2012 Nissan LEAF Expert Review:Autoblog
We've met the Nissan Leaf before. First at its coming-out party in Japan, followed by an all-too-brief stint behind the wheel of a Versa-based prototype late last year. Now we've had a chance to sample Nissan's first foray into the world of electric vehicles in production form and the automaker picked one of its most important markets – the heart of Silicon Valley – to give us some seat time.
If there's any area ripe for early-EV adoption, it's San Jose, CA. And during a quick test loop through the tight confines of Santana Row and a run through the city's suburban surrounds, it's obvious that the first mass-produced EV is officially ready for prime-time.
Follow the jump to continue.
Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL
If you're anything like the 16,300 people who have reserved a Leaf for lease ahead of its December launch, you've already devoured all the salient details in the run-up to its release. For those of you late to the party, here's the quick and dirty version of what you get for your $32,780 – or just over $25,000 after you factor in applicable state and federal incentives.
The Leaf is a five-door, five-passenger city car fitted with a 24kW lithium-ion battery pack complete with 48 separate modules housing four cells a piece. We're pointing out the number of cells because if one fails, Nissan can replace the individual modules without having to replace the entire battery pack – further proof that the Japanese automaker is keenly aware of the issues that could plague a mass-market EV.
All those crazed electronics get routed to the front wheels through a front-mounted motor producing 107 horsepower and 208 pound-feet of torque. Top speed comes in at just under 90 mph and Nissan claims a 0-60 mph time under ten seconds. Neither figure matters much in this particular slice of the auto world, but both numbers suggest this isn't yet another four-wheeled electric toy.
What arguably matters most is range, and with the Leaf, Nissan contends the slippery hatch (.29 cD) is good for 100 miles per charge – a reasonable amount for its target demographic of urban dwellers and inner-city commuters. When the juice does run out, you can plug one of three different cables into one of two front-mounted ports: 110-, 220- or 440-volt.
The first option is available to anyone who can plug in a toaster, but it provides barely enough juice to top up the batteries after 20 hours of charge time and it doesn't do bagels.
The two other options are far more advantageous. An electrician can adapt your existing 220-volt clothes dryer outlet, thus reducing charge time to around seven hours total. The cost of the in-house charger runs around $2,200, but the Feds will take care of half that amount and Nissan will not only arrange for the installation, it'll allow you to roll the cost of the setup into your monthly payments. If you're lucky enough to live around one of the 440-volt "Quick Charge" stations, you can get up to 80 percent of the battery's capacity in around 30 minutes. Expect to see these popping up all over the U.S. – from California to New York – in the coming months and years... assuming all goes according to plan.
On the subject of cost, the aforementioned $32,780 sticker is the base price (again, not including any government rebates), but if you want the backup camera and spoiler-mounted solar panel, you can option up for the SL model at a $940 premium. The rearview camera is a reasonable accessory, much more so than the solar panel, which simply trickle charges a 12-volt battery to supply electrons to the headlights, clock and a few low-power accessories. Nissan officials admit it's more of a marketing ploy than a functional addition, but that hasn't stopped 85 percent of pre-order customers from optioning up for the SL trim. And for just under a grand to burnish your soon-to-be unassailable green halo, why not?
So, with the facts and figures out of the way, what's it like? To begin with, bigger than we expected.
On our initial approach, we thought the Leaf was sitting on a podium. Once we got a clear view, it was obvious that not only is the greenhouse expansive, but it's on the large side of the B-segment. The footprint is like any other subcompact, but the beltline rises high and there's copious quantities of glass expanding from the windshield back.
Although aerodynamic efficiency is a top priority, it's not immediately obvious that the Leaf is anything other than a standard around-town runabout. The only tell-tales are the panel up front that hides the two charging ports and the rather rotund rump that protrudes several inches past the rear wheels in a rather Gallic fashion (fitting, considering Nissan's Renault ties). The taillamps are thin and long, running from below the functional spoiler to halfway down the hatch, and a quartet of diffusers at the rear tip you off to the smooth underbody tray beneath.
The headlights are more compelling, bulging out from the fenders more than some concepts displayed on the auto show circuit every year. Predictably, they serve a functional purpose. When Nissan was testing the Leaf, they noticed a fair amount of wind noise coming off the side mirrors. And with any EV, exterior noise is amplified due to the lack of racket emanating from under-hood. So the lights were redesigned to split the air leading towards the mirrors, eliminating buffeting and drawing a clear line through the atmosphere.
