By on October 6, 2010

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.

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30 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2011 Nissan Leaf at the 2010 Alt Car Expo...”

  • avatar

    Sounds like you made the most of a short drive. So if there’s “torque,” is there also torque steer?
    A leather wheel must rub some Leaf-intenders the wrong way. Harm to animals, you know?
    I’m looking forward to tracking the reliability of these. Not sure how fuel economy might be measured, but clearly a way might have to be found. What sort of fuel gauge is provided, and how much of it did a short drive use up? Were they charging the cars often?
    The reliability and fuel economy surveys;

  • avatar

    Dave, in reading your chaperoned test-drive, I now know where the electric Focus race track from the old Jay Leno TV show went! Hope you didn’t swallow any ping-pong balls along the way!

  • avatar

    “It seems more useful than the Volt”
    I can see that making sense with regard to carrying 4 other people, instead of 3, but, other than that, the statement makes no sense, especially considering the Volt’s gas engine generator allowing for more freedom of movement. After all, automobiles exist for one thing, the freedom of movement. How is the city-bound Leaf more useful in this context?

    • 0 avatar

      ” especially considering the Volt’s gas engine generator allowing for more freedom of movement.”

      If you live in a typical two car family, how often are you both going to need the extra range to make it worth paying 42k for a Volt vs. 32k for a Leaf?

    • 0 avatar

      jmo: “If…”
      Your argument here, essentially, is that the Leaf is “good enough.” That has nothing to do with David Moore’s argument that the Leaf is “more useful” than the Volt.

      Mr. Moore hasn’t tried to back up his assertion. Saying something is more useful than something else begs the question of “how” is it more useful.

    • 0 avatar

      “It seems more useful than the Volt.”
      Thanks, akitadog; this is of course a poor sentence. I meant only that it seemed to have more passenger and cargo room than the Volt. I was disappointed that the line to drive the Volt was five hours long and I wasn’t able to drive it. It looked great (in black).

  • avatar

    My first time seeing a Leaf in the (non-animal) flesh was at the “Nissan Gallery” in the Ginza this past June. The entire place looked like a shuttlebay from Star Trek, and the Leaf was the only car there (no others would fit). The car itself made a good impression. It’s more compact in person that it looks in photos, and aside from the oversized headlamps, I dig the overall look, inside and out. It’s suitably fresh and futuristic. I’m looking forward to seeing these whizzing around Philly, though I really can’t afford one myself, even with rebates and tax breaks.

  • avatar

    I would like to call for a boycott of these “controlled” tests on the Leaf and the Volt on TTAC. Until they can hand the keys and extension cord to someone and say, “We’ll see you at some point in the future”, all we are seeing is closely guarded vaporware. Right now Tesla is the only “modern” electric car available as far as I’m concerned and we all know what the B&B thinks of Tesla.

    • 0 avatar

      In my best Enrigo Montoya voice, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

    • 0 avatar

      Maybe you should contact Lance Armstrong? Last I heard he was handed keys and the nice little bag with the extension cord in the trunk. Of course his opinion might be a little biased as he is or was a spokesperson for the car.

    • 0 avatar

      (BTW, it’s Inigo).

    • 0 avatar

      Like it or not, we’re a long ways from learning the full “truth” about electric car ownership. In the meantime, we’re collecting impressions as well as we can. Notice that this is a “capsule review,” a term that indicates a lack of comprehensiveness. It’s not intended to be taken as a definitive review, just early impressions.
      Realistically, until a week-long loaner works its way to TTAC’s driveway (a far-off prospect, in all likelihood) we will not be able to provide a truly definitive assessment of what it’s like to live with an EV. And even then, the technology’s vulnerability to temperature differences makes a truly comprehensive review for an American (let alone global) audience extremely difficult.
      That having been said, we are doing what we can. If you’re worried about owning a Leaf, Volt or any of the non-major OEM offerings, the solution is simple: don’t buy an electric car. Meanwhile, we will do our utmost to get as much uncompromised access to these cars as possible.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a Tesla fan…

      The Leaf and Volt are no longer vaporware, as they will both be for sale in the next few months.  The ‘vapor’ part is what real consumers will think of them.

  • avatar

    Too many compromises for most to seriously consider at this early stage. Still, I hope there are enough early adopters willing to take the plunge on a new Leaf as to warrant keeping it in production for future improvements.

