Rating: ★★★★½

Pros:

  • Drives like a luxury car complemented by a quiet interior
  • Bluetooth works flawlessly for calls and music, plus AUX and USB inputs
  • Roomy interior

Con:

  • 100 mile range
  • Takes 8 hours to charge on a 220 volt plug
  • Mommy mobile like form factor

A few weekends ago I had the luxury of driving Nissan’s all electric car, the Leaf. It travels up to 100 miles on a single charge, and drives like a luxury car despite lacking all the fine lines and moldings of one.

Unlike a traditional, gas guzzling vehicles of today there are no gears, no engine and no start up noise. Powering on the vehicle requires the simple push of a button and the key is merely a fob that transmits a wireless signal to the car’s computer.

From the outside and inside it’s almost impossible to tell that the Leaf is electric. Instead of a fuel cap on the backside of the vehicle, it features a lid that pops open in place of the radiator and reveals two charging ports; 240 and 480 volts.

This is the “fuel cap” that flips open by an interior switch to reveal a 220v and 480v plug

The interior dash of the Nissan leaf as well as the center console is outfitted with the usual arrangement of goodies found in today’s modern vehicles. However, there is an ‘eco tree gauge’ that displays how efficiently you’re driving. The more green or eco conscience you drive, the faster you’ll grow your eco tree. Additional eco info can be accessed via the center console’s 7-inch touch display, which is also used for dialing in directions and locating charging stations. Check out the video for more on this.

To further motivate you, Nissan has instituted some game theory into the eco aspect of driving. The system will rank you according to other Nissan EV drivers in terms of not only kilowatts used per hour while driving, but by comparing the amount of eco trees you’ve produced since your purchase. The system is called CarWings, and wraps a number of other eco offerings into one menu, allowing you to update the location of charging stations and access other tools. A dedicated button provides instant access to all of these features.

The Leaf’s headlights are designed to reduce drag and noise

Under the center console are a variety of plugs, including a USB and AUX input. But those, as they did for me, will be forgotten once you’ve paired your phone to the car’s Bluetooth. I’m not one to wax poetic about Bluetooth, but the Leaf’s works stunningly well. After the initial pairing it was a none issue and required no manual input. Incoming calls?  No problem. Streaming music via Pandora? Instantaneous. Usually you have to manually prompt the system or iPhone to do all this, but it all happens seamlessly with the Leaf. Callers said I sounded a bit distant, but I had no problem carrying on a casual conversation while driving down the PCH to Malibu and back. But, keep in mind that using the USB or Aux input will result in better sound quality – that goes without saying.

The gauges on the dash are perfectly placed allowing you to quickly glance at your speed and other pertinent info. The steering wheel is outfitted with a variety of controls that range from answering a call to instituting cruise control. I did take issue with the four buttons located behind the left side of the steering wheel that control the dash’s HUD; they’re arranged in a counter intuitive manner, don’t mimic the menu’s layout and nor is it immediately evident that they can be used to manipulate this info.

7-inch touchscreen nav and audio system – climate control just below

Driving the Nissan Leaf is an experience in upon itself. Sure, the inside’s features and creature comforts make for a lux experience, but it’s the ride and handling that are the true jewel of this vehicle. At first I was a bit apprehensive since my every day drive is a petrol powered, stick shift vehicle. The Leaf lacks a transmission and the traditional gear leaver has been replaced by a small joystick like knob that shifts you into park with a push of button or drive or reverse by flicking it up or down when pressed into the left most position. A lever, which could be mistaken for the center console box latch, controls the e-brake and doubles as a hill start since it auto disengages when pulling forward; it doesn’t disengage in reverse. Lastly, there is an eco-mode that can be entered by shifting the lever twice into Drive and simply reduces the sensitivity of the accelerometer, thus saving you power by reducing the weight of your would be ‘lead foot’.

Because the Leaf is electric there is absolutely zero noise when the vehicle is started. First time passengers were in such awe that most were willing to place a handsome bet that the vehicle wasn’t “running” – they zipped up when I pulled away.  The car emits a slight whizzing noise upon initial launch, something analogous to that of a scene from the movie “Minority Report”. After that it drives like an every day vehicle. Initial acceleration, or low end torque is present, but the Leaf lacks torque at the high end, making it a bit challenging, though not impossible by any account, to suddenly overtake vehicles at highway speeds. Don’t get me wrong, you can go well above 80mph in this vehicle, it just won’t happen at a rocket ship like speed as found in the Tesla Roadster.  It’s performance is probably comparable to that of a 4-cylinder gas vehicle.  In the corners the Leaf is agile and responsive as is the braking.  I drove it through some of the canyons found in Malibu and the Pacific Palisades, and the Leaf elicited very little body roll and communicated the road’s conditions accordingly.

