- First all-electric car from a major carmaker
- Iconic styling
- Multiple incentives, $350 lease
- Smooth, quiet electric power
- Seats five, unlike four-seat Volt
- 100-mile range
- Uninspiring steering and handling
- Knees-up rear seating
- Cargo floor not flat, interrupted by charger
features & specs
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first all-electric car from a major carmaker; if you can live with a 100-mile range, it's the greenest car on the market.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the first production electric car to be sold by a major automaker in more than 80 years. It has a striking design that's every bit as groundbreaking and modern as the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid was in its day; it's easy to drive; seats four people comfortably and five adequately; and is priced quite aggressively, considering its pioneering nature.
Unlike the range-extended electric 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 Leaf is a pure battery electric vehicle. It is powered solely by grid electricity, which charges its 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.
At the haunches, the Leaf departs from the usual hatchback in the most striking ways. There's a shapely swell around the back of the rear wheels, and a vertical taillight rib that glows with LED precision on braking. It's a very light, everyday take on the "car of the future" that happens to blend in seamlessly with other Nissans, from the Versa up to the Infiniti G37. Hardcore fans will be able to tell Leaf SL models from the base variety, thanks to the small solar panel on the rear spoiler and other minor cues.
Normally, we'd talk about horsepower, cylinder counts, and transmissions. With the 2011 Leaf, it's all about kilowatts and driving range. The Leaf uses proprietary batteries co-developed between Nissan and NEC, and mounted between the wheels under its floor. The batteries put out more than 90 kilowatts of power, and the electric motor turns out 80 kilowatts—which gives this roughly 3200-pound hatchback the ability to scoot to 60 mph in under 10 seconds. In an act of battery preservation, the top speed is capped at 90 mph.
The iPhone generation will be pleased to know that charge management can be handled by their magic devices. Nissan is developing an app that will let drivers ping their car and check on remaining mileage, set timers for charging or to set the timer to kick in the climate controls.
The one huge question over the Leaf is its range. Nissan quotes a range of 60 to 120 miles—and that's well within the daily-driving needs of most U.S. commuters—but many market analysts believe that U.S. buyers simply won't accept a car they can't drive several hundred miles.
Will U.S. buyers get comfortable buying cars that can't go from San Francisco to Sacramento and back without a multi-hour recharge? We won't know the answer for several years.
Meanwhile, the 2011 Nissan Leaf is here, it's real, it offers modern conveniences just like any other car, and we think it offers an excellent demonstration of how appealing and competitive plug-in cars can be.
The smart folks who pre-registered for the $32,780 2011 Leaf (which qualifies for a $7500 Federal tax credit, along with many state tax and driving incentives) in five regions (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii) will have a chance to firm up orders and start to take delivery of cars by December of 2010. Availability will be phased in for other regions of the country over the next year.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf will accept electricity from either a 110-volt, a 240-volt or a 440-volt plug—but the first is the only one you're likely to have available in your home, or on the road on a moment's notice. Part of the Leaf program includes a home visit from Nissan contractors to set you up for Leaf ownership with a 240-volt charging station. And frankly, part of the visionary plan is for the rest of the world to chime in and come up with up to 10,000 240-volt charging points and up to 250 440-volt quick-charge points in the next 18 months.
It's like rebuilding the oil infrastructure, to some degree—and it defines the Leaf driving experience in almost every way. For one, you'll want to start out the driving experience with a fully charged battery—to avoid the "range anxiety" that GM will use as a bludgeon to beat down the Leaf and try to convert green-car buyers to its range-extended 2011 Chevy Volt, which has a backup gas-powered engine to charge its batteries. Range anxiety means always wondering exactly how many miles more you can drive, and it's first and foremost the message of the Leaf, from the moment you press that power button and glide smoothly up to speed.
2011 Nissan Leaf
The 2011 Nissan Leaf succeeds in looking both iconic, yet sleek and sporty; it fits right in with the rest of the Nissan/Infiniti lineup, too.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's exterior design is distinctive, even polarizing. Like the 2004 Toyota Prius hybrid in its day, the Leaf doesn't look quite like anything else on the road. Nissan said its stylists went "right up to the edge of unusual," but tried to keep the car "iconic but not weird."