    Reminds me of how rare it was to see the ground-breaking 2nd-Gen Prius when they first arrived in 2004. Now, they’re so prolific no one gives them a second glance.

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    I hope that I am able to afford a real, rwd, ICE-powered sports car before the electrics take over completely. I think I have about 10 years.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      There will be plenty of used ones out there, quite possibly at discounted prices.

    • 0 avatar

      I wouldn’t worry about if I were you.  Some analysts are projecting no more than 10% market penetration for electric vehicles by 2020.  I think that might be optimistic.

    • 0 avatar

      Until/unless electrics drastically improve their range and recharge times, they’ll remain a niche product.  In the time it takes to get there, I could imagine another alternative fuel overtaking it (what that’ll be, I dunno).

    • 0 avatar

      The sports cars are what I’m most looking forward to with the move to electric vehicles — brutal low-end torque, and less constraints on battery placement compared to ICE drivetrains should allow the creation of fun-to-drive sports cars a step above what’s out there now.  Sure the technology doesn’t seem to work as well above 120 mph, but what I want in a sports car is driving feel getting to the triple digits.

  • avatar

    I wonder what the depreciation curve will be.  I’m no expert but the huge decrease in moving parts would make these very reliable and easy to maintain.  You would think this would support it’s resale in the future.  Battery prices are only coming down.

    • 0 avatar

      If you amortize the battery cost to per-mile units, then each of buying, maintaining, and driving a pure EV is cheaper than a pure ICE.
      At least that’s what we’ve seen with lead-acid batteries. Lithium-ion has a different set of trade-offs, but an additional option should not reduce overall utility.

  • avatar

    Tyres constructed from rope!!! (I bet it’s hemp, too!)

    Until there’s been at least one winter of testing the Leaf or Volt, I’ll take a wait and see attitude. Out here on the prairies in the Great Frozen North, the temperatures can get to below -40 (C or F, take your pick) which is hell on conventional ICE’s, let alone battery packs. My best guess is that the Volt, with it’s active thermal management and gas powered generator, will cope with the extreme cold better than the Leaf.

  • avatar

    Electric Baruth is what I want to be when I grow up.

  • avatar

    I’m disappointed to hear the front legroom is tight.  I might have considered a Leaf someday; now, somewhat less so.  What’s so hard about providing a couple more inches of space for the tall people? The pictures make it look reasonably comfortable.

    And I must say the Leaf dashboard is much cleaner than the Volt’s scientific calculator look:

    Thanks for the pics and the report!

  • avatar
    Tree Trunk

    Sounds like Nissan picked the correct place to market the Leaf first, warm city driving with <100 mile commute.
    But know for a fact they have been cold weather tested since I saw a Leaf during cold weather testing in Fairbanks Alaska last winter, even though it was sitting on a flatbed the moment I saw it, I am sure they have the data from this frigid part of the world.
    If Nissan plans to share them with public is another matter.
    The Prius does well here even when it is 40- for days at a time.  The gas mileage suffers a bit which could be from lower battery performance under extreme conditions, but might also just be from extensive use of the heater to keep occupants alive and higher resistance when all moving parts are frozen solid.

  • avatar

    $3 per 100 miles implies equivalency to a 100 MPG gas @ $3/gal regular.

  • avatar

    There is a huge problem with both the Volt and the Leaf when it comes to urban use. For an electric to be successful in a city, it has to have the ability to charge itself. Plugging in is not a choice for many urban dwellers. Plug-ins are going to be primarily for suburban commuters with off-street parking.
    If you live in places like Cambridge MA or Boston’s Back Bay, chances are you have on-street parking and will not be able to run a 1000 foot extension cord to wherever your car is parked. Those cute little charging stations GE shows on TV won’t survive in the city either. Architectural commissions and vandals will keep them out of most neighborhoods. Apartment complex dwellers will have problems plugging in as well.
    I think conventional hybrids with extended EV modes will be the bulk of the market. You get EV benefits, but you don’t have to depend on finding an outlet or remembering to plug the vehicle in. They work for city dwellers, apartment complex residents, and suburbanites with long distance commutes. What I’d like to see is a conventional hybrid with a 5 to 10 mile EV mode capability. Something like that would sell much better than any plug-in.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    “…used all the grunt from the 24/kw powerplant…”
    24 kW sounds wrong – the Leaf’s motor makes 80 kW. Battery capacity is 24 kWh. kWh is a uit of energy, kW is a unit of power. If you confuse the two, I can borrow you a physics book.

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