I should have known from the breathless senior in long shorts and fancy jewelry: “AC Propulsion is over there. They won the X-Prize!” I should have known from the Long Curly Hair Middle-Aged Dad with Toddler and Pregnant Hippie Wife. I should have known from the fact that this first day of the national “Drive Electric Tour Sponsored by Nissan Leaf” was in Santa Monica. But I didn’t, and so
color moi tres surpris when the little Leaf driving demo was actually the biggest part of the 2010 Alt Car Expo. Petrolheads beware.
Coda was there with t-shirts reading “End Dependence Day” over a pumpjack and a crude pre-production model. GM was there with a Volt and an Equinox Fuel Cell. Mercedes-Benz was there with two F-Cell B-classes, MINI had a MINI E and Honda had it’s Clarity. Think!, JEM and even something called a Wheego was there to tout the bennies of fossil-free transportation. There wasn’t a clutch
around, and I was out of place.
The drive of the Leaf started by waiting in the lounge with Nissan’s famous polar bear commercial on endless repeat. Then it was out to three other huts to talk about the battery, telematics and range, respectively. The product specialist gave us the grist as the lady in the “Santa Monica Mountains Conservatory” cap grilled her about warranty, battery replacement cost and the affect of a/c use and age on the battery pack.
We were led outside to two stationary Leafs(-ves?) and allow to poke around. The interior was a cream-colored sitting room with Nissan’s typical mouse fur upholstery and soft, cushy seats. Interior plastics were above average and the ambiance was more loaded Altima than Prius pretend spaceship. The steering wheel should be more than plastic at this price point, though. Back seat space was adequate, but drivers with longer legs than my 6ft frame might wish for more front leg room. The trunk is small, but no smaller than a Versa’s.
On to the drive, which I soon found out was chaperoned by a teenager named Ken. Ken was concerned that I didn’t have more questions for him. I was more concerned that the driving section consisted of several turns through small cone course in the parking lot before a quick round-the-block test drive. No other excursions or experiences with the Leaf were permitted.
I managed the parking lot course without taking out a cone while an electric Baruth ahead of me used all the grunt from the 24/kw powerplant in the 30 yards between turns. Out on the surface streets, the Leaf was cushy and quiet. Though the 48 lithium-ion batteries were positioned low in the chassis for a low center of gravity and thus “seriously fun handling,” the 16-inch Bridgestone Ecopias laughed at the idea. Bodyroll was fully present and accounted for while steering feel was not; the zero-effort wheel seemed it would spin around for hours one was not careful. The ride was soft but well-damped, and the structure of the car felt solid.
Nissan’s product literature talked about “the new Torque,” meaning ‘instant.’ The shove started to fade after about 40 mph or so, which was fine because we were already to the next stoplight. Ken kept encouraging me to floor it whenever I could. Yes, Ken; that is torque—let’s move on.
The Leaf has all the tricks and tech that you would want: navigation with a range overlay, a dedicated fueling station finder button on the steering wheel, telematics from your cell phone, Bluetooth and all that. The charging features include a 220-volt station that will charge fully in 8 hours or a 110-volt charger that will do 5 miles of range every hour. (Great marketing there; it’s much more convincing to say 5 miles of range every hour than “20 hours to full charge.”) Either way, 100 mile charge is supposed to cost just under three dollars at the current currency-rate of current.
More interesting is the “fast charge” feature at public charging stations expected to come online nationwide: Thirty minutes gives you an 80 percent charge with an implied penalty to battery life if repeated too often over the cars lifetime. The Leaf has a 3 year/36,000 mile warranty with an 8-year/100,000 mile warranty on the battery. When Santa Monica Mountains Conservatory Hat Lady asked about replacement cost, the answer came back, “Cheaper or maybe even something different or better.”
The price of the Leaf is roughly $32k before a federal $7500 tax break; Ken said that after all the rebates are gathered it could be down to the low $20s. Right, Ken.
The Leaf was the star of the Alt Car Expo and I could see why. The best part of the event was the guy with the bullhorn warning oblivious show attendees when an electric and thus silent car was moving through the parking lot. Apologies to the Coda rep I talked to; a short ride in the car revealed it to be a time machine to the early 1990s. No one else at the event was even offering a fuel cell, electric or hybrid car for sale—all demos and pipe dreams. With the possible exception of the Clarity, the Leaf was the most polished of any car there. It seems more useful than the Volt, gives a comfortable, stress-free driving experience with enough tech toys to make it easy to show off. I can’t see how anyone would choose a
Prius over a Leaf unless price or the desire for long road trips were issues. Here in gridlocked Santa Monica, where it takes three hours to get out of the city and real estate is exorbitant, neither problem is really a problem at all.