Nissan’s Leaf is Growing On Me

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Hybrids, Electrics and other "Green" Technology, Nissan
Tags: , , ,

When I attended the Nissan Leaf Electric Drive event in Century City this past October, I was a non-believer. I may not be ready to buy into the high voltage pitch; however, I think there are plenty of LA drivers for which this car makes sense.

The Zero Emissions tombstone logo at the Century City Electric Drive event.

The Leaf is an utterly boring car. While this may sound like a slam, it’s not. Nissan has worked magic to make this car drive just like every other subcompact four-door hatchback economy driving appliance. The fear of driving an all-electric car almost vanishes when you get behind the wheel.

The Leaf is about the size of a Versa, but 100% of the Leaf is unique, including the razor-finned headlamps.

Everything seems familiar in the Leaf and if you’ve ever driven a Prius (which is likely if you’re considering the Leaf), even the center drive mode knob is familiar and can be mastered on the first drive. The only thing missing is the sound of four hamsters thrashing around in a so-last-century internal combustion engine.

When you press the start button, the car sounds a melodious chirp and the brightly-lit digital instrument panel springs to life and you’re ready to go. Nudge the selector knob to drive, press the accelerator pedal and without fanfare, you are driving the future. The electrons jump from the laminated (to manage heat) 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack to the “high response” 80kW AC synchronous electric motor.

The Nissan Leaf Shift Knob. It feels good in your hand and it's very simple to use.

If you’re like me, you have no clue what that means. What I took away from my drive was that the Leaf accelerates briskly, stops and drives like an ordinary car with real-world, every day driving range. The 0-60 time is not spectacular – just under 10 seconds. The range is between 62 and 138 miles (average 100), depending on your use of climate control, driving style, speed, cargo and topography. Flat = good, hill = bad. The highly accurate range indicator is continuously calculating how much further you can go. There is no guesswork here.

The interior plastics and fabrics are made from post-consumer recycled materials. The driver’s seat lack the 16 power adjustments you’d find on a Porsche; but it has the normal seat adjustments you’d expect on an economy car. It’s just as comfortable, or uncomfortable as an economy car. I’m 6’1” tall and my legs just fit. The usual engine drone doesn’t exist; instead, road noise annoys you.

The Leaf's interior is at once familiar and futuristic.

The 60/40 rear folding seats offer little leg room for tall people, no different from a Nissan Versa or Honda Civic. Cargo space won’t set any records either.

In short, the Leaf is so surprisingly ordinary you forget that it’s one of the most sophisticated cars on the road. It looks like a Versa, but with distinctive French style courtesy of Nissan’s partner, Renault. The Leaf is not an electrified version of an existing model. The entire platform is unique and designed for pure electric drive. There is no gasoline engine to extend the electric range like the Chevy Volt or the Fisker Karma.

I like the slick lines and although it's made by Nissan, you can't help but think of modern French design when you see the Leaf

The Leaf plugs in directly to any 110 volt wall socket to trickle charge. And they really mean trickle. It could take 16 hours for a full charge with wall socket volts. If you install the optional AeroVironment Home Charging Station using a 220 volt line (like for a dryer or an over), you can charge an empty battery in 8 hours. The home station will set you back around $2,000. The cost can be paid up front or include it in the Leaf financing.

The plug is in the nose of the Leaf. The panel just flips up to connect. The actual connection is (thankfully) an industry standard, so the same recharge stations can service other Plug-Ins like the Chevy Volt or the new Plug-In Prius.

The one on the left is the home charging station you'd put in your garage. The one on the right is a commercial one that you'll find around town at charging stations, parking garages, retail businesses, etc.

If you use a Quick Charge station (coming soon to a location near you), 480 volts can recharge the batteries to 80% in 30 minutes. You can’t get this kind of voltage at home. Nissan envisions Quick Charge stations at places like a grocery store, the gym or Prada – places where you already spend more than 30 minutes on a regular basis. For example, Ralph’s would give it away free charging time to entice you to shop there.

We’ll see if that happens.

At home you will need one of those new electric smart meters that measures your usage in real-time. Nissan claims that Edison or the DWP will lower rates to 5 cents per kWh if you set your Leaf to charge overnight. The car is smart enough to wake up and charge itself and then shut down again when the battery is full. Plug it in when you get home and forget about the timing issues. There is even a smartphone app to monitor everything about your Leaf from wherever you are.