However, noise had to be added back in. To assuage the fears of the sight-impaired, Nissan fitted a small speaker to the left-front side of the Leaf that emits a subtle tone up to 18 mph. After that, Nissan believes wind and tire noise will be enough to warn pedestrians of an approaching Leaf. And no, customized sounds aren't in the cards, but when you shift the drive selector into Reverse, it does emit a faint, commercial truck-like beep.
Our first stint inside was in the back seat, and after throwing our camera bag and coat into the commodious trunk (despite the fact that 900 pounds worth of batteries are mounted behind and under the rear seats), we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of space in back. Nissan claims you can fit three people in the rear, but as always, make sure the person in the middle is suitably malnourished and amiable.
Situated behind the driver, the ride was suitably smooth thanks to an independent suspension up front and a torsion beam in the rear, while 16-inch wheels wrapped in low-rolling resistance tires soaked up what little bumps were found in and around the city.
The materials inside are a few degrees better than what you'd find in an economy car of similar size, with cloth seating as the only material (dead cow wouldn't be P.C.) and a combination of plastics that ran the gamut from mildly plush to the high side of acceptable.
From behind the wheel, the seating position is surprisingly elevated, necessary to see over the acres of dash in front of you. A two-tiered instrument cluster is front-and-center, with a digital speedometer up top, flanked by a clock, exterior temperature gauge and an LCD "tree" to let you know if you're being a good boy with the electric throttle.
The second display, nestled in the traditional space behind the steering wheel, provides more information, including temperature and range, a power indicator and the normal assortment of trip and transmission information. It's relatively straight-forward, as is the navigation screen at the center of the dash that can display a myriad of power, charge and travel information. Taken as a whole, it's technofabulous, but the learning curve doesn't seem out of reach of your average iPhone user.
To get things underway, you press a small, glowing button to the right of the steering wheel, release the electronic parking brake, then move the silver, 'hockey puck' drive selector to the left and then down to select Drive. Release the brake, press the accelerator and you're whisked forward to the sound of... nothing.
As we experienced in the Tesla Roadster, this initial lack of noise is slightly unnerving at first, but as speeds increase, the sound of wind and the low rumbling of the tires take over. The steering is commuter-friendly light, slightly overboosted, but perfect for running around town.
Give the throttle a determined shove and the Leaf gets moving with authority. It's not blazing, certainly but it's adequately quick, with plenty of punch to motivate the Leaf's portly 3,700-pound curb weight. In Normal mode, throttle resistance is minimal, but switching to Eco stiffens things up to promote lighter inputs. However, if you take it to the floor, the Leaf responds with the same amount of thrust you'd get in the standard mode.
On the other hand, braking was slightly less endearing, with a wooden feel accentuated by the minimal amount of travel before things get biting. With the system set back to Normal, the regenerative brakes provide a subtle amount of "engine braking," but in Eco it becomes more pronounced, slowing the Leaf down quicker and giving the batteries a minimal jolt of energy. We were expecting something akin to what we enjoyed in the Tesla – the regenerative braking remained one of our favorite driving features – but it's decidedly less aggressive in the Leaf. And considering the application, it should be.
If there's any overarching sense from behind the wheel, it's that the Leaf is simply a car. The gadgetry is impressive, but no more so than some of the hybrid options available from Nissan's competitors. The interior is comfortable and spacious, with more than enough room for four people and their assorted trappings. Few things stand out, and that's exactly its point. Nissan isn't out to change the driving experience, it's just changing the method of motivation. And more than anything else, that's what's going to bring electric vehicles into the mainstream.
Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL
Nissan has gone into a back room, pulled out its Ouija board and decided that the time is right to make a huge bet. The Japanese automaker, along with its partner Renault, wants to be the world leader in pure electric vehicles. Even though you can go buy an Altima hybrid right now, the company didn't develop its own gas-electric technology (the sedan uses Toyota tech). This time around, Nissan believes the future belongs to vehicles without an internal combustion engine (ICE) and is preparing to put its own foot forward. It's way too early to know for sure, but Nissan's gamble could pay off handsomely. Toyota leads the hybrid race, General Motors and others are adding plugs to vehicles with liquid-fueled engines, but no major automaker has claimed the pure EV pole position. If everything goes right, Nissan will be that automaker.
The flagship vehicle for the automaker is, of course, the Leaf EV hatchback, which was unveiled in August and recently made its North American debut in Los Angeles. We were on hand to take a Leaf mule out for a short (very short) spin and heard directly from Nissan how this unique-looking EV will secure Nissan's place in the auto industry as tremendous changes take place in the coming years. Follow us after the jump to learn about Nissan's wager and find out if the Leaf has got the potential to (silently) propel the company to the top.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
The short answer is, yes, the Leaf is a promising piece of machinery and fans of pure EVs can safely celebrate what Nissan is doing here. Drivers who need to drive long distances can stick with ICEs for now; those who like the idea of battery power but don't want to rely solely on electrons should consider the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt. For battery electric vehicle (BEV) fans who want a major brand name plastered on their zero-emission vehicle, there are a small handful of options: the Ford Focus BEV, Renault's varied line-up, and the Nissan Leaf.
