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Now in its second model year, the 2012 Nissan Leaf was the first battery electric vehicle to be built in volume and sold by a major automaker in many decades. The five-door compact hatchback has a striking look that's as pioneering and modern as the Toyota Prius hybrid was in its day. The Leaf is easy to drive, provides comfortable space for four and accommodates five when needed, and costs perhaps one-third to one-quarter as much per mile to operate as a gasoline car--assuming you can afford the higher initial cost.
The 2012 Leaf's design evolves the five-door hatchback form in some striking ways. The taillights are mounted high up and vertically, containing a rib filled with red LED brake lights. The body swells around the rear wheels, and rather than a grille to admit air into the radiator it doesn't have, the Leaf has a cover in the center of the nose that opens to give access to its charging ports. Leaf fans will be able to distinguish cars with the SL trim level from the SV base model by their small solar panel on the roof spoiler at the top of the tailgate.
Rather than an engine with some number of cylinders and a power output in horsepower, the Leaf is propelled by an electric motor driving the front wheels and rated in kilowatts of output. The motor puts out 80 kw (107 hp), which propels the 3200-pound car from 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. Top speed is capped at 90 mph. Its steering is numb and the roadholding and handling are competent rather than inspiring, though it all works just fine.
Unlike the car to which it's often compared, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, the 2012 Leaf runs solely on battery power--it does not have the Volt's range-extending gasoline engine. The 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is built into the Leaf's floor and recharges by plugging it into the electric grid, using either standard 120-Volt power or a charging station that operates at 240 Volts. Recharging time for a fully depleted pack is 7 to 10 hours with the charging station, and double that on standard power. Part of Leaf purchase includes a visit from a contractor, arranged via your Nissan dealer, to assess what will be necessary to install a 240-Volt charging station in your garage.
Befitting its advanced technology, the Leaf lets owners manage charging, advance cabin heating and cooling, and other vehicle functions from their mobile phones. They can set times for charging, check charge progress, and have the car tell them its estimated range at any given moment.
But it's that range that is the biggest question hanging over the 2012 Nissan Leaf. The EPA gives the Leaf a range of 73 miles, and Nissan says it's "up to 100 miles," but industry analysts are skeptical that the bulk of U.S. buyers will accept a car without at least 200 miles of range. Most Leafs are expected to be the second or third car in their household, though electric-car drivers report that their "range anxiety" abates within a few weeks, as they get comfortable with and grow confident in their cars. Most owners will recharge overnight, perhaps "topping up" their battery at charging points at work or at retail outlets.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Nissan Leaf is on the market and thousands of U.S. buyers remain on waiting lists as its maker rolls it out to more regions in the U.S. beyond the largely coastal areas it launched in last year (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii). Nissan plans to expand U.S. Leaf sales into several Southeastern states and Illinois this year.
For 2012, Nissan added the optional winter package as standard equipment on all Leafs, including electric warming for the battery pack, heated front and rear seats, and even a heated steering wheel. For the higher-level SL model, it added a DC quick-charging port as standard equipment (previously optional), which allows an 80-percent battery recharge in 30 minutes at rare public DC charging stations.
Along with the upgrades came higher prices, unfortunately. The base 2012 Nissan Leaf starts at $35,200, and the Leaf SL model at $37,250. Most owners are likely to qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for purchase of an electric car, though Nissan also offers a $349 monthly lease on the car that wraps the tax credit into the price. Additional regional and corporate incentives may be available as well.
You could view the 2012 Nissan Leaf as the first vehicle for a new century of electric cars. It's on the market now, it's fully a "real car" with modern features and conveniences, and it gets high safety ratings from the usual agencies. It offers an excellent demonstration why plug-in cars have a bright future--though it will take decades for plug-in cars to become a noticeable fraction of the 1 billion vehicles on the planet, and we'll not likely see the "end of gasoline" in any of our lifetimes.
- First "real" battery electric car built in volume
- Distinctive and futuristic design
- Quiet, smooth electric drive
- Room for five, unlike four-seat Volt
- Multiple financial incentives to own
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- Range of only 70 to 100 miles
- Steering and handling are uninspiring
- Rear seats require knees-up position
- Charger lump interrupts cargo floor