The lines are rounded, but with a few subtle clues that this is a different kind of car. Without a tall radiator or engine under the hood, for instance, the entire nose can taper down. And no grille opening disturbs the sweep of the body back from the front bumper; instead, there's a hatch under the Nissan logo that opens for access to the recharging ports. The swept-back headlights actually bulge into vertical fins that sit proud of the hood and fender surface to channel and direct airflow past the door mirrors. It's all in the interests of reducing air turbulence, to cut the aerodynamic drag that reduces battery range at higher speeds. Nissan quotes a drag coefficient of 0.29.
Moving from front to rear, the side doors are probably the most conventionally styled part of the Nissan Leaf. At the rear, the hatch is almost a hexagon, with tall vertical tail lamps along its upper sides.
Colors available include one unique to the Leaf, known as Blue Ocean, which Nissan expects to be 30 percent of the total based on early orders. Beyond that, in order of popularity, are silver, white, red, and black. We think the Leaf looks particularly striking in red.
Inside, the Leaf is somewhat less radical, though in some ways, its economy car roots are more evident. (It's built on a heavily adapted platform from the company's Versa compact, though the Leaf is larger, with a wheelbase 6 inches longer and a wider track to accommodate the battery pack in the floor.)
If you ended up in the driver's seat of a Leaf without seeing the outside first, you wouldn't know on first glance it was electric--until, perhaps, you noticed that there's no "shift lever." Instead, the mode selector is a mouse-shaped object on the tunnel--with a "P" (for Parking) button on top--that you pull back and left once for Drive, and again for Eco mode.
2011 Nissan Leaf
The 2011 Nissan Leaf performs well enough, but it's not inspiring to drive.
Gentle acceleration in any car conserves energy and increases range, but in an electric car, the challenge of "refilling" means that economic driving habits are more important.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf's 80-kilowatt electric motor will accelerate briskly if you ask it to, but you have to press the accelerator fairly far down to do so--unlike modern gasoline cars, whose accelerators often feel tuned for stoplight drag racing.
Assuming you press hard enough, the Leaf offers sufficient torque for passing at speeds of 40 to 70 mph, the kind of situation you might encounter if you were merging onto a freeway along an uphill entrance ramp and you had to change lanes to avoid a fast-approaching car.
The Eco mode, however, is no fun at all. Nissan says it cuts acceleration ten percent, but it feels like more. The regenerative braking also increases, but the hit to acceleration is significant. If a driver floors the accelerator in an emergency, however, the car will override Eco mode temporarily.
The Leaf provides a 0-to-60-mph time of around seven seconds, and Nissan quotes a top speed of 90 miles per hour. A few test drivers observed 94 mph on the speedometer, but given the vastly increased energy to propel a car at 90 mph versus 60 mph, it's a range-sapping exercise that most drivers will likely avoid.
Handling and roadholding on our pre-production model was good, if not exceptional. The car will understeer through hard corners, if pushed, but it's not particularly rewarding to push. The electric steering is light and somewhat numb. While it has an adequate return action, it seems to exert the same return-to-center force regardless of how far off center it is. And tossing the Leaf around on twisty roads reveals the basic physics: It's a tall car riding on fairly small tires, with most of its 3,600 pounds of mass quite low in the 600-pound battery. Body roll isn't bad, but this is not a sports car by any means.
One surprising experience: The 2011 Leaf is more sensitive to buffeting by side winds than any other car we've driven recently, including some tall crossovers.
On the other hand, at 17 feet, the turning circle is exceptionally tight for a front-wheel-drive car. It's one advantage of not having and engine-and-transmission package up under the hood: the front wheel wells could be pulled further into the center of the vehicle for better turning radius.
The steering feel is very light, and the regenerative braking doesn't make much notice of itself at all. It's markedly different from the acceleration in, say, the Tesla Roadster; pull off the accelerator pedal and the Tesla begins to back down quite quickly, relieving almost any use of the brakes in normal city driving. With the Leaf, you'll certainly need the brakes more frequently, though at the speeds of less than 60 mph we were able to reach in city traffic, it's nothing more than a mild tap.
