Nissan Leaf - Charged up again

It was about this time fourteen years ago when my college roommate – an electrical engineering student – and I departed our fraternity in Flint, MI to drive the 45 minutes to a non-descript facility in Troy, MI. I arranged for us to get a preview of the upcoming GM EV1 electric car for the school newspaper. It was exciting to drive the car of the future. Despite all of the nonsense you’ve heard from actors and comedians, the EV1 was a very decent car that GM put significant effort into producing. It was eerily quiet, nearly as fast as a Z28 Camaro from 0-60 mph, and looked cool. It also cost the price of a new Mercedes and had a 60-mile range. In the end, as my roommate calculated driving back to Flint in my Geo, the math didn’t add up.

That was fourteen years ago. Now, a new generation of electrical engineers is re-working the formulas. Last week, I drove the Nissan Leaf for the first time at the company’s headquarters in Nashville, TN.

In person, the car looks bigger than I imagined – close in size to a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. An ultra-aero exterior improves range and reduces wind noise. Headlamps are placed to direct air over the body and around the drag-inducing mirrors. An underbelly pan and rear spoiler help the air depart cleanly to improve range. LED headlamps, thin vertical taillamps, chrome door handles, and 16” alloy wheels look cool.
Leaf’s next-decade interior takes parts from the Prius and Honda Civic, with the entirely different purpose of efficiently moving a car without a gasoline engine. There’s no need for a tachometer, engine temperature gauge, or oil pressure monitor. More relevant, the NAV system shows a circumference of drivable range at any given time while a monitor shows power usage from the climate control, electric motor, and other systems so drivers can intelligently manage their energy usage. Owners can schedule battery charging for non-peak hours (even from their iPhone), turn on A/C remotely, and talk on their Bluetooth-enabled hands-free phone.

If the dashboard didn’t clue you in, driving the Leaf confirms this is no normal automobile. Pushing the starter button doesn’t so much start the car as enable it to move. Engage “D” with the center-positioned “joy pod” by pulling down. Step on the “throttle” and the car whirs away without fuss. It is so quiet that electric motors for the windshield wipers and climate control were upgraded to luxury standards so passengers wouldn’t hear them in the absence of engine noise.

Our route took us through city streets before jetting onto the freeway and up to an easy cruising speed of 80 MPH. The flat torque curve inherent to electric motors is like a turbine at take-off – there’s no shifting gears, just smooth constant thrust. Low center of gravity, thanks to the battery placement, lets the car sachet though Tennessee farm country like an ice skating pixie. Regenerative brakes capture energy during deceleration and direct it back to the batteries, increasing the car’s range. Nissan promises a useful driving distance of 100 miles per charge and a top speed above 90 MPH. It runs 0-60 mph in 10s, plenty quick enough to dash busy freeways. An ECO mode conserves energy by making the throttle less sensitive and the regenerative brakes more aggressive.

According to Nissan, 90% of the U.S. population drives less than 100 miles a day on average. Nearly three-quarters drive less than 50 miles per day. Charging takes 20 hours on 110V home plugs, 8 Hrs. on a 220-V hard-wired outlet, and less than 30 minutes on the commercial charging stations utilities are rapidly installing.
Safety was paramount in the Leaf’s design. It comes with a full array of airbags and meets all federal crash standards. The battery pack is placed in the center of the car, under the floor, to protect it in an accident. The pack was also subjected to full water immersion, deep freezing, and extreme hot temperatures.

My college roommate is now off designing networks for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, but I’ll look forward to getting his opinion on the Leaf when we meet in Detroit auto show next January. Compared to the EV1, the Leaf goes further, holds more people, and costs significantly less. After the $7,500 Federal Tax Credit, prices start at $25,280. Other states and municipalities offer up to $6,000 each. In some parts of California, the total credits reduce the Leaf’s price to under $13,000! Many people will like the new math. Early U.S. models come from Japan, but production begins in Smyrna, TN during 2012. I would not have the Leaf as my only car, but it would do everything I need 99% of the time. A decade and a half later, I’m charged up again for the future of electric cars.

By Casey Williams - MyCarData