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.