At higher speeds, the steering firms up a bit, and the Leaf begins to feel a little less perky—which underscores the fact that the new crop of electric cars aren't vehicles you'd want to drive cross-country. Not only is charging a constant issue, but driving faster than 60 mph costs even more in driving range. And improving that means either new-age batteries with much better energy density—or simply, plenty more batteries, which kills the vehicle's optimization.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Comfort & Quality
Smart navigation system aside, the interior is basic and serviceable but far from luxurious.
The seats, upholstered in a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, are comfortable, and headroom is ample. To cut current draw, the seats are manually adjustable, but mirrors, windows, and locks are all electrically operated. While the steering wheel adjusts for tilt, it does not telescope (unlike that of the Chevrolet Volt, which does).
Rear-seat passengers (including those well over 6 feet tall) sit high, with the seat cushion above a portion of the battery pack. But because part of the pack is in the floorboards below their feet, their knees will be higher than the seat position might indicate.
Interior volume is substantial. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls the Leaf a midsize car, based on its 113 cubic feet of interior space. That puts it in the same category as cars from the Toyota Prius to the Chevrolet Malibu.
Because the Leaf will inevitably be compared to the Volt, we can say that its interior looks and feels less luxurious. That's not in any way a knock on the Leaf; it simply reflects the car's more straightforward approach.
While the split rear seatback folds down, the Leaf does not offer a flat floor in the cargo area. Instead, the onboard 3.3-kilowatt recharger is housed in a box several inches tall that stretches from wheelwell to wheelwell across the middle of the deck.
The LCD navigation screen dominates the center stack and instrument panel, making it feel a bit like a piece of electronics hardware, but the sense of spaciousness in the cabin remains intact thanks to a low storage bin under the navigation controls, and thanks to a velvety upholstery material that's made of recycled plastic bottles and home appliances.
The gray molded headliner, which looks to be covered in the soft-touch nap informally called "teddy-bear fur," is actually hard to the touch and deflects easily—a sign of the focus on weight saving to maximize range.
The central issue in electric cars, it turns out, has always been noise. Relieve the car of its noisy internal-combustion engine, and all sorts of other sounds creep into the cabin. With the Leaf, the patter of tires slapping on pavement starts right away, turning into a low boom at 30 mph or more. There's also a bubbly, whispery whir that Nissan's programmed into the Leaf to warn visually impaired pedestrians that an EV is coming—and maybe like us, the first time you hear it you'll start singing the Jetsons theme song in your head, too. (And there's a fairly commonplace beep when the Leaf rolls in reverse, but it doesn't remind us of anything except the insipid backup tone in our Prius.)
The Leaf produced a little more wind noise than we'd expected, and a slight but discernible motor whine that was entirely absent in the Volt. At freeway speeds, wind whistle is evident. Overall, the Leaf's sweet spot for silent operation appears to be around 40 miles per hour, where it is almost eerily silent.
2011 Nissan Leaf
The 2011 Leaf is an all-new vehicle, but its global design and full feature set are promising.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf comes with six airbags: front and side bags for the front passengers, and side-curtain bags that cover the length of the front and rear side window openings.
Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has released crash-test ratings for the Leaf.
And while Nissan believes it knows how the Leaf will do on the newly stringent test procedures for 2011 cars, it isn't sharing those expectations. It will wait for the official ratings to be released, which it hopes will take place within a few months.
It did note that the battery pack suffered no damage in its own 40-mph side offset crash tests. Other Nissan Leaf safety systems include standard anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, traction control, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Nissan has kept the option list short and simple, but everything you need for around-town use is included.
In the past decade, the world's grown used to charging cell phones, laptop computers and other devices, after all, so plugging the car in overnight might not be such a alien concept.
Nissan makes the idea of charging the Leaf—as well as figuring out the charge remaining—as easy as possible. The heart of the Leaf's drivetrain may be its batteries, but the brain lives in its standard navigation and battery management center. What looks like an ordinary LCD panel for GPS information also displays all the tools drivers will need to help keep a charge in their Leaf, whether at home or on the road. Ahead of the driver, the sculpted dash gets that LCD readout, which contains all the driving information in a fairly digestible way. There's no glowing-blue indication you're driving in fuel-saving mode as in a Honda CR-Z, but there's a leaf icon atop the instrument panel in a separate LCD screen along with readouts for vehicle speed and other functions.
