The first mass-market electric vehicle offered for sale, the 2011 Nissan Leaf has set a major new milestone for the auto industry. Chevy has the extended-range electric Volt, and Ford is planning its own electric Focus, but here and now, the Leaf is the first electric car your whole family can enjoy.A ground-breaker for the automotive future, for electrified cars of all kinds, the Leaf is also remarkably easy and fun to drive; it's fairly spacious for a five-seat hatchback, too, and it's as price-conscious as cutting-edge technology can be, once all the federal and local shopping incentives are figured in its base price of about $27,000.
For some families with small cars in mind, the Leaf will make perfect sense. The Leaf is a spacious, airy vehicle with plenty of room for passengers in front and in back. There's an ample cargo well in back, above and behind its battery pack, and plenty of storage for small items. To save its batteries for better use, it doesn't have fancy add-ons like entertainment systems, but it does have a standard navigation system that indicates where drivers can find the next charging station. Fairly fully equipped in base form, the Leaf can be upgraded to include a rear spoiler, a cargo cover, and a rearview camera, a feature we strongly recommend even in cars with good outward visibility.
Most important for families: the 2011 Leaf has been given top scores by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
The issue of driving range can be a deal-breaker, or a dramatic step forward, depending on your family's needs. The Leaf only uses petroleum in its production and in the replacement of the usual tires and wiper blades. It doesn't have any gas-powered engine at all, which means drivers must decide before they buy, whether the Leaf's battery-charged drive system has enough utility for them. Nissan claims the fully-charged Leaf should have a useful range of about 100 miles in normal circumstances, outside of extreme cold or heat. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rates it more conservatively at 73 miles per full charge.
What this means in practical terms, is that the Leaf is a somewhat limited vehicle for more typical family needs--carpooling, vacations and such. Nissan offers a charging station that allows at-home fill-ups in as little as seven hours; a standard electrical cord will take up to 22 hours. Some businesses have charging stations as well, and Nissan envisions a future filled with quick-charge stations that will recharge the Leaf in about 30 minutes. If your daily needs fit inside that defined limit, the Leaf could cost a third as much to operate as a gas-fueled vehicle.
It's a perfect 10 for early adopters, for its embrace of a risky but potentially rewarding future--but the 2011 Leaf earns a rating of 6 in FamilyCarGuide's rankings, since its hatchback utility and great safety ratings are mitigated by its limited usability.For an in-depth review of styling, utility, safety and features, see TheCarConnection's full review of the 2011 Nissan Leaf.