Last May, the Nissan Leaf was the hottest thing on the green radar. Limited production and a long waiting list for the press meant that Nissan was lending out Leafs (Nissan tells us that is the correct way to pluralize a Leaf) 62-hours at a time. With my long commute and lengthy 120V charging times, this meant a review with only 217 miles under our belt (read our three-part review here: 1 2 3). Now that a few thousand Leafs have found homes in Northern California and I had practiced my “range anxiety” breathing techniques, I was eager to see if the ultimate green ride was also a decent car beyond the batteries.
2012 hasn’t brought any changes to the outside of the Leaf, – it’s still offered only as a hatchback. While the style can easily be called polarizing, and one friend thought it looked like a miniature hearse, passengers seemed to be split 50/50 on the look. Nissan tells us there is a reason for the chihuahua-lamps; aerodynamics and noise. When you create a car with a nearly silent drivetrain, wind noise becomes more obvious. The shape of the lamp modules is designed to cut down on this element while in motion. The big-tire crowd will complain about the stock 205-width tires and 16-inch rims, but I didn’t mind the look. The rear lights? They just look cool.
Up to this point, essentially all cars heat the cabin with “waste heat” from the engine. Since the Leaf doesn’t have an engine, and the electric motor generates very little heat, the Leaf uses a 5kW electric heater to heat the cabin (roughly equal to 5 conventional space heaters). 2012 has brought a few welcome changes to combat this power draw: heated front and rear seats and a heated steering wheel are now standard. The “luxury” touch of a heated tiller may seem out-of-place, but it takes considerably less power to heat the surfaces you interact with than the air in the cabin. The solution worked well for me, and I didn’t mind turning the cabin heating down to 61 degrees with my seat and steering wheel heating my touch-points on a 35 degree morning. Last time I was in the Leaf, I sacrificed everything in the name of range, but this time I drove it like a normal car. Should you decide to use the cabin heater, rear passengers will notice some ducting improvements to make it more comfortable in the rear. At 31 inches, rear seat legroom is behind the Camry or Prius (36/38 respectively), but generous headroom all the way around made it possible to comfortably fit six-foot tall humans all the way around. We were also able to squeeze in two rearward facing child seats with two average sized adults up front.
Under the Leaf’s small hood lies an 80kW synchronous AC motor. Throw out most of what you know about engines when it comes to electric cars because they behave quite differently. Because the Leaf has a single-speed transmission and the motor redlines at 10,390RPM, the top speed is 96MPH. This linear relationship is important when thinking about the Leaf’s performance. 107 horsepowers are delivered between 2,730 and 9,800 RPM (25-90 MPH) while peak torque of 207 lb-ft is available right off the line from 0-2730 RPM (0-25 MPH) where it tapers off slightly.
Thanks to the low-end grunt, the Leaf posts a very respectable 2.92 second 0-30MPH time while the 0-60 time stretches out to 8.96 seconds (a considerable improvement over the 10.2 seconds the pre-production Leaf achieved in May). As you would expect with a 1 speed transmission, acceleration is very linear right up to its top speed. Due to some earlier complaints about the battery not charging properly in cold temperatures, Nissan added some basic thermal management in 2012 for the battery pack to keep it from loosing a charge when it is not plugged in and sitting in extremely cold weather.
Unlike your cell phone, the Leaf’s charging circuitry is built-in, and the “charger” is just a smart plug that communicates with the car and supplies the power to the car’s charger. 2011 and 2012 Leafs support three charge modes called Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 (Level 3 is optional on 2011 and 2012 SV models) via it’s internal 3.3kW charger. For those not in the know, Level 1 is 120V AC, Level 2 is 240V AC and Level 3 is 480V DC. Charging the 24kWh battery will take a little over 26 hours at Level 1 via the included “emergency charging cable,” just over 7 hours with a Level 2 charger (available in some public parking lots or installed in your garage at home), or just over 30 minutes if and when 480V quick charge stations become available on our side of the Pacific. Shoppers should note that Nissan confirmed the 2013 leaf will have a 6.6kW charger which would cut Level 2 charging times in half to just over 3.5 hours. The DC quick charge connector was a standalone option in 2011, but with Nissan pushing for DC quick charging infrastructure, they have made it standard on the Leaf’s SL trim for 2012 (still optional on SV). According to EPA tests, the Leaf’s range varies from 138 miles under perfect conditions to 47 miles in heavy stop-and-go traffic. The traffic test cycle was 8 hours long and the A/C was in use for the entire test. I had no problems getting 75 miles out of the Leaf driving it like I would any other vehicle we have tested, with the automatic climate control set to 68 during a mild Northern California winter and mixed driving. Like all battery-powered appliances, your run time will vary.
During our week with the Leaf we noticed considerably wider availability of charging stations than during our first all-electric fling back in May. Among the stations we visited was a “PlugShare” station at the home of Howard Page, who agreed to an interview with us. Expect a more detailed charging story later, but in essence Howard listed his home charging station on PlugShare (there’s a web site and an app) as available for use. To “fill-up”, you SMS message or call the PlugShare host and ask if you can charge. If the host is feeling altruistic, they say yes, give you their address and any instructions about charging at their home. Our Leaf spent 7 hours in Howard’s driveway one day saving me the $2 per hour at my local public parking garage with the Level 2 charger, as well as allowing me to make i home. The concept is novel to say the least; handing out free electrons to similarly minded early adopters hoping it all evens out in the end. At $5 a complete charge, I wonder how long this system will last without some mini-payment system? Sound off in the comment section below if you would share your charging station to those in need, and similarly, how is this different from a gasoline sharing program where you keep a gallon on your doorstep for passers-by?