Like the competition, the Leaf offers about 100 miles of range and a decent recharge time – you can get an 80-percent quick charge using a special charger in 30 minutes, while a more common 200V outlet will need about eight hours to fully charge the lithium ion battery pack. These numbers don't make sense for everyone, but Nissan doesn't care. All that matters is that they make sense for enough people.
As reported previously, Nissan believes that plug-in vehicles will make up ten percent of the new car market by 2020. By considering who makes up this ten percent, Nissan contends that range anxiety and other worries that BEV critics throw out aren't a big deal. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told Autoblog that since Nissan will lease the batteries at a competitive price, the customer experience will be simplified, leading to plenty of interested buyers in that first ten percent of the market. Then, in 2020, when automakers are looking to expand to 11 percent and beyond, battery technology will have advanced far enough beyond where it is today. The increased range and reliability will be attractive to a new set of electric car buyers. Then the market expands, the technology gets even better, and we rinse and repeat.
For the serious plug-in fans, Ghosn said it is "possible" that his company will sell gliders (car minus powertrain) or the entire car with batteries, but he made it clear that this is unlikely. Offering anything other than the leased batteries, he said, might confuse people and wipe out the work that the company plans to do in promoting the Leaf as a simple decision. And Nissan is trying to introduce the Leaf as a simple, affordable electric vehicle.
See. Learn. Drive.
The Leaf's next year looks like this: the public tour that kicked off in Santa Monica this past weekend continues through North America until February. Nissan PR calls this the "See" portion of the rollout. The next phase will be a series of technological displays across the U.S. where EV fans and curious passersby can learn about the batteries and the electric drivetrain. The details of this tour are still being worked out. Phase three will be a ride and drive tour, Nissan's first in about five years, that will hit two dozen markets during the summer and fall of 2010. This will be the first chance for the general public to get behind the wheel of the Leaf. Speaking of which...
Behind the Wheel
The stationary show car that will be making the rounds in the coming moths is how the Leaf looks. The modified Versa that Nissan brought to LA is how it drives. Nissan put the Leaf's electric powertrain into the Versa, known as the Tiida in Japan, because the two cars are about the same size. Before the Versa mule, Nissan tested the powertrain in a Cube body, which we drove in May. A lot of media representatives and stakeholders were in Los Angeles to drive this vehicle, and Nissan shuffled everyone through by shrinking the size of the driver loop to just four-tenths of a mile. Our total time behind the wheel: 90 seconds.
In the short parking lot course, there were two straight-aways, which allowed us to punch the car and discover that, while the Leaf powertrain doesn't accelerate like a Tesla Roadster, it's got more than enough get-up-and-go for a standard family car, even with four adults on board. Considering the Leaf will cost something like a third or a fourth as much as a standard Roadster, we think the car will cause a fair share of EV grins once it's unleashed into the wild. After getting up to speed, we found the regenerative brakes felt great. While Nissan is still fine-tuning the system for production, they grip solidly whether you're going fast or slow, gently applying pressure or hitting them hard. Knowing how difficult it can be to get regenerative brakes to provide the proper feedback while also providing a "normal" driving experience, Nissan is certainly on to something here. There's also a benefit to the buyer because the regenerative system means the brake pads will need to be changed less frequently than they would on a traditional vehicle.
Ghosn claims the Leaf "comfortably seats five," but we were not able to actually sit in the vehicles. Based on the Tiida, which has dimensions that are close to the Leaf's, we think that if you want to ride with five, pick a smaller friend to ride on the hump.
Outside looking in
More than one person has compared the Leaf's backside to the rear end of certain curvaceous celebrities. In person, the Leaf doesn't look all that bootylicious. It's not sparse and sleek in back, but the curves don't distract from the overall gracefulness. It looks good, and if Nissan wants to get ten percent of the people to fall in love with EVs, then providing a distinct shape is a good idea (see: the Prius).
Two Leaf prototypes exist: One current touring the U.S. and another that's still in Japan. We can easily imagine that the tour vehicle will be ogled non-stop over the next year. The stretched head- and taillights, the two plugs hidden under a front panel (not exactly the most convenient location, admittedly), and the long overhang over the rear window all make it clear that this is not your average car.
