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The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first production electric car to be sold by a major automaker in more than 80 years. It has a striking design that's every bit as groundbreaking and modern as the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid was in its day; it's easy to drive; seats four people comfortably and five adequately; and is priced quite aggressively, considering its pioneering nature.
Unlike the range-extended electric 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 Leaf is a pure battery electric vehicle. It is powered solely by grid electricity, which charges its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.
At the haunches, the Leaf departs from the usual hatchback in the most striking ways. There's a shapely swell around the back of the rear wheels, and a vertical taillight rib that glows with LED precision on braking. It's a very light, everyday take on the "car of the future" that happens to blend in seamlessly with other Nissans, from the Versa up to the Infiniti G37. Hardcore fans will be able to tell Leaf SL models from the base variety, thanks to the small solar panel on the rear spoiler and other minor cues.
Normally, we'd talk about horsepower, cylinder counts, and transmissions. With the 2011 Leaf, it's all about kilowatts and driving range. The Leaf uses proprietary batteries co-developed between Nissan and NEC, and mounted between the wheels under its floor. The batteries put out more than 90 kilowatts of power, and the electric motor turns out 80 kilowatts—which gives this roughly 3200-pound hatchback the ability to scoot to 60 mph in under 10 seconds. In an act of battery preservation, the top speed is capped at 90 mph.
The iPhone generation will be pleased to know that charge management can be handled by their magic devices. Nissan is developing an app that will let drivers ping their car and check on remaining mileage, set timers for charging or to set the timer to kick in the climate controls.
The one huge question over the Leaf is its range. Nissan quotes a range of 60 to 120 miles—and that's well within the daily-driving needs of most U.S. commuters—but many market analysts believe that U.S. buyers simply won't accept a car they can't drive several hundred miles.
Will U.S. buyers get comfortable buying cars that can't go from San Francisco to Sacramento and back without a multi-hour recharge? We won't know the answer for several years.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is here, it's real, it offers modern conveniences just like any other car, and we think it offers an excellent demonstration of how appealing and competitive plug-in cars can be.
The smart folks who pre-registered for the $32,780 2011 Leaf (which qualifies for a $7500 Federal tax credit, along with many state tax and driving incentives) in five regions (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii) will have a chance to firm up orders and start to take delivery of cars by December of 2010. Availability will be phased in for other regions of the country over the next year.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf will accept electricity from either a 110-volt, a 240-volt or a 440-volt plug—but the first is the only one you're likely to have available in your home, or on the road on a moment's notice. Part of the Leaf program includes a home visit from Nissan contractors to set you up for Leaf ownership with a 240-volt charging station. And frankly, part of the visionary plan is for the rest of the world to chime in and come up with up to 10,000 240-volt charging points and up to 250 440-volt quick-charge points in the next 18 months.
It's like rebuilding the oil infrastructure, to some degree—and it defines the Leaf driving experience in almost every way. For one, you'll want to start out the driving experience with a fully charged battery—to avoid the "range anxiety" that GM will use as a bludgeon to beat down the Leaf and try to convert green-car buyers to its range-extended 2011 Chevy Volt, which has a backup gas-powered engine to charge its batteries. Range anxiety means always wondering exactly how many miles more you can drive, and it's first and foremost the message of the Leaf, from the moment you press that power button and glide smoothly up to speed.