- First "real" battery electric car built in volume
- Distinctive and futuristic design
- Quiet, smooth electric drive
- Room for five, unlike four-seat Volt
- Multiple financial incentives to own
- Range of only 70 to 100 miles
- Steering and handling are uninspiring
- Rear seats require knees-up position
- Charger lump interrupts cargo floor
The 2012 Nissan Leaf is, quite simply, the first battery electric vehicle built in volume by any major carmaker; if you can get comfortable with its range of 70 to 100 miles, it's the greenest car you can buy.
Now in its second model year, the 2012 Nissan Leaf was the first battery electric vehicle to be built in volume and sold by a major automaker in many decades. The five-door compact hatchback has a striking look that's as pioneering and modern as the Toyota Prius hybrid was in its day. The Leaf is easy to drive, provides comfortable space for four and accommodates five when needed, and costs perhaps one-third to one-quarter as much per mile to operate as a gasoline car--assuming you can afford the higher initial cost.
The 2012 Leaf's design evolves the five-door hatchback form in some striking ways. The taillights are mounted high up and vertically, containing a rib filled with red LED brake lights. The body swells around the rear wheels, and rather than a grille to admit air into the radiator it doesn't have, the Leaf has a cover in the center of the nose that opens to give access to its charging ports. Leaf fans will be able to distinguish cars with the SL trim level from the SV base model by their small solar panel on the roof spoiler at the top of the tailgate.
Rather than an engine with some number of cylinders and a power output in horsepower, the Leaf is propelled by an electric motor driving the front wheels and rated in kilowatts of output. The motor puts out 80 kw (107 hp), which propels the 3200-pound car from 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds. Top speed is capped at 90 mph. Its steering is numb and the roadholding and handling are competent rather than inspiring, though it all works just fine.
Unlike the car to which it's often compared, the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, the 2012 Leaf runs solely on battery power--it does not have the Volt's range-extending gasoline engine. The 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is built into the Leaf's floor and recharges by plugging it into the electric grid, using either standard 120-Volt power or a charging station that operates at 240 Volts. Recharging time for a fully depleted pack is 7 to 10 hours with the charging station, and double that on standard power. Part of Leaf purchase includes a visit from a contractor, arranged via your Nissan dealer, to assess what will be necessary to install a 240-Volt charging station in your garage.
Befitting its advanced technology, the Leaf lets owners manage charging, advance cabin heating and cooling, and other vehicle functions from their mobile phones. They can set times for charging, check charge progress, and have the car tell them its estimated range at any given moment.
But it's that range that is the biggest question hanging over the 2012 Nissan Leaf. The EPA gives the Leaf a range of 73 miles, and Nissan says it's "up to 100 miles," but industry analysts are skeptical that the bulk of U.S. buyers will accept a car without at least 200 miles of range. Most Leafs are expected to be the second or third car in their household, though electric-car drivers report that their "range anxiety" abates within a few weeks, as they get comfortable with and grow confident in their cars. Most owners will recharge overnight, perhaps "topping up" their battery at charging points at work or at retail outlets.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Nissan Leaf is on the market and thousands of U.S. buyers remain on waiting lists as its maker rolls it out to more regions in the U.S. beyond the largely coastal areas it launched in last year (Portland, San Diego, Phoenix, eastern Tennessee and Hawaii). Nissan plans to expand U.S. Leaf sales into several Southeastern states and Illinois this year.
For 2012, Nissan added the optional winter package as standard equipment on all Leafs, including electric warming for the battery pack, heated front and rear seats, and even a heated steering wheel. For the higher-level SL model, it added a DC quick-charging port as standard equipment (previously optional), which allows an 80-percent battery recharge in 30 minutes at rare public DC charging stations.
Along with the upgrades came higher prices, unfortunately. The base 2012 Nissan Leaf starts at $35,200, and the Leaf SL model at $37,250. Most owners are likely to qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for purchase of an electric car, though Nissan also offers a $349 monthly lease on the car that wraps the tax credit into the price. Additional regional and corporate incentives may be available as well.
You could view the 2012 Nissan Leaf as the first vehicle for a new century of electric cars. It's on the market now, it's fully a "real car" with modern features and conveniences, and it gets high safety ratings from the usual agencies. It offers an excellent demonstration why plug-in cars have a bright future--though it will take decades for plug-in cars to become a noticeable fraction of the 1 billion vehicles on the planet, and we'll not likely see the "end of gasoline" in any of our lifetimes.
2012 Nissan Leaf
The styling of the 2012 Nissan Leaf gives it an iconic shape, but also one that's aerodynamic and almost sporty, and it has set a direction for the rest of the Nissan line.
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.
2012 Nissan Leaf
The 2012 Nissan Leaf is hardly inspiring to drive, but it performs fine and is every bit a "real car"--not the golf cart that some people perceive electric cars to be.
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.
2012 Nissan Leaf
Comfort & Quality
The 2012 Nissan Leaf has a smartly designed interior, but it's not exactly luxurious.
