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Nissan Leaf Test Drive

2/15/2012 10:37:34 AM

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leaf test driveLast summer, I was invited to a showing of the Nissan Leaf electric car in east Boston. My wife, Connie, and another couple came along. We have extensive experience and training with cars, and we went with a jaundiced eye.  

As over-the-hill gearheads, we have simple needs: dependable commuter cars for the metro Boston area. The reality was far better than our wildest hopes. The Leaf is superb. It is extremely thought out and ready for market. The fit and finish are comparable to a luxury car. Interior space is generous, with room for five adults.  

The batteries are guaranteed for eight years, but Nissan expects them to last for 10 years, with minor reduction in recharge capability over time. Five layers of steel separate the cabin from the batteries for accident protection.  

The stated range is about 100 miles. If I can believe the in-car range meter (equivalent to gallons left in the tank), that is totally achievable. At 15 cents per kilowatt hour, Nissan says a full recharge should cost about $4.50, which is pretty darn inexpensive travel. As an incentive, our municipal utility is offering a 10-cent per kilowatt hour rate for electric cars, cutting the cost further.  

The Leaf provides a lot of value for the money. Climate control, rearview monitor (for assistance in backing up), Bluetooth and GPS are all standard. With the GPS, you can enter a destination and see the total miles, which provides an answer to the “Can I get there and back?” question. We all know Japan is an island, without much in the way of natural resources. Importing oil is a major headache for them, financially and otherwise, so they have made a major effort to get away from textiles and finishing materials that are petroleum-based. A major part of Leaf’s interior components come from plant-based materials, and a great percentage of the car is recyclable. This is a very “green” car. 

The battery pack contains the charging controls as well as the batteries themselves, which are contained in leaves of textbook size. I'd say there are about 20 to 30 of them. Each is addressable separately for diagnosing and can be individually replaced. The batteries are arranged in an “H” layout, with space under the seats and in the rear “hump” nicely utilized to contain them. It seems to work to raise the rear seat slightly, giving the passengers a slightly but noticeably better view. I don’t know why automakers don’t make that standard. Anyway, the battery pack serves as a full belly pan for the car, working to overcome parasitic drag and improve efficiency.  

Another nice feature related to range is a power usage meter that allows you to work with the car to maximize its charge. Curious about running the A/C versus rolling down the window? Turn the A/C on and you’ll get an immediate answer as to how your remaining range will be reduced. Instead of gallons left in the tank, the readout is in miles remaining to empty. I am told that a professional tester managed to drive one and drain the batteries — how, I don’t know. But I remember that my father used to insist that there were some people for whom prudence dictated that — safety razor or not — they shouldn’t be allowed to shave with sharp instruments.  

As you'd expect with an electric car, the Leaf has great starting torque and is very quick off the line. Accelerating on to Route C1, it got up to highway speed very quickly. Wheel-spin is controlled by on-board traction control, which should come in handy in poor road conditions. Hitting a tar strip, we momentarily lost traction, but the tires just gave a small chirp and then the computer regained control. Merging in and out of Beantown traffic was no problem. Visibility is excellent. Again, this car is ready for real-world drivers.  

The worst feature is the distinctive Nissan aft design, but given that the car has a drag coefficient in the 0.25 range, I must assume that it is intentional and contributes to the Leaf’s slippery design. Electric power plus the smooth flow of air over the car produces a vehicle that is very, very quiet.  

The Leaf that we drove could be recharged on a 110-volt outlet (about 22 hours) or a 220-volt outlet (about five hours). Nissan expects to add 440-volt capability in the future, which would allow recharging in under an hour. We weren’t keen on the location of the recharging port, which is in the center of the car’s front. Here in New England, we are always (seemingly) fighting snow, ice and slush. I would have rather seen the port on the side (like a conventional gas cap) or on the rear deck. But only time — and a few good winters — will see if the front location really is a problem.  

I’m giving all this detail for close friends ... my fellow readers of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. To others, I’m saying “Get off your butt and go drive it yourself! You won't be disappointed!” 


PHOTO COURTESY NISSAN



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