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2011 Nissan Leaf — Playing full out at going green

2011 Nissan LeafI have to admit, being raised on big-block, mega-horsepower, gas-guzzling V8s, I was more than mildly skeptical about Electric Vehicles (EVs) - until I actually drove one. I came away a believer that EVs are the future — not everyone’s future — but for a lot of folks, it will be. While the automotive industry has seriously experimented with alternative fuels (remember hydrogen fuel cells?) for the past decade, it seems they’ve finally settled on electricity as the alternative power source.

Just to clarify the difference between a hybrid and an EV, hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, run on a combination of gasoline and battery power, while a pure EV is 100 percent battery-powered.

2011 Nissan Leaf InteriorNissan is committed to EVs — so much so, it will offer an EV version of a new commercial van, the NV2500, it will debut in 2011. Company CEO Carlos Ghosn stated without hesitation, “A new era is beginning in the global automotive industry. At Nissan and Renault, we are working together to lead the way to mass market zero emission mobility.” Ghosn is car guy in the Lee Iacocca mold. He “gets it” about what consumers want, and his stunning success turning Nissan, and its luxury brand, Infiniti, around by delivering some of the best selling product on the market proves that.

Nissan has put its money where its mouth is, gambling almost a billion dollars over more then a decade that the Leaf will change the way we drive. And make no mistake, EVs are coming — The high-performance Tesla sports car hit the market last year, and 2011 will see Ford debut an electric version of its Focus, along with the long-anticipated Chevy Volt, Mini E, Mitsubishi MiEv, and a plug in version of the Toyota Prius. The 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, later this month, will preview no less then 20 EVs — some from manufacturers you’ve never heard of.

Research has shown that on average, 90 percent of the U.S. population drives less than 100 miles per day, and 72.4 percent less than 50. Meanwhile, 26.5 percent drive only 5 to 10. On weekends, 66.3 percent drive less than 50 miles per day and 23.5 percent between 20 and 29. The Leaf has a range of 100 miles on a charge, so, for the typical driver, the Leaf will get you there and back.

However, it’s not necessarily automotive design and/or engineering that will determine the rate at which — or if — electricity overtakes petroleum as the preferred fuel, but battery technology. The first lithium-ion battery work began at Nissan in 1992, but the big breakthrough came in 2003.

As the first automaker to actually bring an EV to market, Nissan knew it had to get this right coming out of the starting blocks, because if they stumbled, the viability of EVs would always be a question.

Is the Leaf the perfect EV? No more so than any new vehicle is ever perfect, and it will evolve the same way any new model does. But after driving the Leaf, I’m convinced Nissan has figured this out. It makes the EV I drove previously look like someone’s science project in comparison.

As the first fully electric, zero emissions mass marketed vehicle, the Nissan Leaf is an interesting glimpse into the look, feel, and utility of the type of cars many people will be buying before this decade is out.

All that said, what is the Leaf actually like?

Walkaround: The Leaf has somewhat similar exterior styling to Nissan’s popular Versa 5-door hatchback, although it’s far from simply being an electrically-powered clone. For starters it’s larger, with a six-inch longer wheelbase, and it’s much more upscale inside. The Leaf intentionally has a very mainstream look, one that doesn’t scream Geekmobile the way the original Honda Insight, and to a great degree, the Prius (although we’ve gotten used to them by now) originally did.

The smooth body starts from the low, compact hood, flowing up through the shoulder line, and back to the large rear spoiler. The upright V-shaped design features long, up-slanting LED headlights that split and redirect airflow away from the mirrors, reducing wind noise and drag, while consuming about 50 percent less electricity than conventional halogen headlamps. The slim, aerodynamic LED taillight design and crisp corners combine with the rear bumper and diffuser for smooth airflow around the rear end without compromising interior roominess.

The underbody is completely flat, for smooth airflow under the vehicle, and an innovative vortex-shedding roof-mounted antenna also reduces wind noise.

Exterior trim includes chrome door handles, aerodynamic power outside mirrors, P205/55R16 Bridgestone Ecopia tires mounted on 5-spoke 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels.

Interior: The Leaf has fairly upscale interior trim and includes Navigation, Bluetooth, and Siruis/XM satellite radio all standard. The seats are firm, comfortable and covered with an alcantara-like material made from recycled soda bottles. In fact, 40 percent of materials used to build the car come from recycled materials, and the car itself is 94 percent recycleable.

The front seat width is more than adequate with a surprising level of comfort for a vehicle this size. The center stack primarily houses the touch screen display, from which climate and audio are controlled, as well as viewing the back-up camera.

The display also provides access to the Carwings telematics system, which is connected to a global data center, (a subscription is required after the first 36 months). An on-board remote-controlled timer can be programmed to recharge the batteries when power rates are the lowest. The system also allows you to use certain mobile phones (iPhone, Droid, and soon, Blackberry) to set charging functions remotely, as well as turn on the A/C — even with the vehicle powered down — and your phone will notify you if charging is interrupted for some reason. The system also has a “reachable area” display that also shows nearby charging station locations.

