Preview Drive: 2011 Nissan LEAF EV Prototype

December 11, 2009
2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

High Gear Media has at last driven the 2011 Nissan LEAF electric car.

Okay, admittedly it's a stretch to say that we actually drove the LEAF, but we did take a quick spin in a vehicle that demonstrates, according to Nissan, how the LEAF will perform and feel behind the wheel.

In an unusual—and brave—move, Nissan is taking an engineering mule on a national tour, targeting hardcore EV enthusiasts, policymakers, and EV infrastructure people along the way. While creating a buzz for the production form of the LEAF, set to arrive next fall, is the primary goal, Nissan is clearly taking notes on how to tune and package the vehicle in its final form.

Alongside it sits the nearly cosmetically final (but not quite mechanically ready) version of the real thing. The LEAF itself is very attractive in person; the photos that have been sent around just don’t do the proportions justice. The LEAF’s snout has the sci-fi, space-ship character to suit the car’s techy appeal, with drawn back headlights and an aerodynamically optimized yet sharp look, while the swoop of the rear flanks is unexpectedly sporty, almost voluptuous, in person, with a pronounced hot-hatch look from some angles in back. If Infiniti were to sell a vehicle derived from the Versa, this is how it would look.

And so it was that the mule we drove was actually a Versa five-door hatchback in appearance—inside and out—with few differences. If you overlook the "Zero Emission EV-12" logos and "test car" labeling on the vehicle, along with the unusual black-and-white two-tone paint and black-and-white spoked wheels, it was really just a Versa.

Of course that all changes as soon as you turn on the ignition, check the charge indicator, put the little Prius-style shift lever into 'D', and lift the brake. This mule does have a bit of brake creep, and Nissan is likely to keep the creep in the production form of the LEAF. As we eased into the throttle, we instantly noticed that there was very little of the high-pitched whine we've come to expect, to some degree, from inside the cabin of nearly every electric vehicle we've tested before—including the Mini E. Nissan has clearly worked to mute that in this Versa mule, let alone the LEAF.

The weight of this test version is "in the ballpark" of the weight of the final-spec LEAF—roughly the 3,300-3,500-pound range. And we were, literally, in a ballpark—the event parking lot of Seattle's Qwest field.

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

Nissan LEAF

Nissan LEAF

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

Easy to drive…in a parking lot

As with some of our colleagues who got a chance to drive the mule a couple of weeks ago in Los Angeles (at Dodger Stadium—notice a trend?), our actual time behind the wheel was extremely limited—just a couple of minutes—with the total course length just over a quarter of a mile. But we got the chance to hustle the front-drive LEAF prototype through a tight coned-off S-curve at 20 to 25 miles per hour and found that the steering was responsive but not at all like that of a sports car. Slowing down for a tighter corner, we noticed that Nissan hasn't dialed up the regenerative braking as aggressively as it could have; the LEAF—again, at least in prototype form—carries its momentum, at least at low speeds, like an automatic-transmission vehicle. Throttle and brake response felt spot-on in the test mule, and the brake pedal had a good feel but wasn’t grabby. The Mini E, for instance, has a more aggressive regen calibration that takes a little getting used to. You could step from a gasoline vehicle right into this and still be smooth, so that’s probably the goal.

Of course, a low-speed course like the one we drove shows off the better points of an all-electric powertrain like the LEAF’s. Although we observed plenty of torque from 5 to 30 mph in momentary wide-open acceleration, EVs typically aren’t quite as perky at Interstate speeds and we can’t yet say how it might fare as a freeway commuter. We only hit 35 mph briefly, but top speed for the LEAF will be 90 mph, with 0-60 times in the ten-second range, likely.

The vast underfloor-mounted battery pack, developed by a joint venture with partner NEC, has a relatively small 24 kWh capacity (made up of 48 separate modules about the size of a hefty hardcover book)—and thus weighs around 400 pounds—but Nissan says that should be enough to drive 100 miles on a full charge. Just under a small cover at the snout of the car are two charging interfaces—one for home charging, the other for a quick-charging system. Although their was some conflicting information at the event as to how close the battery pack was to final form, Nissan was clearly not getting anything close to that range in this low-speed course. Now would be the time to tell you that we drove the LEAF in record low temperatures for Seattle—a crisp and sunny 30 degrees. To anyone who’s familiar with car batteries weakened by cold, the same thing happens to some degree even on modern lithium-ion packs.

Although our drive was too short to make any grand statements or pronounce the LEAF a winner, Nissan is poised to be the first with a mass-market EV, and that alone is creating quite a buzz among green-car fans.

Nissan wouldn't let us actually sit in the cosmetically final LEAF; we did lean inside and take note of the instrument panel, which contained a Honda-like two-tier gauge display, plus a clean center-console design with a nav/infotainment screen, plus buttons for preheating and precooling, useful features that will allow users to bring the LEAF to temperature while it’s still plugged into a charging station, thus using less battery power. Although the coarse, velvety upholstery in the LEAF is a little plain-looking, it's made of recycled plastic bottles and home appliances.

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

2011 Nissan LEAF prototype

Nissan betting its future

If you want to be one of the first people to drive a LEAF, you'd best get in line now; Nissan will begin taking reservations in spring 2010 for the LEAF and says that about 22,000 have already expressed interest. They hope to confirm at least 20,000 reservations with purchase commitments by the time the first of 5,000 trial LEAFs are delivered late next year.

Expect LEAF pricing to land in the $28k to $35k range (though the battery pack will be leased), according to Nissan, with an upgraded 6.6 kW charger optional initially. A $7,500 federal tax credit will apply; in addition, federal tax credits apply to home charger installation, along with home infrastructure modifications required for the charger. And as icing on the cake, some states (Washington is one) are waiving sales tax on electric vehicles.

The strongest responses for LEAF so far, according to Nissan, have been in San Diego, Tucson, Seattle, Portland, and Los Angeles. The initial 5,000-vehicle trial will be offered in select cities—these markets included—under a special electric-vehicle infrastructure agreement between Nissan, local governments. An official for eTec, the company that Nissan is working with for charger installation, estimates that the typical home charger installation will cost $1,200 to $1,500. The charger hardware itself costs less than $1,000 for home chargers, but the arrangement with eTec will also include the installation of 250 three-phase fast chargers, strategically located in the LEAF trial regions but open for use by all EVs.

Nissan is betting a lot of its future on the mass production of the LEAF, which will only be the first of several electric cars. The LEAF will be a global electric car; Nissan has made a commitment to produce the vehicle and lithium-ion batteries at a plant in Tennessee, and also plans in the not-so-distant future to ramp up production at a plant in Europe, along with more battery production in Portugal and the U.K.

2019
The Car Connection
See the winners »
2019
The Car Connection
Commenting is closed for this article
 
Ratings and Reviews
Rate and review your car for The Car Connection
Review your car
The Car Connection Daily Headlines
I agree to receive emails from the site. I can withdraw my consent at any time by unsubscribing.
Thank you! Please check your email for confirmation.