Last time we had the Leaf, our range anxiety prevented us from really thrashing the Leaf on windy mountain roads, romping the go pedal from a stop and mashing the brake pedal as we would with a normal car. A full week in the electron powered hatch (and careful pre-planned Level 2 charging arrangements) allowed us to do just that. The handling limits of the Leaf are, as one would assume, defined mostly by the 3,400lb curb weight and low rolling resistance tires. With the “40 MPG car” being all the rage lately, more and more cars are being sold with low rolling resistance rubber, so while the Leaf’s handling is unspectacular, so is the competition. The Leaf’s electric power steering takes some getting used to, but since the target market is unlikely to carve corners, it’s probably a non-issue. Whizzing along above 75 MPH is surprisingly easy and eerily quiet thanks to a nearly silent motor. Our last flirtation with the Leaf was fleeting enough that our Leaf was never fully charged, but this time, things were different.
To help extend battery life, hybrid vehicles never fully charge nor discharge their batteries – a luxury an all-electric vehicle cannot afford. This deep-cycling, or even the micro-cycling caused by regenerative braking when the battery is nearly full can shorten the battery’s life. As a result, the Leaf does something interesting, if you’re fully charged; the car won’t employ regenerative braking until the battery is sufficiently discharged. Why is this important? Because the Leaf’s braking is nicely weighted and balanced when regenerative braking, but for those first few miles in the morning when the battery is 100% charged, the mushy brake pedal feel was surprising and disconcerting until I checked in with a Nissan dealer’s mechanic. Again this probably isn’t a problem for the Leaf’s target demographic, but it does perhaps indicate some of the challenges of going all-electric. The suspension is tuned for a moderate ride, neither floaty, nor stiff and the chassis remains composed over a variety of road surfaces from gravel to pot-holed-asphalt.
The Leaf uses a modified version of the infotainment system available in other Nissan and Infiniti vehicles and includes a standard navigation system. iPod and iPhone integration is standard Nissan issue with on-screen access to playlists, songs, etc but no voice command ability ala Ford’s SYNC product. Speaking of voice commands, the Leaf’s navigation system curiously omits the ability to enter a street address via voice command, the only voice “command-able” destinations are saved destinations and the Leaf’s pre-programmed home address. As you would expect, you won’t find a power-sucking high wattage amp in the Leaf. The standard 6-speaker sound system does however have a neutral balance and is fairly competitive with the standard sound systems in the average mid-sized sedan. For those of you who still remember CDs, there’s a single slot located behind the sliding touchscreen which can also be used to update your nav’s map database.
I’d like to talk competition, but let’s be honest, there isn’t any yet. The Volt vs Leaf war is misguided at best because the Volt is not a pure electric car, as much as GM would like to claim otherwise. Ditto the plug-in Prius. Tesla cars will cost a king’s ransom and the i-MiEV sports one less seat, a considerably smaller interior and shorter range. The only real competition will be the 2013 Ford Focus Electric, which (on paper) appears to have the Leaf squarely in its sights. According to Ford, the Focus Electric will trump the Leaf with more gadgetry, a snazzier sound system, a more powerful 130 HP motor and some undeniably gorgeous looks. Ford is touting shorter recharge times versus the Leaf, but don’t be so quick to believe it. Both have similarly sized batteries (the Ford’s is actually 1kWh smaller) and Nissan has confirmed the 2013 Leaf will have a 6.6kW charger just like the Focus, so 2013 charging times will be equal. On the downside, the Focus is heavier, so despite claiming to be more efficient than the Leaf, if hill climbing is in your repertoire, use caution. The Focus is also $3,500 more expensive than the base Leaf and lacks the DC quick-charge port our SL tester was equipped with. Speaking of pricing, the Leaf starts at $35,200 and the SL model rings in at $37,250 (due to the addition of the quick charger, backup camera, auto healamps, fog lights and a cargo cover). If this price blows your mind, you’re not the target shopper. You’ll also need to factor in $1,500 (installed) for a home charging station (Best Buy tells us they cost $500 less than last year.)
Never before has buying an alternative fuel car meant as much of a lifestyle change. Diesel, natural gas, liquid propane and hydrogen vehicles all fill at a rate that is more-or-less the same as the average gasoline vehicle and deliver similar driving ranges. An electric car on the other hand delivers only 1/3 of the fairly standard 300 mile range you’ll find in most vehicles and takes 42 times longer to “fill”. If these drawback don’t bother you, the Leaf is a solid (if expensive) choice in the green car segment, but I’d wait for the 2013 model with the faster charger and perhaps for our review on the Focus Electric whenever we get our hands on one.
Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance and one full charge for our review.
Specifications as tested
0-30 MPH: 2.92 Seconds
0-60 MPH: 8.96 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.96 Seconds at 78.2 MPH
Average economy: 3.7 Miles/kWh over 689 miles