The eco tree (left) shows how green you’re driving

In terms of comparison of other electric vehicles, I had the luxury of driving an Electric Mini during the same weekend. In fact it was all rather blissful. I was down to my last 20 miles when an e-Mini pulled in front of me and parked. He got out and we began to chat. No sooner than I could say yes, I was driving the all electric Mini around the block. It’s a completely different monster, and the operative word here is monster. By comparison to the Leaf, the E-Mini drives like a tank. Granted it has an automatic regenerative braking system, the ride isn’t nearly as light or smooth. It’s stiff, cold and takes concentration to drive. After this experience I was better able to ascertain how much engineering has gone into the Leaf to make it drive similar to the gas powered car’s we’ve become accustom to. The E-Mini however is an experimental vehicle that will probably never see production, so by no means is it a great comparison, but provides perspective nonetheless.

The 100 mile range of the Nissan isn’t something to take lightly.  Despite residing in LA, which is packed with a number of charging stations, it’s something that you – at least I did – will always remain cognisant of, especially if your trip calls for significant highway driving, since the Leaf’s charge drops off more rapidly at faster speeds.  A battery’s charge is influenced by a number of things; the big one is how aggressive you request power.

The solar panel is used for charging gadgets plugged into the Leaf

Nissan says you can maximize your miles by traveling 28 miles per hour at 68 degree F.  I took a road trip to Malibu on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.  I started with a full 100 mile charge.  Well aware of my remaining miles, I began to feel a bit panic stricken when the gauge dropped below 40 miles and I knew I still needed to return home despite my ride home being less than 30 miles. Psychologically it will take time to become accustom with the advent of electric cars; it’s just a different beast and right now calls for, as it should, more conservative driving with an emphasis placed on how many miles you consume and where you’re going – all part of the eco street cred that can be attributed to an electric car.  However, on one occasion the fuel gauge did jump from 10 miles to “empty” within a few hundred feet of travel. Perhaps it is a safety mechanism to insure a driver doesn’t find themselves stranded in the middle of no where, but a disconcerting experience nonetheless, and one I wasn’t willing to take.

For now, the Nissan charging stations are too impractical for a quick charge since the 220 volt stations take up to 8 hours for a full charge.  At your expense (about $2,000) you can have your home outfitted with a 220 volt plug or alternatively you can utilize the included home trickle charger which will take about 20 hours for a full charge.  For those of you concerned about your electricity costs, even though the Leaf will on average cost about $3 for a full charge, you can set the Leaf to charge at “off peak” hours when energy costs are less, which is generally at night time.  However, Nissan has commissioned a company to produce a number of stations up and down the I-5, which will hopefully support 480 volt charging, which means an 80% charge in as little as 30 minutes.  It’s still not comparable to filling your gas tank, but it’s the right step in the right direction.  A company by the name of Better Place has been pushing for “battery stations” that instead of filling up your “tank”, quick switch the dead battery for a freshly charged one.  It remains to be seen which car companies will adopt this technology and if it will become the standard.  Nissan seems determined to develop charging stations, at least for now.

Pardon the cliche, but aesthetics aside the Nissan Leaf fires on all cylinders, despite not physically boasting any.  The range of 100 miles while short, should suffice for most commuters and makes you, the driver, more cognizant of your driving consumption.  A 100 mile range is just the the tip of the iceberg when it comes to an electric vehicle’s range, and as we’ve already seen from the likes of Tesla a greater range is already feasible, though at an exuberant cost.

Nissan’s Leaf was able to obtain a 99 mpg fuel rating since the EPA uses a formula where 33.7 kWhs are equivalent to one gallon of gasoline energy, which is the amount of energy the Leaf consumes when traveling 100 miles.  It’s a tad mind boggling to think that a vehicle can travel 100 miles on the equivalent of one gallon of gas.  You can probably thank the automakers for this, since they’ve supposedly been in bed with the US government to manipulate our car’s crappy fuel economy thus insuring that gasoline remains in demand.  That is provided of course you’re willing to subscribe to a conspiracy theory or two.  So with that all said, there is some mixed emotion that comes with owning a “fuel efficient” vehicle, especially since it comes from a car company that has long pushed the gas guzzlers.

There is some anxiety that is inherently built into driving the Leaf since it can’t be charged up as quickly as it takes to fill your car with petrol.  With that said, the Nissan Leaf is not for the overly aggressive driver, those that take long commutes or don’t have 8 hours to spare for a complete charge.  The Leaf costs upwards of $25,000 after tax credits and at best you’ll probably achieve 80 highway miles on a single charge thanks to battery tech, which is the opposite of fuel powered vehicles which achieve a greater distances at a highway speeds.  But despite any short comings that the Leaf may have, it’s a zippy and handsomely featured car that has set the bar for all future electric vehicles in this price range.










Christen Costa

 
Grew up back East, got sick of the cold and headed West. Since I was small I have been pushing buttons - both electronic and human. With an insatiable need for tech I thought "why not start a blog focusing on technology, and use my dislikes and likes to post on gadgets."