Gentle acceleration in any car conserves energy and increases range, but in an electric car, the challenge of "refilling" means that economic driving habits are more important.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's 80-kilowatt electric motor will accelerate briskly if you ask it to, but you have to press the accelerator fairly far down to do so--unlike modern gasoline cars, whose accelerators often feel tuned for stoplight drag racing.
Assuming you press hard enough, the Leaf offers sufficient torque for passing at speeds of 40 to 70 mph, the kind of situation you might encounter if you were merging onto a freeway along an uphill entrance ramp and you had to change lanes to avoid a fast-approaching car.
The Eco mode, however, is no fun at all. Nissan says it cuts acceleration ten percent, but it feels like more. The regenerative braking also increases, but the hit to acceleration is significant. If a driver floors the accelerator in an emergency, however, the car will override Eco mode temporarily.
The Leaf provides a 0-to-60-mph time of around seven seconds, and Nissan quotes a top speed of 90 miles per hour. A few test drivers observed 94 mph on the speedometer, but given the vastly increased energy to propel a car at 90 mph versus 60 mph, it's a range-sapping exercise that most drivers will likely avoid.
Handling and roadholding on our pre-production model was good, if not exceptional. The car will understeer through hard corners, if pushed, but it's not particularly rewarding to push. The electric steering is light and somewhat numb. While it has an adequate return action, it seems to exert the same return-to-center force regardless of how far off center it is. And tossing the Leaf around on twisty roads reveals the basic physics: It's a tall car riding on fairly small tires, with most of its 3,600 pounds of mass quite low in the 600-pound battery. Body roll isn't bad, but this is not a sports car by any means.
One surprising experience: The 2011 Leaf is more sensitive to buffeting by side winds than any other car we've driven recently, including some tall crossovers.
On the other hand, at 17 feet, the turning circle is exceptionally tight for a front-wheel-drive car. It's one advantage of not having and engine-and-transmission package up under the hood: the front wheel wells could be pulled further into the center of the vehicle for better turning radius.
The steering feel is very light, and the regenerative braking doesn't make much notice of itself at all. It's markedly different from the acceleration in, say, the Tesla Roadster; pull off the accelerator pedal and the Tesla begins to back down quite quickly, relieving almost any use of the brakes in normal city driving. With the Leaf, you'll certainly need the brakes more frequently, though at the speeds of less than 60 mph we were able to reach in city traffic, it's nothing more than a mild tap.
At higher speeds, the steering firms up a bit, and the Leaf begins to feel a little less perky—which underscores the fact that the new crop of electric cars aren't vehicles you'd want to drive cross-country. Not only is charging a constant issue, but driving faster than 60 mph costs even more in driving range. And improving that means either new-age batteries with much better energy density—or simply, plenty more batteries, which kills the vehicle's optimization.