Friday, June 10, 2011

2011 Nissan Leaf Review – Driving into the future with Nissan’s EV

2011 Nissan LEAF
By Jessika Lora

  • Roomy and flexible interior space
  • 100 mile range on a single charge
  • Solar panel converts sunlight into power to charge essentials without draining the battery
  • Turning heads and changing the minds of even the old-timers
  • Limited number of places to plug-in and recharge
  • Only a 100 mile range on a single charge
  • Using 110V household current, you can fly to Hong Kong in as much time it takes to charge a drained battery
  • Blind spot caused by rear hatch pillar
Driving up the 101 my dad saw the Nissan LEAF billboard next to the 4th street Bay Bridge on-ramp, “That car doesn’t use ANY gas?” At $4.25 a gallon and with no indication of a price ceiling he encouraged me to look into this car, “You know, you’re driving up and down the bay 120 miles each day, this could pay for itself in gas savings.”
Nissan LEAF electronic shifter
A few weeks later I found myself up in Portland for my sister’s graduation. My dad again asked if I had looked into the specs and price for a LEAF , “Heck Jessy, I might even get one for myself. I’ve been thinking it’s just the right size for driving to and from work and going to the gym afterward.” I pictured my father in Nissan’s new EV: my dad whose hobby is rebuilding classic Mustangs and who drives his 1970 Mach 1 to the gym and back 3 times each week for the last 10 years. Way to go Nissan, you’ve engaged a muscle car enthusiast and by doing so have piqued my interest as well! As luck would have it, I would soon have the opportunity to test drive this car and report back to my dad.
Having only seen the car in a billboard, I was eager to walk up and see it in person. Your first impression of this car will really depend on how you approach it, and I mean that literally: from the side this is reminiscent of a Subaru Outback which makes you think, “Hmmm, off road and sporty”. However, if you walk up to this car head-on your first thought might instead be “how cute!” From the back, the car looks a bit like a SMART car with regard to the body height and body to window ratio.
Nissan LEAF rear cargo area
Eager to start exploring the car I opened the trunk. How much junk could fit in this trunk? A lot, as it turns out. Nissan let’s you customize your LEAF and one of customizations is a trunk organizer. I like this add on as it allows you to open a flat clean trunk and become surprised when you realize there are compartments where you might otherwise find a spare tire. The car is also designed so that using this bucket compartment you can fold down the back seats to have a flush surface, which is great for hauling things around. I’ve actually managed to fit a door and three rolls of house insulation into a Prius and I can therefore see many advantages to having a flat trunk/back seat surface – another of which is camping in your car! The LEAF is a little bit longer and taller than the Prius, though both cars have roughly the same wheelbase.

Nissan LEAF solar panel
Another thing I was eager to check out is the spoiler solar panel: this is an upgrade on the SL. The solar panel is little, about the size of a keyboard, but enough to power the car accessories (everything in the car short of the engine, external lights, and AC). As my final comment on the exterior, I do want to add that Nissan took a bold shaping approach with the lighting (LED low voltage) and bumpers of the Leaf, making it stand out as a very noticeable car.
Two things were particularly surprising: the amount of space and simplicity inside. The LEAF has an astounding amount of head room. My boyfriend who is 6’ also noticed the difference as compared to our Civic, this is much more spacious.
Nissan LEAF instrument display
My test vehicle had a light gray interior with soft cloth seats. Everything felt tranquil and open, including the dashboard which is not over cluttered and follows a minimalist aesthetic. This is the result of thoughtful design: the car is void of excess buttons and controls even though it comes loaded with Bluetooth®, cruise control, USB, Back up Camera (in the SL), full sound system with satellite radio, and a very efficient HVAC package. The only potential down side is that the dashboard is relatively high in front of the driver and I can imagine my sister, at 5’2” needing to use a cushion in order to see over the dashboard since the Leaf doesn’t come with a manual seat height adjuster. For me at 5’5”, however, the height was perfect so I’m merely being a devil’s advocate here.
The LEAF is easy to drive, and it’s fun to use the palm shifter. I took the spunky EV through Noe Valley, a hilly residential neighborhood in San Francisco. This area has high foot traffic; folks jogging with babies or walking their dogs. Therefore, this is a great place to put any car’s brakes, acceleration, and steering to the test. The steering feels very light and at slow neighborhood speeds you feel as though you are gliding through the turns. I didn’t know what to expect with regard to stopping and going but this car responds well to both and is quite zippy.
2011 Nissan LEAF
I do have to comment on the LEAF’s range,  which is quite impressive! The mileage range on this car is 80-100 miles per full charge (which I’ll shorten to mpc) depending on driver behavior. For example, for city or country-road driving where you aren’t accelerating an awful lot and you aren’t running too many accessories you can easily get 100 mpc with the car shifted into Eco mode. On the flip side, if you drive above 60 mph and spend your time lane-switching and revving up to pass other cars while running the AC you will see your mileage dwindle down closer to 80 mpc. Still, 80 mpc is amazing!
This brings me to my two main concerns with regard to driving the LEAF: the first is that the pillar between the rear door and the hatch is fairly wide and can cause a large blind spot. The second is with regard to the charging time, which can be as high as 14 hours.
LEAF charging station
For the uninitiated, the LEAF has three charging options: 110V, 220V, and 440V. At 110V, which is what you find in standard house outlets, the charge time for a fully drained battery is about 14 hours – which is fine if you have a garage and can charge your car overnight. Nissan advises drivers to consider installing a 220V outlet in your garage (same as your washer/drier outlet). For those who don’t have this outlet in their garage it’s a $2500 installation. The potential set back I see here is for folks that live in high rises and might not have access to a plug point in their parking garage. However, third party electric fuel providers are stepping in to fill this market, creating fill stations with 440V plug-ins where your car can fill up in half an hour for a small single digit fee. Imagine that…filling your tank in the single digits.
In addition, Nissan thought of ways to help you stretch your dollars even further through Eco mode: through a second click of the palm shifter you can control the throttle, a feature that is not seen in any other EV or hybrid. Eco mode also takes into account the load on the car and optimizes for the best mileage while taking advantage of the regenerative braking. In a rough test, our driving team saw a 20-30% improvement in charge conservation…amazing!
CarWings Nissan's iPhone app for the LEAF
This car is full of little perks and thoughtful engineering. One such perk that is standard for all LEAFs is the CarWings application available for your smart phone; it allows remote monitoring of the security system and charging status and can remotely power on the AC or heat through the solar panel charge. Goodbye car sauna and teeth chattering mornings!
In short, I told my dad that the LEAF was fun to drive, stable, quiet, and zippy. No new cars for me this year as I’m paying off my mortgage…but I did enjoy picturing myself floating about the city, happily running my errands, and filling the trunk with groceries to be unloaded in my garage where the Leaf would charge for the night, waiting for more adventures the next day.

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