Ask anyone about electric cars and you might get a wry smirk or an outright guffaw. “Yeah right,” they’ll say. “Electric cars are all Smurfs and rainbows until someone builds them for the everyday driver.”
Well, someone has. The Nissan Leaf will hit the pavement this December, followed soon by a massive roll-out of electric charging stations – according to Nissan. (Some of these stations in California are already being retrofitted and a few have popped up elsewhere.) Nissan says 20,000 people have already pre-ordered this first-to-market, all-electric hatchback. But is it really worth all the fuss?
In a recent test drive, we pounded on the accelerator and tried to top out the “engine,” took corners at insane speeds, and paid only a passing notice to the slowly declining battery power meter. The goal was to find out if the Leaf is a “real” car or more like one of those insufferable Smart Two for bubble-buggies. Sure, an electric car can help save the planet, but will it actually get you through traffic?
One of the most interesting features on the Nissan Leaf we drove are the headlights. They look like a giant pencil head (times two) or a cartoon car with both eyebrows pointed down. The car seems to grimace at you. In fact, the headlights seem to jut up from the front of the car in a growl, presumably for better wind clearance. From the nose, up to the windshield, to the back, this “linear” appearance is rather striking in just how pointy the car looks. That’s not necessarily a knock, since we’re all for aerodynamics if it means we won’t deplete the battery a block from the refill station.
Inside, the Leaf looks a bit plain, but well-appointed – which is to say, not cheap. There’s not that wow sense of “this is a luxury car,” but instead it gives you the impression that it’s sleek and budget minded.
The Leaf is really designed for people who want to save money on gas and maybe kill fewer trees. The plastic does not look cheap, it just doesn’t have any frills. It is also not the shiny brushed-metal look so common on older sedans from Hyundai and Buick. Everything in the interior looks like it is well-fitted. The middle elbow rest, which doubles as an area for stashing CDs and other gear, is made with a fine suede material that looks like it would stain about 30 seconds after you pull away from Starbucks.
Like most electrics, the middle shifter (what Nissan calls a “palm-shift drive selector”) is a stark departure from what most of us gas-guzzling SUV drivers will recognize. There are no gears in an electric car. Therefore, there are no numbers to indicate gear level. Instead, you either shift into D for Drive, ECO (or Drive X2) to save battery power at the cost of acceleration, reverse or neutral.
Because these settings seem more like options on a navigation screen than something you use to actually make the car move, they seemed a bit confusing at first. The interior looks sleek and budget minded, but there is also another important note: most of the interior is made from recycled parts, even from other cars. If you know that, you start looking at the budget styling a bit differently.
Handling on the road
Eager for a real road test, we punched the Leaf up to 93MPH to see how it roared to life. Surprisingly, acceleration was punchy and responsive, like most small cars and entry-level sedans. Around several tight corners at highway speeds, the car hugged the road nicely. Electric cars benefit greatly from the fact that the battery cells, which are each about the size of a license plate, fit under you in the center of the car. This helps keep the car on the road and provides the much needed low center of gravity.
Sitting behind the wheel, you’re given plenty of information about the vehicle’s state of charge and how far it will go on a charge. The touchscreen in the middle stack displays a host of energy consumption metrics: how much power the climate controls are using, how many extra miles you’ll get if you shut them off, how many miles you have left, how many kilowatts the electric motor is using or how much energy the regenerative brakes are recovering. This info is easy to interact with and use.
Unfortunately, one of the issues we had with the Leaf is that you have to decide if you want power or long-lasting battery life. During our testing, another driver found that he could go 116 miles on one charge until the car sputtered out. Yet, that was driving in the ECO mode. The only time our test car felt punchy and responsive was in the regular D mode. Of course, this is like every other modern car these days – even the Infiniti M37X we tested recently has an ECO mode that does not provide hardly any fast acceleration for getting you up to highway speeds in a hurry. It may just be a fact of modern green driving that we will lose the ability to quickly pass a farm vehicle on a two-lane road.
Otherwise, in the regular D mode, the Leaf accelerated quickly. It reminded us of a Toyota Prius in that way – peppy, fun, responsive, and quick enough for swerving through highway traffic.
Nissan has focused almost entirely on making a realistic electric car. You can drive 100 miles before you need to start panicking. (Actually, at 100 miles, you might need to get a tow!) The main impression we had of the Nissan Leaf is that is a practical, general purpose, low-cost electric car. Priced at $32,780 ($25,280 after a $7,500 federal tax incentive), the Leaf is meant for those who are serious about saving the planet and don’t mind giving up some obvious (and usually expected) amenities.
One example is that the Leaf has no blind-side detection. If you only drive 30 miles to work and back, then park the Leaf the rest of the time, you might think this safety feature, now almost standard on most new sedans, is not that important. Yet, we missed getting the alerts when another car was in the next lane. We also missed minor additions such as a display that shows the cruise control speed where you can quickly raise the speed, say in 5MPH increments. There are no sporty features on the Leaf – headlights that follow a curve in the road, extra fog lights on the side, etc.
One other minor issue is that, if you plan to use the Leaf in cold weather climates, you will need to re-tune more than just your driving habits. The Leaf uses more energy when you crank up the heat – more energy, in fact, than using the AC. So you may also find yourself dressing with more layers.
The “generic car” feeling is one that will either cause you to keep looking, or make you happy you are driving green. There’s a feeling that, as you drive the Leaf, you are actually contributing to the longevity of the planet. It’s a rather odd sensation: there is no gas engine in the car. No tailpipe, no emissions, no guzzling sound as you sit idle at an intersection. The car barely makes a sound. (Although, by default, the Leaf actually emits a slight buzzing sound, which is something you can turn off.)
Fortunately, we did not feel like the Leaf was constantly scolding us. The Honda FCX Clarity seems to warn you constantly about bad driving habits. The Ford Fusion Hybrid uses leaves that tell you whether you are saving trees or that you kind of suck at being an environmentalist. In the Leaf, there are cues about driving, such as an ECO light that lets you know you are not using as much energy. Driving the car does not feel like you are constantly being warned about your bad driving habits.
That’s the big takeaway from our test: The Leaf is a radical departure just from the fact that it does not use gas. Sure, there are plenty of infrastructure issues to work out. The car is somewhat bland – it’s a hatchback that handles well, but it is not exactly sporty like the Ford Fiesta. In the end, the time is right for the Nissan Leaf. It’s a smart electric car that will, at long last, wean us from gasoline.