In a world that's accustomed to recharging its mobile phones, laptop computers, and music players, the idea of plugging in a car isn't as far-fetched as it would have been 10 years ago. The 2012 Nissan Leaf is simple to recharge, and the combination of a phone app and its in-car LCD screen displays all the tools drivers will need to keep their Leaf charged up.
Those include distance estimators to keep a Leaf driving within its range, charging status and battery energy indicators, and pre-heating or pre-cooling while still plugged in--so that energy-sapping cabin heat or air conditioning can be run off grid power rather than the stored energy in the battery pack. Owners can disable climate control altogether if they like, all in service of teaching drivers how to extract the highest number of miles from the energy stored in the battery.
Owners can also direct the car to charge when energy rates are cheapest, usually in the dead of night. The long-term vision is that the cars and the grid will talk to each other, so that cars will "know" when power is cheapest because the grid will "tell" them--but right now, the owner must program in charging times based on the household's particular electricity plan.
The instrument panel itself has digital gauges viewed through the steering wheel, plus a small upper panel with a digital speedometer, a clock, and a temperature gauge. In the upper center of the dash, there's a large rectangular screen for displaying more detailed and graphic information: energy usage, driving range, maps, nearby recharging points, and more. These displays are dynamic and real-time: Turn on the air conditioning and watch available range drop, turn it off and see it rise again.
The 2012 Nissan Leaf has more traditional features, of course, including standard cruise control, intelligent key fob, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and hands-free phone connection via Bluetooth.
For the current model year, Nissan has made the winter package--formerly an option--standard equipment on all Leafs sold in the U.S. It includes an electric heater inside for the battery pack, heated seats both front and rear, and a heated steering wheel. By warming riders' backsides and the driver's hands, everyone inside feels warmer, but much less energy is used that if the resistance heater that warms the entire cabin were used.
The higher-level SL model now includes a DC quick-charging port as standard equipment. It had been an option added by virtually every buyer, so Nissan simply built it in from scratch. Quick charging (which is now available at only a very few stations nationwide) will recharge the battery to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes or so--if you happen to be near a rare quick charging station. That system, known as CHAdeMO, has not been accepted as an international standard, though discussions on defining a single international vehicle fast-charge standard are now underway.
The base 2012 Nissan Leaf SV model starts at $35,200, and comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, dual powered door mirros, LED headlights, a rear air deflector at the top of the tailgate, and chrome door handles. The more popular SL model, starting at $37,250, adds automatic headlights, a backup camera, and a small photovoltaic solar panel on the top of the tailgate air deflector that runs an interior ventilation fan to keep the cabin cool on sunny days.
Buyers will mostly qualify for the Federal income-tax credit of $7,500 for purchasing an electric car. Nissan also offers a $349/month lease on the car that gives the tax credit to the loaner, reducing paperwork for the buyer. Depending on where a Leaf buyer lives and works, other state, regional, and corporate incentives may be available as well.