Charging up the car, charging up the roads
The first generation of Leafs, the 2011 Model year, will have 3.3 kW charging systems. After that, charging at 6.6 kW will be an option (price: undisclosed), as will high-speed charging. People who want the 6.6 kW charging option shouldn't wait until the 2012 MY Leafs, since the first models will be upgradeable. This bit of news pleased the Plug In America advocates we talked to in Dodgertown.
While Nissan expects that the cost of a home charger in the garage will be around $500 to $800 for the hardware, there's a lot of work to be done to get communities plug-in ready. Nissan has been working harder (in public, anyway) than any other OEM to form partnerships to get quick charging infrastructures built in time for the first EVs to hit the market. To that end, Renault-Nissan has signed 35 MOUs with governments around the world.
While Nissan is making a big push for this help now – and for subsidies that make buying a plug-in car cheaper for individuals – Ghosn believes that government help will only be required for the first three to five years. After that, the market will supply the demand and economies of scale will make sure the cars are affordable. Until then, government aid not only helps sell cars, but it also helps Nissan figure out where to invest its limited resources. Ghosn said that his company is not out soliciting government help, but is certainly rewarding governments that promote plug-in vehicles by focusing their efforts in those places where there is EV support.
This is the Nissan plug-in vehicle strategy in a nutshell: find the fans, give them an EV that they can afford in places where they can easily recharge, and build from there. The Leaf will be followed by a zero-emission Nissan light commercial vehicle and a pure-electric Infiniti compact luxury car. These vehicles show off Ghosn's belief that pure EVs are the way to go – no plug-in hybrids, no conventional hybrids, no hydrogen, no compromises. And it should be interesting to see if this strategy works.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event were paid for by the manufacturer.
New Car Test Drive
All-electric compact commutes up to 100 miles.
The Nissan Leaf was the first mass-production all-electric vehicle to go on sale in the U.S. for the 2011 model year. Since then, the Ford Focus electric, Mini E, Mitsubishi iMiev, and Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid have hit the market to give the Leaf a run for its money.
Leaf is a four-door compact car that seats five. Nissan says LEAF is an acronym for Low Emission Automobile of the Future.
The promise of the Leaf is an operating range of 100 miles, a top speed of 90 mph, and a 0-60 acceleration time of about 7 seconds flat. With ordinary house current, the Leaf will charge up overnight. With a 240-volt home, business or rental charging unit, it will charge in four hours. It's all-electric, you never need to pull into a gas station in this car.
The Leaf is a zero-tailpipe-emissions vehicle. However, that word tailpipe is important because no vehicle is truly zero-emissions when production and distribution are taken into account. In an attempt to score more points with eco-warriors, Leaf uses recycled water bottles for its seat coverings and a range of other wood and plastic recycled and recyclable materials in its interior and exterior design. Nissan claims the Leaf is the greenest production car ever built, and is itself 94 percent recyclable.
The 2012 Leaf comes with more standard features, including heated exterior mirrors, a battery heater, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel. A quick-charge port now comes standard on the top-of-the-line 2012 Leaf SL.
However, Nissan says, using the national average for electricity rates, a full overnight battery charge will only cost one dollar. Federal and state tax subsidies may help you at tax time, but you'll have to check the details carefully as it varies dramatically among the states.
The benefits of owing an electric car such as the Leaf may not all be measured in dollars and cents, either. In some states, an electric car means unrestricted access to the carpool/HOV lanes on the highways even while driving alone. For those who slog through stop-and-go traffic twice a day, this perk could bring welcome relief. However, it's worth keeping in mind that in crowded cities like Los Angeles, the congested commute lanes don't move much faster.
The 2012 Nissan Leaf comes in two versions, SV and SL.
Standard equipment on the SV ($35,200) includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlamps, heated exterior mirrors, a battery heater, an adjustable driver seat, a heated tilt-only steering wheel, cloth upholstery, auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated front seats, heated rear seats that fold 60/40, keyless ignition/entry, full power accessories, cruise control and automatic climate control. A trip computer, navigation, and Bluetooth are also standard, as well as a six-speaker audio system with a CD player, satellite radio, USB/iPod port and an auxiliary audio jack. Also included is the Nissan Connection interface, which allows drivers to access battery charging data and activate the climate control system via a smartphone.
The Leaf SL ($37,250) includes everything above plus automatic headlights, foglamps, a spoiler-mounted solar panel, rearview camera and a cargo cover, as well as a quick-charge port that can charge the car to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes at high-voltage public charging stations.
These days, car design tends to be less by imagination and more by wind tunnel. Designers and engineers took great care to make the Leaf as aerodynamic as possible in order to achieve the least amount of drag, and subsequently, the maximum amount of range.
