Green Auto News: Mr. Green Car: The all-electric Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

OK, now I’m getting really confused. Which do I like better, the Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf?

I just drove the Leaf one evening recently — giving it a thorough test, as I was allowed by Anderson Nissan of Loves Park to drive it on my own. They have a demo Leaf they use to run service customers back to home or work, so they are saving on gas for these short runs, and it gives them a chance to demonstrate the pure electric Leaf to folks who may never otherwise consider asking about one.

Unlike the Volt, which has a gasoline engine to take over after the batteries run low after 35 to 40 miles, the Leaf depends entirely on its lithium-ion batteries to go everywhere. Fortunately, that everywhere includes a substantial 100-mile range.

The Leaf’s GPS navigation can be set up to show a distance ring on an area map from where you are now to the limit of your range. The same navigation system will be advising you of where you can get public plug-in power, too.

Speaking of plugging in, the sales representative, Bill Barr, first demonstrated where the plug needed to be pulled above the front bumper while commenting on the three blue lights on top of the dashboard that indicate charge status. This is handy so you can see what’s up without getting in the car, or checking your computer or smart phone, for that matter. It is designed so you cannot operate the vehicle with the cord plugged in — but you can operate the heater or air conditioner.

It was a cool evening, and the first thing I noticed was the warm seat and steering wheel. The electric heater was rapidly warming the cabin. Quietly, off I went.

After bouncing along Alpine Road and making a few turns, I was stopped at a light and noticed a whirring noise. Should be nothing — not moving. I was hearing the heater fan. Since things had warmed up nicely, I turned off the heated seats, heated leather-wrapped steering wheel and the heater. Now, it was QUIET, and the range-to-go indicator gave me 10 more miles for reducing the demand on the batteries.

The light turned green, and as I was at the head of the line — I punched it. Damn near spun the tires. The car in the adjacent lane was rapidly receding in the rear view mirror. Must watch that nice speedometer display — no sense of speed with so little noise — there is only a very faint whirring, particularly when accelerating.

A little farther down the road was a highway stretch. I broke the law briefly, zooming it up to 75 in a very short, intense acceleration (max speed is 90 mph). Impressive. Beware, hot cars — those quiet electric cars may blow your doors off, and you won’t know what hit you.

Some nice curves were on tap, too — where the handling was quite adequate, the torque of the motor easily controlling acceleration out of the curves. An empty parking lot let me really test the handling — I was throwing it around hard and found that the Leaf’s handling can honestly be described as a nimble, sports car-like feel. Fun!

I restrained myself from further demonstrations of power — it would be very easy to get in a bad habit of zapping around slightly slower traffic with the Leaf’s no-hesitation acceleration. Alas, I was soon back at the dealer, reluctant to give it back. Like the Volt, it is quite comfortable and in no way feels any different from driving a similar-sized gasoline-fueled car.

I took a few bad photos in the dark, contemplating the Leaf’s styling that is much like that of its sister crossover SUV, the Murano. As I studied the brochure and wrote down notes, I thought of how it would be nice if you did not have to plug in your electric car, but simply could drive over an induction plate to safely transfer power without wires. I mentioned this “idea” to Bill, who thought it reasonable. But reading online today, I discovered Nissan is already planning to incorporate this very feature in their 2013 Leaf. There is a power loss of 10 to 20 percent with this charging method, but oh, how sweet to not have to fuss with the plug. I predict this will become a standard feature of pure-electric and plug-in hybrids.

I also harp in every electric car article how it would be nice to charge with solar power. To that end, Ford will be offering a solar-charging package for their electric Focus that is due out next year. A bit pricey at $10,000 (you could probably have any solar contractor do it for less), but their heart is in the right place. The system has no batteries other than your car, so while you’re away at work, it will pump power into the grid. The theory is that you’ll get paid more for your daytime power than you’ll pay for your nighttime charging. Ford says the system will provide 1,000 miles of free driving per month.

The electric car I REALLY want is the Tesla S four-door sedan, which looks like a Jaguar — but I better start buying lottery tickets if I ever expect to own one of those 300-mile-range beauties. The high option (400-volt charge capable) Leaf will run you $36,000 — but less $11,500 in state and federal tax credits — get yours now.

From the Dec. 14-20, 2011, issue

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