence the Leaf’s slippery shape.

There’s another reason for the unusual appearance. The racket created by internal combustion hides a lot of noise created by the wind, the tires and so forth. Lose the engine and the sound of wind passing over the mirrors, for example, becomes obvious –- even obtrusive. Nissan’s designers and engineers had to solve those problems, which explains things like the Leaf’s weird LED headlights. They help direct air flow around the mirrors. It’s the same story with that bulbous antenna.

But to get hung up on the Leaf’s relatively minor faults is to miss the bigger picture. The Leaf is the first in the coming wave of EVs –- pretty much every automaker promises to have one by 2015 –- and it proves that an electric vehicle can be every bit as comfortable and practical as a conventional car. Nissan hasn’t built a remarkable electric car. It’s built a remarkable car that happens to be electric.

Author’s note: Our test model came with a $35,430 sticker price. However after factoring in the federal EV tax credit, the cost drops to $27,930. Many states offer additional incentives.

Photos: Jim Merithew/

See Also:

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  • Electric Car Race Slated For Barcelona
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  • Review: The Lotus 2-Eleven Super Sports Car
  • Peak Oil: Bugatti Makes a Car for the Ages
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