Mr. Green Car: ‘Leaf’ it to Nissan

By Allen Penticoff

Free-lance Writer

Leave it to Nissan to perhaps be the first major manufacturer of the everyday electric car. Their approach is interesting. Having held back and not entered the foray of the hybrid wars, they’ve quietly developed the battery technology and a simple, usable car that would fit the needs of 80 percent of Americans.

Despite the greenwash put out by all the automakers, the predominance of their marketing and engineering development is still heavily weighted in favor of high-performance cars and SUVs. I find it shameful. They say they are only giving buyers what they want. Why can’t they use the power of advertising to persuade these buyers that practical and economical is all they really need? Yes, it would perhaps be a more boring world without 600-horsepower sports cars, but at least there would be a world, and perhaps some oil left to enjoy the boringness.

Nissan has been a guilty leader in this trend of performance-oriented vehicles, but they may have turned over a new leaf with their new, environmentally-friendly offering, the all-electric Nissan “Leaf.” The Leaf is not flashy. It does not promise that it will increase your sex appeal or make women swoon over your manliness. It simply promises to be an inexpensive way to get to work, go shopping, maybe take the kids to practice, then come home. No fuss, no muss, and with a tiny environmental impact.

The Leaf will carry four to five people for 100 miles without recharging. I don’t know about you, but that would take care of most of my trips. And for those longer trips, you could rent a gas-burning car, maybe a hybrid, or borrow one. For those who can afford multiple vehicles, perhaps the Leaf would be your primary car, and another would be the going-on-trips car; just as 33 percent of Prius owners also own SUVs.

Designed to be a “real car”—not a fancy golf cart, nor the impractical but awesome Tesla Sport—the Leaf, with acceptable styling, can do what your current car is doing, but do it on an inexpensive overnight refueling in your own garage. It has plenty of performance with an electric motor producing 107 horsepower. While that does not seem like much, electric motors are all torque (208 ft. lb. for the Leaf) from the moment they begin to turn. Acceleration is said to be comparable to an Infinity G35—which is no slouch. Top speed is 87 mph. While that does not seem very fast, it only seems that way because we’ve been sold on vehicle performance we rarely use. I have not driven a car more than 90 mph lately, have you?

With a 220-volt source, the Leaf can recharge in eight hours. If using 110 volts, that may be twice as long. But remember, we’re talking about from a dead-flat lithium-ion battery pack to a full charge. If you only drove 50 miles per day, you’d only need half that much—so eight hours on a 110-volt charge might do you just fine. It is not that expensive for an electrician to hook up a 220-volt “dryer outlet” in your garage, not considering what you’d be saving over buying gasoline. You’ll also be cheating (at first, anyway) and not paying any road taxes using electricity to power your Leaf. The battery pack is designed to accept a “fast charge” that can provide an 80 percent full charge in 30 minutes or 50 additional miles in 10 minutes. This fast charge won’t be found in your garage—as it is a three-phase system that will set you back $45,000. These fast-charge places will likely be provided by cities to urge people to drive pollution-free cars and perhaps at rest stops on highways and even businesses trying to encourage people to drive to their stores. There is no reason this electricity would be free; a simple charge card system should be a part of it. But if you could recharge your car while shopping, you’d be all set for a hard day of wearing out your credit card without the worry of running out of juice in your electric car.

Nissan has not set a price yet, stating only it will be about the same as a mid-sized sedan. The innovative, and very expensive, lithium-ion battery pack may be leased separately from the car itself. So the initial cost for the car may appear lower, but there will be a monthly charge to rent the battery pack (with Nissan assuming all liability for the batteries). If they choose to go this route, they are hoping to keep the overall monthly cost below that of a comparable conventionally fueled car. The Leaf would also most likely be eligible for the $7,500 federal tax credit. So, you are probably looking at a car in the $28,000 to $35,000 range (batteries included). With cars becoming available in select areas in 2010, with full production beginning in 2012.

The places where you will be able to get a Leaf first are in those cities that have committed to helping build an electric car-friendly infrastructure: Seattle, Raleigh, N.C., Oak Ridge, Tenn., San Diego and Sonoma County, California. The Leaf will have the locations of recharging stations programmed into its GPS. Nissan has no problem with you having a Leaf here in northern Illinois. However, you’re on your own to forage for electricity.

In previous Mr. Green Car columns, we’ve looked at electric-powered cars (now being called zero-emissions mobility), and even with coal providing the electricity, it has been determined that electric cars are still more environmentally friendly than those with internal combustion engines. If you get your power from nuclear, hydro, solar or wind, then you’re truly talking pollution-free. I believe if you bought a Leaf, you would not have to worry about attracting attention—you’ll get more than you can handle. Everyone will stop you everywhere and want to know all about life with an electric car. I think Nissan has a winner on their hands, and I hope to get my hands on one soon, too.

From the Jan. 13-19, 2010 issue.

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