The 2012 Nissan Leaf electric car offers comfortable seats, with ample headroom front and rear. Rear-seat passengers sit high, since a portion of the battery pack is under their seat cushion, but their knees are also high because part of the pack is built into the floorpan.
There's a lot of space inside the Leaf, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines as a mid-size car based on its interior volume of 113 cubic feet. For what it's worth, the Toyota Prius hybrid is also a five-door hatchback that's considered a mid-size.
The seats are upholstered in a velvety fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, and they're manually adjustable to avoid using electricity to move them forward and back, up and down. The headliner, covered in the soft nap often known as "teddy-bear fur," is actually a hard but thin molding that moves easily when touched--a demonstration of Nissan's relentless focus on weight savings to stretch driving range.
The steering wheel tilts but, unlike that of the Chevy Volt, does not telescope as well. The rear seat-back folds down, but the load floor isn't flat due to the box containing the car's onboard 3.3-kilowatt charger, which runs side to side between the rear wheels and protrudes several inches above the floor.
Compared (inevitably) to the Volt, the Leaf's interior looks and feels more basic. It's far from unacceptable; it's simply a bit more straightforward and appliance-like than the stylish and unexpectedly luxurious Volt. The LCD navigation screen is the main element of the center stack, above a low storage bin.
In the Leaf, because the electric drive motor is so quiet and there are no engine or transmission noises to mask other sounds, tire noise is evident at any speed. It turns into a low roar by 30 mph. Nissan has built a whispery, bubbly whirring noise that is broadcast by the Leaf to the outside at low speeds to warn pedestrians that this otherwise silent electric car is coming. The car also beeps when the driver puts it in reverse.
Overall, the Leaf was slightly noisier inside than we had expected, given its electric drive. There was also a low but noticeable motor whine that was completely absent in the Chevy Volt. The Nissan Leaf's best speed, we concluded, is around 40 mph, where it's almost eerily silent.
2012 Nissan Leaf
The 2012 Nissan Leaf offers top-drawer safety, according to crash-test scores.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have both given the 2012 Nissan Leaf top ratings for safety. The NHTSA rated the Leaf at five stars, and the IIHS deemed it a Top Safety Pick, for its performance in a variety of crash tests.
In the company's own tests, its lithium-ion battery pack suffered no damage in its 40-mph side offset crashes, and like any major carmaker, Nissan will have crashed dozens if not hundreds of prototype Leafs to ensure that every possible kind of accident is covered.
The 2012 Leaf comes with six airbags: for front-seat riders, there are bags in the dashboard and the sides of the car, as well as side-curtain airbags that cover the entire window area front and rear.
The Leaf also has the standard array of electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, braking assist, traction control, and a monitoring system for the pressure in all four tires.
2012 Nissan Leaf
The 2012 Nissan Leaf includes as standard the formerly optional winter package, a boon for those who may drive in cold weather; otherwise, options are few and the car comes suitably equipped.
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.
2012 Nissan Leaf
The 2012 Nissan Leaf, which runs entirely on electricity from the grid, has one of the very lowest carbon footprints of any vehicle sold.
In its second year on the market, the 2012 Nissan Leaf is no longer the only battery electric vehicle. New entries from Mitsubishi and Ford, with others on the way, mean that at last we'll be able to compare the efficiency of plug-in vehicles of different sizes, shapes, and performance ratings.
But as it's powered solely by electricity—with no engine, no fuel tank, and no tailpipe—the 2012 Nissan Leaf is one of the cleanest, greenest cars you can buy. Unlike the 2012 Chevrolet Volt or Fisker Karma, with their range-extending gasoline engines, the Leaf uses only wall current to provide the power that turns the wheels and recharges its battery pack.
The EPA rates the 2012 Leaf at 99 MPGe, slightly better than the 94 MPGe rating for the Chevy Volt when it's running on its battery pack. The MPGe, or "Miles Per Gallon Equivalent," is a measure of energy efficiency meant to convey how far a vehicle can travel electrically on the amount of stored battery energy that represents the energy contained in a single gallon of gasoline.
While a mile run on electricity is usually far cheaper than a mile driven on gasoline, the difference varies considerably with the price per kilowatt-hour of electricity where the car is recharged. How much greener a Leaf is depends on the source of the energy used to create the electricity. A Leaf driven on power from the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants is still cleaner--on a "wells-to-wheels" carbon basis--than the average 25-mpg vehicle. Move up to the 50 mpg of a Toyota Prius, however, and in a small handful of areas (West Virginia and North Dakota are two with exceptionally dirty power, for instance), burning the gasoline in a Prius turns out to be slightly better overall.
The Leaf takes 7 to 10 hours to recharge a fully depleted lithium-ion battery pack if you've installed a 240-Volt charging station, which your Nissan dealer will help you arrange and purchase. On standard 110-Volt household current, a recharge can take up to 20 hours.