Nissan Leaf, 2011 review

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The Nissan Leaf hatchback sedan — the first mass-produced all-electric car —drives like a regular, pleasant five-passenger economy car. However, some  owners may worry they’ll run out of charge before reaching their destination.

However, Nissan says 90 percent of the U.S. population, on average, drives less than 100 miles a day. It says typical consumer weekday and weekend driving patterns are mostly less than 50 miles. The ran of the Leaf with a fully charged battery is touted as  100 miles.

So far, so good. But Nissan cautions that actual range will vary, depending on driving/charging habits, speed, conditions, weather, temperature and battery age.

In other words, owners may not want to drive the front-drive Leaf too fast or too hard. And they may also want to limit use of the Leaf’s energy sucking automatic temperature control and sound systems, power windows and door locks, lights and  power mirrors. There’s a good reasons the Leaf has no power seats or even lights for visor vanity mirrors. And there is only one 12-volt power outlet.

However, a driver-controlled “Eco-mode” setting can be used to reduce air conditioning and thus improve driving range in urban areas.

Battery capacity decreases with time and use. But Nissan says that, after 10 years, the battery is expected to have 70 to 80 percent of its original storage capacity. And the battery pack has a warranty of 8 years or 100,000 miles.

The Leaf is pretty well-equipped with comfort and convenience features, including a push-button start, cruise control, navigation system and remote keyless entry.

Safety items include an advanced air bag system, besides Vehicle Dynamic Control and  traction control systems and anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force distribution.

The car is so silent that Nissan has incorporated an “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians” system designed to alert pedestrians that a vehicle is approaching. Below 16 mph, it emits a sound from a speaker at the front of the Leaf. When 19 mph is reached, pedestrians can hear the car moving and the “approaching sound” automatically turns off.

The list price is $32,780 for the base model and an extra $940 for the SL version,which adds a rearview monitor, fog lights, automatic headlights, cargo cover and a rear solar panel that supports charging a 12-volt battery for accessories.

The only stand-alone option is a $700 port receptacle for DC fast charging. A plug-in charge on 220-volt power takes seven hours or 21 hours with 110 volts. The Leaf can be charged up to 80 percent of its full capacity in 30 minutes with a quick charge port and using a DC fast charger. The charge port is concealed in the front body.

The 175-inch-long Leaf is highly aerodynamic, but won’t win beauty contests. It has a 106.3-inch wheelbase and is slightly larger than the Nissan Versa. “Aero” tricks include a flat underbody and headlights that redirect airflow away from the door mirrors, reducing both wind drag and noise.

The Leaf will not be initially sold in all states  It goes on sale late this year and early next year. The first states to get it will be California, Oregon, Washington , Arizona, Tennessee, Texas and Hawaii. All states are scheduled to be covered by late 2011. The Leaf also will be sold in Japan and England.

The Leaf is powered by a lithium-ion battery composed of 48 compact modules and a high-response 80kW AC synchronous motor that generates 107 horsepower and 207 smooth pound-feet of torque.

The new Nissan isn’t especially light at 3,366 to to 3,375 pounds. But it’s quite lively in town. The 65-75 mph passing ability is average. It does 0-60 mph in 10 seconds.

Nissan says the top speed is 90 mph, but I hit an indicated 91 mph fairly easily on a flat freeway near central Nashville, where a Leaf media preview was held. The car’s extreme quietness and smooth  powertrain and single-speed direct-drive automatic transmission got me to that speed with such linear power delivery that I was surprised the car wasn’t at 70 mph.

The Leaf’s steering is quick, but very light and lacking in feedback. Handling is good, but there were no really rough roads on which to drive the Leaf to judge its overall ride quality during the media preview. However, the car’s suspension didn’t feel too firm, and the brakes were controlled by a pedal with a linear action. The car has 55-series tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels.

The Leaf has a high roof and airy cabin, although it’s a squeeze for three adults in the rear. Front seats are very supportive, and there are a decent number of storage areas. There are digital gauges for the speedometer, battery temperature, power meter, remaining energy gauge, capacity level gauge, distance to empty display, Eco indicator and outside temperature gauge.

Nissan says most drivers eventually will ignore everything but the speedometer and distance-to-empty displays.

However, the gauges “wash out” in bright sunlight and the round “palm shifter” console control for gear selection that seemingly is inspired by a Jaguar console control looks and feels cheap. (Nissan says it’s inspired by a PC mouse.) The interior is handsome enough, but contains a lot of hard plastic.

The cargo area has a high opening, but is large—if a little too deep. The 60/40 split rear seatbacks fold forward, but don’t line up with the cargo floor. If you’re hauling an object such as a bicycle, it’s best to use a roof rack.

Not that many Leaf buyers will look under the hood, but those who do will find that a simple prop rod holds it open.

The Leaf could significantly benefit from a lower cost and improved battery pack to make it more affordable and to increase its range. But then, all automakers are looking for the same thing.

Price: $32,780-$33,720 (before $7,500 federal tax credit) State incentives may further lower list prices.

Dan Jedlicka is the former automotive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. To read more of this reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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