Reviewing the Nissan Leaf is a little like gazing into a crystal ball. Edmunds, in its assessment of the revolutionary 2011 all-electric five-door hatchback said it "just may be the first practical electric car that real families can actually own and buy." Twenty-thousand drivers have taken possession of their Leafs starting in December 2010. The first wave of vehicles went to select markets that in some way favored the necessary infrastructure, meaning charging stations or a willingness to work toward providing charging stations.
In theory, the Leaf can go 100 miles on a single eight-hour charge from a standard home outlet -- 30 minutes to reach 80 percent of full capacity on a rapid charger. Consumers can opt for the rapid chargers as a home unit, for an installation price just north of $2,000. (There may be tax breaks and local incentives to help offset that expense.) The 100-mile range purportedly makes this the perfect second car for daily driving. Estimates say Americans drive about 65 miles a day. As the EPA was trying to figure out how to put mileage estimates on the Leaf, however, testers found that if you do things like run the heater or the AC, the range drops down to around 73 miles.
One thing Nissan has done very right with the Leaf is to pack the console with slick electric read-outs in an effort to calm driver anxiety that they're going to lose juice at any moment. The car does have regenerative braking (a little charge goes into the battery pack when you hit the brakes), but reviewers have said not to expect much boost from that system. (Or from the solar panel on the hatchback of the SL that helps to charge the standard battery used to run things like the rearview camera.)
Nissan hasn't said when it will start taking pre-orders for the next batch of Leafs to hit the roadways, so people who are interested are watching the performance of the pioneering 20,000 to decide if this is a fancy golf cart or a car that will match their lifestyle. Some awfully attractive facts are attached to the price of owning a Leaf -- like at average electric rates you'll pay about $2.75 to charge the car. With gas hovering around $3.50 a gallon nationally, that's very -- very -- attractive. Additionally, the Leaf requires little maintenance. Nissan says the only routine check should be on the brake pads, but with the regenerative system, wear will be low and replacements several years apart.
Some things reviewers don't like include the cramped backseat. This is caused by the battery pack. The floor is raised in the backseat which forces passengers into an uncomfortable bent-knee position. Cargo space is also pretty minimal, just an estimated 12.2 cubic feet. While the Leaf, which puts out zero emissions, has good acceleration with its 107 hp motor (on a 90 kw lithium ion battery), the steering doesn't give the driver the kind of feedback we're all used to behind the wheel. At best, handling has been described as "competent."
Because aerodynamics were a point of emphasis in the design, the Leaf has a fairly futuristic look. There's no tailpipe and no fuel door. Instead, look for a small panel on the front hood to access the car's two plug-in points. It is an extremely quiet vehicle, although road noise and wind resistance are more noticeable at first due to the absence of engine sound. (The engine does emit a high-pitched whine designed to alert vision-impaired pedestrians. That may change to an actual "virtual engine" sound system to keep the car up with new federal guidelines for hybrids and EVs.)
Even on the base trim (there are just two levels, the SV and the SL) amenities like push button start, remote keyless entry, navigation, iPod integration, and Bluetooth are standard. There's a degree of smartphone connectivity to allow owners to set charging times, which helps to take advantage of lower rates in off-peak hours on the grid. One thing is for certain -- drive a Leaf and you are going to learn a lot more about how electricity is used and sold in your community.
Although the Leaf has not undergone crash testing, all the expected safety features are there: dual-stage supplemental front air bags, driver and front passenger seat-mounted side-impact supplemental airbags, roof-mounted curtain side-impact supplemental airbags, Vehicle Dynamic Control, a Traction Control System, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, Brake Assist, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, tire pressure monitoring, and low anchors and tethers for children.
So. What are you going to drop on a Leaf -- when you can buy one? After tax savings ($7,500), on the base model, you're looking at $25,280. Not cheap. But, this is not a car like any other you've ever considered. Can it be your primary vehicle? Given the range limitations, we have to say no. But, this is the first generation of the car of the future. Nissan has drawn an excellent "first draft," if you will and is no doubt busily collecting data on ways to improve the car. The Leaf is impressive and was a finalist for the 2010 Car of the Year. We're intrigued with the first iteration and looking forward to seeing where Nissan takes this revolutionary vehicle.