In the past decade, the world's grown used to charging cell phones, laptop computers and other devices, after all, so plugging the car in overnight might not be such a alien concept.
Nissan makes the idea of charging the Leaf—as well as figuring out the charge remaining—as easy as possible. The heart of the Leaf's drivetrain may be its batteries, but the brain lives in its standard navigation and battery management center. What looks like an ordinary LCD panel for GPS information also displays all the tools drivers will need to help keep a charge in their Leaf, whether at home or on the road. Ahead of the driver, the sculpted dash gets that LCD readout, which contains all the driving information in a fairly digestible way. There's no glowing-blue indication you're driving in fuel-saving mode as in a Honda CR-Z, but there's a leaf icon atop the instrument panel in a separate LCD screen along with readouts for vehicle speed and other functions.
The shifter knob's countersunk into the center console, and an encircled P is pretty much your only hint that its function is somewhat related to forward propulsion. Thankfully, we're all getting used to pushbutton start—otherwise you'd wonder exactly what to do with the Leaf's fob and where to look for the opaque start button that sits down near your right knee. With a tap on the power button, and a gentle tug left and down on the drive controller, I pulled out of San Jose's Santana Row in almost pure silence, into one vision of the future.
The system has more esoteric functions available for pure EV geeks. Owners will be able to disable climate control, for example—and a page will show them how many more miles they're enabling by saving power. It's not quite as direct as the glowing red and blue gauges on a Ford Fusion Hybrid or a Honda CR-Z, but Nissan says these functions will teach newbie EV drivers to extract the maximum mileage from their new cars.
From the same system, drivers can program the Leaf to recharge when power rates are cheap. The system also will set timers for the car to be pre-warmed or cooled for drivers without consuming battery energy. Instead, the Leaf will tap the grid to bring the car to a comfortable temperature. On top of that, Nissan will offer a heated steering wheel and seats, because it believes those warming sensations are psychologically more important than heating or cooling the entire cabin.
Then there's the instrument panel itself, which has digital gauges visible through the steering wheel, a small "eyebrow" panel above them that includes a digital speedometer, a clock, and a thermometer, and then a large rectangular information display panel in the center of the dash.
Among other functions, the Leaf's navigation system will calculate your range and show you a map with the areas you can drive to clearly highlighted. And if you start to get close to emptying the pack, at 4 kWh remaining, it will also calculate how far you are from the nearest recharge point. The system also displays energy usage, range remaining, and how it is affected by the electric load from the climate control and all other subsystems. You can watch available range go down when you turn on the air conditioning, for example, and then watch it rise again when you turn it off.
The system can also be controlled by a special app on smart phones that will let you pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin while the car is still plugged in, saving battery pack energy for actual travel. Charging time can also be controlled remotely, and if the car stops charging, you can be alerted. Nissan stresses that these functions will work on any web-enabled phone, not just the latest smart phones running apps built for them.
And with respect to more traditional features, the 2011 Nissan Leaf has plenty of them. Inside, cruise control is standard, along with an intelligent key and push-button ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. And, of course, the smart navigation system.
The base model, with a price of $32,780, includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, dual power mirrors, chrome door handles, and a rear air deflector over the liftgate. The SL model adds a backup camera, automatic headlights, and a photovoltaic solar panel atop the rear window air deflector. Based on early orders, Nissan expects that 75 to 80 percent of 2011 Leafs will be sold as SL models, for an additional $940.
Available on the SL model only, there is also a $700 option for a Japanese high-voltage fast-charge outlet for which there are presently almost no chargers in the U.S. That system, known as Chademo, is not now accepted as an international standard, though discussions on defining a single international vehicle fast-charge standard are now underway.
A winter package will be offered when the Leaf is rolled out in cold-weather regions roughly a year hence. That package, consisting of heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, has not yet been priced. It is designed to keep a driver and front passenger comfortable using far less battery energy than full cabin heating.