Like all electric cars, the 2012 Nissan Leaf is extremely quiet. So quiet, in fact, that Nissan worked with a number of groups to design and build a noise generator that operates between 1 mph and 18 mph, to warn visually impaired pedestrians that a car is nearby. At speeds over 18 mph, the car is loud enough on its own to be heard.
The Leaf's electric charging system terminal resides in a hatch in the nose. Those raised headlamp units that stand proud off the front fenders were designed to split the air into two paths, so that the two paths would go around the outside rearview mirrors as quietly as possible. A similar low-noise treatment was done to the antenna. The big mouth on the bottom carries cooling air into the motor compartment and, interestingly, Nissan has made the underhood area look like a conventional four-cylinder engine and 12-volt battery. The slippery shape, which includes a completely flat bottom, generates a wind-tunnel coefficient of drag of only 0.29, among the best of all cars, because aerodynamic drag drains power and creates unwanted noise.
Nissan has equipped the Leaf with a system called Carwings, a smartphone application that can check state of charge, charging status, a start-charging command, and a remote switch to start the heating or cooling system. It can also tell the driver if the charger has been inadvertently or deliberately disconnected.
Inside, the Leaf is simple, clean and modern, with the instrumentation packaged in a beautiful blue-tinted array of center, left, and right modules.
Special instruments include a large speedometer, battery temperature, power meter, remaining energy, capacity level, distance-to-empty, and an ECO mode indicator. The palm-sized floor shifter offers Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, and one more notch to the rear, Eco mode, which changes how the throttle and brakes work to give the best possible mileage performance from the battery. The Leaf navigation system is programmed to show all available public charging stations as well as a continuously updated circle of driving range overlaid on the nav map. There is a separate screen for charging timer to take advantage of low electricity rates at night, and a climate control timer screen.
The seats are comfortable and well fitting, the adjustable wheel is comfortable to use, and there is plenty of light coming into the car from the large windows and narrow pillars. There is more room inside the Leaf than it looks like from the outside.
We had as much driving fun with the Leaf as we've had in a long time, because it is so very different from driving a traditional, gas-powered car. The electric motor provides tons of silent torque to get away from stoplights, and still has plenty of power for 40-70 mph passing maneuvers. And it will go better than 90 mph on level roads. If your goal is hyper-miling, getting the absolute most out of each battery charge, the instruments will help you all the way, including one at the top left that first completes a circle and then grows virtual trees as you drive.
The operating guts of the Nissan Leaf are a 600-pound laminated lithium-ion battery made up in a series of four cells to a module, and 48 modules, for a total of 192 batteries in the pack, made for Nissan by its battery partner, NEC of Japan. It uses a combination of lithium ion, manganese and graphite to generate electricity, which means there are no hazardous materials in the battery itself, and the flat battery, centered in the car under the floor for best handling, is permanently sealed and encased in a thick aluminum case.
The battery is capable of 90 kilowatts of power with a capacity of 4 kilowatt-hours, and will be warranted or eight years or 100,000 miles of operation. Through an elaborate electronic control system, the battery connects to a synchronous AC electric motor rated at 80 kilowatts and 280 Newton-meters (or 207 foot-pounds) of torque. The onboard battery charger, which comes into play automatically every time the accelerator pedal is released or the brake pedal is applied, through regenerative braking, is rated at 3.3 kilowatts.
The underpinnings of the welded unibody chassis are mostly derived from Nissan's worldwide network of B-sized cars like the Versa, with struts up front and a torsion beam suspension at the rear, simple, cheap to build, and largely effective. Everything in the car operates electrically, from the A/C system to the power steering, and it all works very well as a package. It turns in with authority, makes, quick left-right transitions, brakes very well, and in general drives like a normal Nissan small car.
Although design is subjective, we think the Leaf is really cute, with a combination of Japanese Nissan and French Renault design ideas inside and out, and it is not a small car, even though it looks small, as EPA rates it bigger than 100 cubic feet inside, qualifying it as a compact car. There is room for six-footers front and rear, and a very good storage trunk.
With an average operating cost of only about 2.6 cents per mile versus more than 12 cents for a comparable gasoline car capable of 25 mpg, near-zero maintenance costs, and enough juice onboard to get most people where they need to go and back without worry, the Leaf would be a good deal without all the incentives, rebates and refunds, but, when those are all factored in, the Leaf looks like a solid deal for the American family commuter.
Jim McCraw filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report from Nashville, Tennessee, with Laura Burstein reporting from Los Angeles, California.
Nissan Leaf SV ($35,200); SL ($37,250).
Options As Tested
Nissan Leaf ($37,780).
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