Instrumentation includes an LCD analog sweep graph that moves up or down depending on your power use. There’s a display that “grows” digital “trees” for low energy usage. There are more LCD analog gauges to show electric motor discharge and regeneration, and climate control drain, as well as an indicator for how many miles you have left on the current electrical charge, which changes depending on how you drive, and what electrical devices are running.

While billed as a five-passenger car, the battery pack is located under the front seat and rear floorboard, allowing adequate, although not class-leading, rear seat head and legroom for a six foot tall person.

Under The Hood: The Leaf is powered by a 80 kilowatt, high-response synchronous AC motor, rated at 107 horsepower and a healthy 208 Lb. Ft. of torque. Estimated top speed is 90 mph, with energy efficiency measured in miles per kilowatt.

The motor is connected directly to the front wheels via a transmission with only two functions — forward and reverse. Electric motors are different than internal combustion engines because they don’t need gearing to perform at their peak, just enough power from the battery. So the real story is the batteries.

Power comes from 48 laminated 24-kilowatt hour lithium-ion batteries, coupled to a 3.3-kilowatt charger. Like hybrids, the Leaf has regenerative braking, which recharges the batteries when the vehicle is coasting. The batteries are about the size of a license plate, and stacked together in a package. Each cell is individually replaceable, so if one goes bad, you don’t have to buy an entire new battery pack. The batteries, which have an 8-year, 100,000 mile warranty, had no damage in 40-mph crash tests, or after being totally submersed in water. They are also 100 percent recyclable and will be remanufactured for power generation use.

One very important thing to consider is that there are no oil changes every 3,500 miles, and say goodbye to incremental mileage servicing. I know the 50,000-mile service for my wife’s Volvo XC90 bumped on $800. In the Leaf, according to my calculator, that would be… zero.

Behind The Wheel: The actual range of the Leaf depends on driving conditions — temperature, terrain, traffic, etc. - as well as your driving style, load and equipment usage, just like any other car.

Driving it through the beautiful rolling hills of the Tennessee countryside was a pleasure. It has all the amenities of any upscale car, including A/C, cruise control, Bluetooth, push button start, trip computer, and power everything you expect.

Acceleration was excellent — better than many other similar-sized cars — doing the 0-60 drill in under 9 seconds. Handling was excellent as well, thanks to the battery placement under the driver’s seat and rear floorboard, which allows that 600 pounds weight to be evenly distributed for a low center of gravity.

The Leaf is also exceptionally quiet, especially for a car this size — even at 80+ mph on the freeway — and very comfortable to travel in. Braking is excellent thanks to 4-wheel vented disc brakes, and the electrically-assisted power steering has a nice touch.

The “range to empty” indicator on the dashboard lets you know how many miles are left, and several other displays help you drive with a light foot. The standard navigation screen pops up when you reach 4-KWh (17 miles) of remaining energy, and shows a map of your range and the location of nearby charging stations.

Whines: Recharging any EV takes time ranging from about 30 minutes to around 20 hours, depending on the type of charger — significantly longer than the 5 minutes or so it takes to fill up at a gas station — so considering the total distance any EV can travel is a foremost concern. A 30-minute charge (80 percent of capacity) is possible only with a DC fast charger. Nissan hopes that such chargers will be deployed over the next few years in public places and gas stations, and that there will be 13,000 public charging stations in place by 2012. Level 2 (typical home) chargers require 8 hours or so to replenish a fully depleted battery. Quick charger deployment (for 30 minute booster shots) will lag this, but as demand rises, more will appear, particularly along major transit corridors such as I-5. Nonetheless, for the time being, one must consider range when driving the Leaf — or any other EV.

Bottom Line: Nissan owns the ground floor of the EV revolution. The first 50,000 Leafs will be built in Japan, with U.S. production beginning in Smyrna, Tennessee in 2012.

The Leaf would be a very nice car, with all the amenities, if it were gasoline powered, so it’s already more than expected of an EV. Currently, the cost per mile is 3 cents, compared to 12 cents for the average gasoline-powered car, An overnight charge is about 30 cents, compared to $3 a gallon for gas. As battery technology advances, I can’t imagine there not being retrofits that increase range, and reduce charging time.

Priced at $25,280 after a $7,500 federal tax credit, plus another $3,500 off the sales tax in Washington (rebates of $5,000 in California, and $4,500 in Hawaii; tax credits of $6,000 in Colorado and $5,000 in Georgia; and up to $2,000 for installation of a personal charging dock in your home), the Leaf makes sense for a lot of America. It may not be everyone’s main ride, but for many, it could be — and for others a cost effective commuter or second car. But the true bottom line is, the future is here, and the Leaf is just the tip of the iceberg.

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