As much as I write about electric cars, I don't often get to drive them. The 30 or so miles I drove the 2011 Nissan Leaf in Nashville, Tenn., last week was the longest I've spent inside a pure electric vehicle. And despite my obsession with battery technology, not once on that trip did I wonder about the onboard charger, thermal management system, or degradation of its lifetime capacity. That's Nissan's problem, and I trust they've sorted all that out. I was too busy enjoying the driving experience and fiddling with the infotainment system.
Battery-electric motor aside, the Nissan Leaf is more or less like other conventional gas-engine-equipped compacts in its price range, albeit a bit roomier since it's a hatchback. The main difference is that the car is limited to a 100-mile range, give or take a few, as confirmed by the LA4 test cycle, and a top speed of 94 mph. The Nissan Leaf is available in two variants: SV (base) or SL. The only difference between the two is that the SL trim adds a solar panel on the spoiler to support some accessories, such as fog lights and headlights, and a backup camera.
On the outside, the Leaf appears small, but at 175 inches, it's almost as long as the Nissan Versa sedan. The EPA classes the Leaf as a midsize vehicle because of its interior volume. To put it in perspective, Nissan's marketing team says you can fit three car seats across the back row in any configuration. Although it's far from the perfect road-trip vehicle, it has all the essentials you need in a commuter car, a few creature comforts, and a couple of bells and whistles you don't expect. The interior is spare but comfortable (to me, it seemed more Honda than Nissan) with a few dashes of digital design. The main focus on the inside is the standard in-dash navigation system, the digital instrument panel, and the funky cue-ball-esque gear shift on the center console that contrasts against the pale-beige-and-gray interior, making everything else sort of fade away into the background. It's almost serene.
The Leaf uses Nissan's Intelligent Key with Push Button Start. In the driver's seat, you might experience the same "is it on?" confusion as you do in hybrid vehicles. You'll need to train yourself to check the instrument cluster for the telltale "Drive" and corresponding green car symbol, which signal to the driver that they're ready to go. Drive and reverse are the only two gears on the Leaf, and you're given the option of two driving modes: regular or Eco. The former will familiarize you with the powerful torque that electric motors famously deliver. It will also familiarize you with whiplash, we discovered. Tip: go easy on the throttle.
The torque makes accelerating from 0-20 mph a breeze, but it's the climb to 60 mph that will remind you that you're in an electric car as you watch the near exponential drop in range on the instrument panel. Switching to Eco mode will eliminate the dramatic throttle tip-in, conserve energy, and deliver a smoother, but less exhilarating ride that maximizes range. An Eco Indicator on the instrument panel displays trees when you drive efficiently, but we never saw a tree during our test drive. With the 600-lb battery pack bolted squarely in the center of the car floor, the Leaf has a low center of gravity and feels stable around corners. The only thing holding us back on the freeway was the Highway Patrol we spotted, and the EV was a pleasure to drive on country roads.
There are definite upsides to an electric motor. At lower speeds you get the kind of silence that luxury car designers can only dream of achieving. However, at 80 mph, you'll hear wind noise rivaling a softtop, which isn't entirely the fault of the Leaf--there's no gas engine to provide soft, rumbling ambient noise. But there is an infotainment system.
The primary job of the six-speaker Clarion touch-screen infotainment system is to convey battery information and driving distance capability to the driver. There are numerous screens that offer incrementally more information on battery health, energy history, energy usage battery maintenance--most of which the average driver will find useless. There are only a few screens that will matter, namely the ones that detail battery range, the nearest charging stations, and graphically display how far you can go in one direction on the current battery charge. If you're concerned whether a destination is within range, enter it into the navigation system, and it will let you know. Another screen worth noting is Maintenance, which, if you're like me and have no idea when the air conditioning filter was last changed, now you'll have a screen that will tell you when to change it and add air to the tires. Everything else you probably can safely ignore.
The navigation is adequate and works pretty much as you'd expect, although dragging the map seemed a little sluggish. Point-of-interest (POI) lists show nearby restaurants and stores, and it's free for the first three years. And where a conventional nav system might show gas stations along the way, the Leaf's will show public charging stations. Suffice to say, those will be few and far between until EcoTality and Coulomb Technologies complete their roll-out of station installations. Nissan says there should be 13,000 public charging stations across the U.S. by this time next year. The car is equipped with telematics that it uses to update its charging station map. Due to bandwidth contraints, full updates to the navigation system will still need to be done via SD card.
The Leaf also offers Bluetooth voice control, and offers straightforward features such as dialing from either your contact list, the car's contact list, or the car's call history.
Connecting my iPhone to the car was easy enough, although I didn't get enough time to fully test the connection. The Leaf doesn't offer Bluetooth streaming because the specs hadn't been finalized in time to make it into the car design before the Leaf's production, so I still had to connect via cable to access music on my phone. Song and artist information displayed on the navigation screen, although not album art, and I was able to interface with iPod/iPhone the steering wheel controls. One weird thing I noticed: clicking up on the steering wheel control replayed the song, while clicking down skipped to the next track. I thought it should be the opposite.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to try the more advanced software features of the Leaf: its charging system and remote access. The Leaf's electric charging interface acts like a smart meter and will enable the driver to program at what time and for how long to charge the vehicle. You can interact with this charging software in the car or remotely using either a soon-to-be released smartphone application or over the Internet. The system will also e-mail or text you with car updates, such as if charging is completed or interrupted, or for emergencies. In the event of an emergency, the app will have a direct link to Nissan Call center, which serves only Leaf customers.
When you add in Nissan's tow plan, these features make the 2011 Nissan Leaf a fairly safe bet. In fact, the Leaf is a really good car--for a first-generation electric vehicle. I hate to use the qualifier, but if it weren't for wow factor of the electric power train, the Leaf would probably be considered merely adequate. But for an EV, it's an impressive first move, and I suspect that it will get only better over time. Double the capacity of the battery and light a fire under Ecotality to install their fast-charging stations, and gas cans will become a relic of the past.