One of the first things you notice when you walk around the 2011 Nissan Leaf is that there’s no tailpipe. The next thing you notice is that it is otherwise pretty familiar, which is exactly what Nissan is striving for. A different sort of vehicle that is too different would only confound potential consumers.
It’s a quirky looking hatchback, but still within the established bounds of hatchback cute. It rides and handles nicely enough, offers plenty of interior space and has a few futuristic design touches (like the stubby, blue-lit, mouse-inspired shifter, and the surprisingly soft seat fabric made from recycled pop bottles).
Because the car operates silently, engineers had to take care to diminish other noises that were suddenly too loud – noises that exist in all cars but are masked by the sound coming out of the engine bay. For instance, there was wind noise around the mirrors that was dealt with by designing long, striking (patent-pending) LED headlights that split airflow around the mirrors and direct it up and over the A-pillars.
They also programmed in a few muted sounds where necessary, such as pedestrian warning that kicks in at low speeds, but isn’t audible from inside.
To keep features such as heat from draining the battery, solar panels on top of the tailgate run some of the accessories, and the heating and air can be timed to come on automatically, programmed online or through your Smartphone.
Leaf has a range of about 160 km when fully charged. The 24 kWh lithium-ion battery is charged via a plug under the logo on the hood: level 1, a trickle charge at 110 v takes about 20 hours; level 2, a normal charge at 220 v takes eight hours; and level 3, a quick, DC-only 50 kW charge that is not yet widely available, can be accomplished to about 80% power in half an hour.
With 207 lb.-ft. of torque right from the get-go, it gets up to about 40 km/h as well as many V6s, power at higher speeds is adequate, much as any four-cylinder.
Engineers did some considerable tinkering with the software controls to get the acceleration to behave consistently. Braking dynamics are familiar, though a bit sensitive.
Because the battery is housed in the floor and the weight distribution nearly 50/50, it handles nicely. The seats are comfortable but barely bolstered, and taking a corner particularly aggressively can give you some body roll, but it isn’t the way such a car is meant to be driven.
There is plenty of legroom and headroom everywhere, but realistically this is a four-person vehicle – no averaged-sized adult is going to want to be sitting in the centre at the back.
Among its gauge cluster is an eco-metre (tree-shaped, natch) that lets you know how ecologically sound your driving is, as well, the power gauge that lets you know how much range you have left adjusts to your driving style.
The dash does feature a good dollop of hard plastic, but its swoopy organic shape takes the edge off and makes it more attractive than it should be.
There are still issues to be ironed out – you could drive it to work on a blustery day, park it outside at your office, and return to it eight hours later to find half your range gone. A cold weather package including heated seats (front and rear) and steering wheel will be standard in Canadian Leafs (Leaves?)
All of Nissan’s factory-capacity 20,000 Leafs for the first year have been spoken for south of the border (where Leaf arrives in winter 2010). American buyers are paying just under $33,000, but Canadian prices have not been announced yet.
Even though it comes well equipped, that’s still a big chunk of change for a small hatch, were it your garden-variety small hatch. But it’s not.
Fact File 2011 Nissan Leaf
Trim levels: SV,SL
Notable options: Quick charge port
Configuration: front motor/Front wheel drive
Motor: 80 kW AC synchronous
Transmission: single speed reducer w/shift-by-wire drive selector
Power/torque: 107 hp/207 lb.-ft
Battery: 24 kWh lithium-ion
Warranties: Exp. 3 years/60,000 km (basic), 8 years/160,000 km on battery pack.
Competitors: Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Strengths: no more stops for gas like many small hatchbacks, looks cool
Weaknesses: lack of infra-structure; questionable cold weather performance; no flat load floor for cargo
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