Like the jaw-dropping 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid, the exterior styling of the 2012 Nissan Leaf is distinctive, and even polarizing to some. There's nothing quite like the Leaf on our roads, with a design that Nissan calls "right up to the edge of unusual"--though the company hastily adds that they wanted their first electric car to be "iconic, but not weird."
The nose tapers down because there's no radiator it must cover. There's no grille opening, just a center hatch with a big Nissan logo on it that's slightly larger than a gas door. It covers the recharging ports. The headlines sweep back into vertical fins that help channel air along the sides of the car, reducing aerodynamic drag for better battery range. Nissan says the drag coefficient is 0.29 (though different manufacturers test in different wind tunnels, so such figures are rarely useful for direct comparisons).
The side doors are fairly conventional, but at the rear, the hatch is almost hexagonal, with the tall tail lamps mounted vertically alongside the hatch opening from the waistline upward.
The Nissan Leaf comes in a variety of colors, including a unique Blue Ocean shade that's become the electric car's characteristic color. Nissan says 30 percent of Leafs will come in that shade, followed by silver, white, red, and black (in that order). Our red test car was particularly striking, though we'd recommend against black in warmer climates--the air conditioning load can really sap driving range.
The interior is rather less radical than the exterior styling, although there's no shift lever--just a mouse-shaped "driving mode selector" on the tunnel. Pull it back and left once to engage Drive, and again to switch to the energy-conserving Eco mode.
From the driver's seat, you might not know the Leaf was a battery electric vehicle. Its economy car roots (and some shared understructure with the Versa compact) are evident in the basic nature of some of the fittings. Nissan points out, though, that many moving parts--including the windshield wipers--had to be developed from scratch to be far quieter than their economy-car counterparts, because there is no engine noise to mask their sound.