After so many years of anticipation, it’s hard to believe that we’re only a few weeks away from Nissan’s first mass-produced electric vehicle going on sale. The first 20,000 cars are already spoken for but that hasn’t stopped the company from reaching out to more potential customers.
Nissan is in the midst of their nationwide Drive Electric Tour, which gives ordinary people a chance to get behind the wheel of a Leaf and experience firsthand the smooth, silent acceleration of an electric car.
Eager to experience the feeling, myself, I attended the event in San Jose this past weekend. Though my drive through downtown streets lasted only a few minutes, the Leaf made a very big and very positive impression on me.
By now you probably already know the basics about this car: four doors, five seats, 90-mile per hour top speed, and about 100 miles of driving range on a full battery.
But what those numbers don’t tell you is how remarkably pleasant the Leaf is to drive. Drop into the cushy driver’s seat and you’ve got plenty of head, leg, and shoulder room to stretch out. There’s ample space in the back seat for two adults, though three across would be a tight squeeze.
All in all, the Leaf feels about as big inside as the Nissan Versa hatchback, which is no surprise considering the two vehicles share a similar foundation.
Out on the road, the Leaf is an absolute pleasure to drive. The car surges forward with surprising vigor thanks to a compact electric motor that produces V6 levels of torque. Floor the accelerator and the smooth, uninterrupted power makes it feel as though you’ve been swept into a strong ocean current.
0-60 miles per hour will still take a leisurely ten seconds – on par with a Toyota Prius – but acceleration in the Leaf feels much stronger and more rewarding because of the immediate response and lack of engine noise.
And man, oh man, is the Leaf quiet. Think $90,000 luxury sedan quiet. Think pin-drop quiet. Think tyrannical librarian quiet.
Nissan has done a wonderful job deleting road and tire noise as the car motors along. All you hear inside is the faint whine of the Leaf’s power inverter rising and falling as you gain or lose speed; a charmingly futuristic soundtrack.
The silence gives the car a stately, luxurious presence on the road. And with the weight of the 600-pound battery pack nestled safely inside the center of the car, Nissan was able to imbue the Leaf with a refined ride, too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a family car that can accommodate potholes and bumps with such grace.
Nissan’s mobile spa treatment is enhanced further by the soothing interior. Rather than build the command center from a science fiction novel, the Leaf’s cabin is clean and uncomplicated.
Cupholders are present and accounted for. The standard navigation system is easy to use. And there are no strange colors or buttons to interfere with your zen-like calm.
The only aspect you might find unusual is the new transmission shifter, which resembles a fancy computer mouse. But if you’ve ever driven the joystick-clad Toyota Prius before, the movements will feel entirely natural. Slide left and down to engage Drive, or left and up to engage Reverse. Push the button in the middle for Park.
In front of the driver is a futuristic gauge cluster lit up in crisp white and blue. Most readouts are similar to what you’d find in a gasoline-powered car: a digital speedometer, a temperature gauge for the battery pack, and a state-of-charge meter to show you how full the battery is.
In place of a tachometer for engine speed, however, there is an arc of small circles that light up to indicate how much energy you’re spending during acceleration or recovering during regenerative braking. The circles soon fade into the background, offering a quick reference only when needed.
Nissan also supplies what must be the world’s most accurate distance-to-empty readout. It adjusts constantly to account for your driving style and road conditions, among many other things.
You can even use the standard navigation system to see exactly how far that range will get you. And if you program a destination beyond your available driving range, the Leaf alerts you and suggests public charging stations along your route.
There aren’t many of those charging stations available right now, but Nissan says there will be about 12,000 public chargers nationwide within a year’s time. The company has been working with cities in key markets to plan charger installations and to streamline the paperwork required to install a charger at home, should you be so inclined.
In a sign of Nissan’s commitment to their new electric vehicle, the Leaf’s navigation system will automatically update so that newly installed charging stations don’t go unnoticed.
For maximum flexibility, the Leaf can also charge at three different voltage levels.
Nissan expects most charging to be done via a mid-range 240-volt power supply. This is the voltage that an electric clothes dryer runs from and Nissan claims that it is fairly easy for a certified electrician to run an extra 240-volt circuit to your garage. Most public chargers will also be at this level.
Charging a battery from zero to 100% at 240-volts takes about 8 hours. The idea is to plug the car in at night and wake up to a full battery. Or plug in for a few minutes here and there while you’re out running errands. It’s like allowing your car to scamper off to the gas station for a few sips while you pick up your dry cleaning and order a latte.
Yes, it’s a different way of thinking. But it’s one that buyers of this car will no doubt be happy to embrace as more and more infrastructure is rolled out. Don’t forget that Ford’s Model T went on sale in similar conditions over a century ago.
And if you do drive to grandma’s house and don’t have a 240-volt charger available, Nissan supplies a spare cable that can be plugged into a conventional 110-volt outlet. It takes about 20 hours to charge from zero to 100% at this voltage, so plan accordingly.
A new standard for 440-volt “fast charging” is also being developed that juices up a battery from zero to 80% in less than 30 minutes. This makes longer trips possible if not quite as practical as with a gasoline-powered car.
But as Nissan gently reminds, it’s best not to fixate on the time it takes to fill up a battery from zero to full. The Leaf will be a second or third car for many households, providing a way to get to the office and run errands without any tailpipe emissions whatsoever. Plug it in at night and you’ll always have a full battery in time for your morning commute. For these households, longer trips can simply be taken with the other car.
And at a nationwide average of 11 cents per killowatt-hour, those households will be spending less than three dollars to fill up that battery. The Leaf starts off at a pricey $32,780, though federal, state, and local incentives quickly drop that price down to the low-$20k range. And because there is no engine or transmission in the Leaf, maintenance costs will be substantially less than comparable gasoline vehicles.
So is the Nissan Leaf right for you? That all depends on how eager you are to jump into this new electric vehicle paradigm.
What we can tell you is that this first modern, mass-produced electric car delivers what Nissan promised. The Leaf is a real car – not a science experiment or prototype available to a select few.
Nissan has built an upscale vehicle loaded with great features, plenty of space inside, and lively performance. And it comes backed with the support of a major car company and its network of dealerships. Once factory retooling is completed in another year or so, the Leaf will even be built right here in the US of A.
Maybe the idea of an electric car for the people isn’t so shocking, after all.