As far as cost, a 24 kWh battery sucks up 24 kWh for a 0 to 100% charge. At five cents, that’s $1.20 to drive 100 miles. Even if you pay an egregious rate like me – $0.3647 per kWh – $8.75 to go 100 miles, without the maintenance costs of a regular car, is inexpensive. If you can juice up at work or play for free, that’s even better!

The biggest issue for most consumers is a new psychological disorder, sure to be included in the next DSM: Range Anxiety.

Nissan has created CARWINGS™ , a telematics information system that operates on a two-way cellular network. CARWINGS™

  • Updates the navigation system with current charging station locations in your area
  • Monitors the state of charge from your Smartphone or computer
  • Remotely starts vehicle charging
  • Provides connectivity to start and stop the climate control system in the vehicle remotely via your Smartphone or computer
  • Reminds you to plug in the car if you forget
  • Is provided to you complimentary for the first three years

The intelligent onboard navigation system:

  • Is “smart” enough to tell you based on destination input and state of charge whether you have the range to “make it,” and if not, search for nearby charging station along the route
  • Displays your current range radius
  • Will alert you if you need to charge
  • Shows you where you can find the nearest available charge station
  • Displays how much charge you have left and how many miles remain
  • Has a real time energy usage screen which shows you how much energy is being used, regenerated, how much further you can drive, and the real time impact of using climate control on your range

Nissan is even working with the AAA to equip future tow trucks with a quick charge system that will give you enough juice to get home or to a charging station.

Here’s the deal: The Leaf is perfect for most LA commuters. Research shows that the vast majority of drivers don’t put more than 40 miles a day on the odometer. At five cents a kilowatt hour, electricity is substantially cheaper than gasoline. Plus, an electric car has almost nothing that can go wrong, mechanically, with the drivetrain. Sure you will need brake pads, tires and stuff like switchgear can malfunction, but there is virtually no maintenance on an EV.

The Leaf belongs in a multi-car family garage and Southern California is ground zero for this lifestyle. Drive the Leaf around town and take the fossil fuel beast on road trips.

You also need to have house with, ideally, a garage so you can charge your car. Apartment dwellers and most condo owners won’t have the opportunity to have their own metered charging station, and most landlords or homeowner associations probably don’t want to pay for your battery rejuvenation.

The Leaf is also affordable, with a little help from our governments. The loaded Leaf SV is $33,720. The federal government offers a $7,500 tax credit and California offers a $5,000 Electric Vehicle Purchase Rebate. That brings the price down to $21,220. There are also insurance discounts, free parking at some meters, free charging stations, free parking and charging at LAX, etc.

The whole package is really starting to sound both attractive and feasible. I’m almost there, but I don’t have a multi-car household. Yet.

One look at the instrument panel and you know the Leaf is no ordinary car. Yet it's wrapped in familiar surrounds.

The Leaf's navigation screen is loaded with info about range, battery charge, locations of charging stations, etc.

The Leaf's laminated lithium-ion battery pack is sandwiched on the floor of the Leaf. The platform is unique, and not cheap.

It was an overcast afternoon in Century City, but no rain.

Close up of what's under the hood: An electric motor and a regular car battery used mostly for the accessories

The drive took you on an extended circle around the Century City Shopping Center.

Just another side view of the Leaf

It wasn't that busy when I was there. They were happy to take walk-up registrations.

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Comments
  1. Tom says:

    I went to the one at the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica and have to write that I was similarly impressed. The whole car feels so average

    I did notice in the sales brochure that the quick-charge feature is only available on the more expensive model however..

    Personally, I’d go for the Volt for those days when I decide to drive to Santa Barbara for the heck of it.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for reading my piece. I think I could live with the Leaf for almost anything I do around LA. My problem is that I drive to Palm Springs (about 120 miles each way) at least 3 weekends a month, and the Leaf just doesn’t lend itself for that. I could live with a new 911 Targa 4S as my “other” car; but that isn’t quite in the cards yet. But seriously, I’m looking for a hybrid or clean diesel from the Germans. My ’95 E300 Diesel still delivers an average of 28-30 mpg in mixed driving and the 24+ gallon tank gives me an easy 600+ miles driving range. I want a BMW 123d 5-door. I won’t hold my breath for BMW to bring that to our shores.

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  3. Heather says:

    Hi Todd, I work for a university and we’re hosting an Electric Vehicles Seminar this weekend. May I have permission to use 1-2 of your photographs to promote the event? (Photo credits would be given to you.) Thanks! -Heather McLendon, Social Media Coordinator, Marylhurst University

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