In any electric car, driving habits matter far more than in gasoline cars, because the amount of energy stored in the battery pack is much less than that in a normal gasoline tank. Gentle acceleration, coasting to a stop, and planning ahead to avoid hard braking or flooring the accelerator are all necessary to maximize range.
Tapping the Start button near the driver's right knee and pushing the mouse-like Drive Mode Indicator on the console left and down gets the Leaf underway. The Leaf pulls away in pure silence.
The 80-kilowatt motor that powers the 2012 Leaf's front wheels will accelerate briskly when asked to, but it requires you push hard on the "gas" pedal. That's a different experience to most gasoline cars, which often provide half or more of their maximum power in the first inch or two of accelerator motion.
Push hard enough, and you'll have the torque you need for passing in the crucial 40-to-70-mph range. It's not the single fastest car in which we've ever merged onto a fast-moving freeway, but if you boot it hard enough, it'll keep up and get you into the traffic flow safely. The 0-to-60-mph time is around 7 seconds.
We will note, however, that the more fuel-efficient Eco mode is simply no fun at all to drive. While Nissan claims it only cuts maximum acceleration by 10 percent, it feels like the loss is far higher. The Eco mode also dials up the regenerative braking. Thankfully, flooring the car temporarily overrides Eco mode for safety's sake.
Top speed is limited to 90 mph, although a few test drivers have noted speeds slightly higher than that. It's a huge hit to your range if you drive that fast, though, since the energy required to propel the car at 90 mph is far greater than that for 60 mph. And it points out that the Leaf's most comfortable duties may be as an around-town or suburban commuter car.
The Leaf's handling and roadholding are good, though hardly exceptional. Like so many cars, its electric steering is both light and numb, with little road feel and the same centering action regardless of how acutely the wheels are turned. Tossing the car around on winding roads reinforces its basic specifications: It's a tall, heavy car riding on relatively small tires, with most of its mass in the floorpan (where the battery is mounted). It doesn't exhibit too much body roll, but it's hardly a sports car either. It also seemed to be far more sensitive to side winds than virtually any other car we've driven, including so very tall crossovers.
One advantage of not having an engine and transmission up front: The turning circle is astoundingly tight for a front-wheel drive car, at just 17 feet.
The regenerative braking is well integrated, and feels much more like a conventional car than, say, the Tesla Roadster, which can be driven almost entirely on one pedal by using regen as the primary braking strategy. Below 60 mph, though, the brakes need only a mild tap to slow the Leaf down suitably.
Higher speeds increase steering effort, not to mention curbing acceleration, meaning that high-speed travel feels breathless. You wouldn't want to try to drive a Leaf cross-country, even if you did have enough time to wait for the many, many recharging cycles you'd need.
Nonetheless, the Nissan Leaf is a car whose driving experience is sufficiently "normal" that it will win over some of the cynics and worriers who view plug-in and electric cars in the same alien vein as they do UFOs. The Leaf isn't hugely fun to drive, but it's competent, just as the Prius hybrid is. Except the Leaf won't use a drop of gasoline, ever.