The shifter knob's countersunk into the center console, and an encircled P is pretty much your only hint that its function is somewhat related to forward propulsion. Thankfully, we're all getting used to pushbutton start—otherwise you'd wonder exactly what to do with the Leaf's fob and where to look for the opaque start button that sits down near your right knee. With a tap on the power button, and a gentle tug left and down on the drive controller, I pulled out of San Jose's Santana Row in almost pure silence, into one vision of the future.
The system has more esoteric functions available for pure EV geeks. Owners will be able to disable climate control, for example—and a page will show them how many more miles they're enabling by saving power. It's not quite as direct as the glowing red and blue gauges on a Ford Fusion Hybrid or a Honda CR-Z, but Nissan says these functions will teach newbie EV drivers to extract the maximum mileage from their new cars.
From the same system, drivers can program the Leaf to recharge when power rates are cheap. The system also will set timers for the car to be pre-warmed or cooled for drivers without consuming battery energy. Instead, the Leaf will tap the grid to bring the car to a comfortable temperature. On top of that, Nissan will offer a heated steering wheel and seats, because it believes those warming sensations are psychologically more important than heating or cooling the entire cabin.
Then there's the instrument panel itself, which has digital gauges visible through the steering wheel, a small "eyebrow" panel above them that includes a digital speedometer, a clock, and a thermometer, and then a large rectangular information display panel in the center of the dash.
Among other functions, the Leaf's navigation system will calculate your range and show you a map with the areas you can drive to clearly highlighted. And if you start to get close to emptying the pack, at 4 kWh remaining, it will also calculate how far you are from the nearest recharge point. The system also displays energy usage, range remaining, and how it is affected by the electric load from the climate control and all other subsystems. You can watch available range go down when you turn on the air conditioning, for example, and then watch it rise again when you turn it off.
The system can also be controlled by a special app on smart phones that will let you pre-heat or pre-cool the cabin while the car is still plugged in, saving battery pack energy for actual travel. Charging time can also be controlled remotely, and if the car stops charging, you can be alerted. Nissan stresses that these functions will work on any web-enabled phone, not just the latest smart phones running apps built for them.
And with respect to more traditional features, the 2011 Nissan Leaf has plenty of them. Inside, cruise control is standard, along with an intelligent key and push-button ignition, Bluetooth hands-free phone connection, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. And, of course, the smart navigation system.
The base model, with a price of $32,780, includes 16-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, dual power mirrors, chrome door handles, and a rear air deflector over the liftgate. The SL model adds a backup camera, automatic headlights, and a photovoltaic solar panel atop the rear window air deflector. Based on early orders, Nissan expects that 75 to 80 percent of 2011 Leafs will be sold as SL models, for an additional $940.
Available on the SL model only, there is also a $700 option for a Japanese high-voltage fast-charge outlet for which there are presently almost no chargers in the U.S. That system, known as Chademo, is not now accepted as an international standard, though discussions on defining a single international vehicle fast-charge standard are now underway.
A winter package will be offered when the Leaf is rolled out in cold-weather regions roughly a year hence. That package, consisting of heated front seats and a heated steering wheel, has not yet been priced. It is designed to keep a driver and front passenger comfortable using far less battery energy than full cabin heating.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Powered solely by grid electricity, the 2011 Nissan Leaf likely has the lowest carbon footprint of any car sold in the U.S. this year.
As the only mass-produced passenger car on the market that's powered entirely by electricity—with no engine, no fuel tank, and no tailpipe—the 2011 Nissan Leaf is arguably the cleanest, greenest car on the market, with the lowest carbon footprint, if you're looking only at energy used. Unlike the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, which only goes about 40 miles then runs on gasoline, with the Leaf you have to closely watch how far you drive on a charge.
Electricity for charging costs far less than gasoline, but how much greener electricity is depends on where you charge up. If your electricity comes from the oldest, dirtiest coal plants, then it's not a solid step forward; but if it's from wind farms and nuclear plants, then you're probably doing your environment a favor.
The Leaf takes about 14 hours to charge with a 220-volt charger, possible around heavy-duty appliance outlets.