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August 02, 2011

Finally Getting to Test-Drive a Nissan Leaf

The Leaf
Interested in test driving a plug-in electric vehicle? Nissan is touring the country with its Leaf, the first mass-produced fully electric vehicle, which emits no pollution from its tailpipe (because there is no tailpipe).  There are Leaf test-drive events nationwide (see here for upcoming events in 20+ cities, including those in DC, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis, and Memphis in the next few weeks).

This past weekend, there was a test-drive event in Boston near my home, so I finally got a chance to get behind the wheel of this ground-breaking new vehicle.

 

(Obviously that's just a short little video of the Leaf. If you want to see much more, check out this nine-minute video of my drive and conversation with my Leaf tour guide Abe Quigley.)

Though I have read or skimmed thousands of news articles about EVs, there is nothing like actually driving a car to get to know it better.  Here are some of the things that Abe shared with my tour group and then with me personally:

  • The Leaf is all-electric, which means it relies on electricity instead of gasoline to fuel it.  A fully charged Leaf goes between 70 and 130 miles per charge (depending on a range of factors).

  • It takes six to eight hours to fully charge a Leaf on a level 2 charger, which most consumers will either have installed at their homes or rely on at work or at public charging stations now being installed in many cities nationwide.

  • Leaf inside hoodThe Leaf has an AC motor and one gear, which means it doesn't need to shift; there is just park, drive, reverse, eco-mode, and neutral.

  • Nissan does not officially state how fast the Leaf accelerates, but at least one web site claims it goes 0-60 in a speedy seven seconds. 

  • The optional eco-mode mode reduces air conditioning, increases regenerative braking, and could increase your range by up to 10%.

 

  • The car is 95% recyclyable, and many components are from recycled materials, such as seat fabric from recycled water bottles.

  • Without having to replace the whole battery pack, Nissan says it's easy to replace one of the lithium ion battery cells on the Leaf if it gets damaged.  There is an eight-year/100,000 mile warranty on the whole battery pack.

  • Unlike with a cell phone, partial charging won't deplete the battery.  However, according to the Nissan web site, "like any battery, usage and age will lead to a gradual loss of capacity and will impact your driving range" over time.

  • The Leaf has no spare tire, sun roof, or power seats –these are heavy and would drain the battery, and Nissan decided that drivers would rather have a battery with a longer life than these amenities.

  • An iPhone ap has come out that allows you to remotely turn charging on/off, check the state of charge, turn heat or air conditioning on, unlock the car, and determine where nearby public charging stations are.  Similar aps are coming are becoming available for other hand-held devices. 

  • Price:  The 2011 model is $32,700 or $25,280 after the maximum federal tax credit.  The 2012 standard model is $35,200 or $27,700 after the federal tax credit. Some states have additional state tax credits that further reduce the price.

  • The 2012 model includes new quick-charging capacity (if/when you can find a quick charger) and cold weather features that are not part of the 2011 model.   The cold weather package include a battery warmer (that increases range), heated steering wheel, and heated front and rear seats.

What was my test-drive like?  It felt smooth, fun, and well –normal. My tour guide, a Product Specialist with Nissan and the affiliated event management company Products Plus, told me that some people who show up for test-drives mistakenly believe that the Leaf drives like a golf cart. With top highway speed of 90 miles per hour (of course I wouldn’t recommend that!), this is no golf cart.

Gina drivingIt's just like any other car on the road, except that there is no dependence on gasoline (or all the terrible and costly consequences that come with that dependence), you charge it with electricity, you press a button to turn it on, and there is no noise inside the cabin. 

Now, Nissan isn't quite right by claiming that the Leaf is a "zero emissions" vehicle because of course there are emissions associated with electricity needed to charge the vehicle.  However, even on today's electricity grid nationwide, EVs are cleaner to charge than traditional vehicles are to drive. 

The test drive event is an interactive experience.  After one of the products specialists gives a brief speech about the vehicle and shows you the battery pack, the charger, and what's under the hood of the vehicle, you get a chance to drive it yourself, and then you can spend as long as you like asking questions and plugging your own information about your driving patterns into computerized systems that tell you whether a Leaf might (or might not) be right for you. 

Abe said that the two biggest questions Leaf tour guides get asked are about range and battery costs. He told me that his experience showing off the Leaf varies by city.  In San Francisco, he said, he gets a lot of questions about emissions and the environmental benefits and impact of the car.  In Detroit, a lot of consumers want to know about how to save money through reduced fueling and maintenance costs.  In San Jose, he said he gets a lot of questions about the new technology employed in the vehicle.

People checking out Leaf I interviewed some of the other people who showed up for the Boston event.  Some said they were interested in the environmental benefits of the car, some said they wanted to save money on gas, some talked about oil independence, and some were eager to see this new technology first-hand (Boston is a big university town, and I could tell there were some professor-types on my tour asking needling questions about the technology behind the vehicle). 

One couple with whom I spoke said if they bought the Leaf, it would be a second car, while another said they'd be willing to have the Leaf be their only vehicle and just rent a gas-powered car for longer trips.  Some weren't sure if the Leaf was right for them, while others couldn't wait to get onto and the waitlist and start driving the vehicle.

 

Where and when can you purchase the Leaf? 

The Leaf has been sold to customers in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington, though many people in those states remain on waiting lists.  Last week, Nissan opened up the ordering process to consumers with existing reservations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. 

Photo 3 In the fall, Nissan will begin taking Leaf orders in Connecticut, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. By the end of the year, it will be available for order in Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island as well.  There is more information about the ordering process online.

I was told that if you put your name on a waiting list this fall (with a refundable $99 deposit), you can expect a four to seven month wait before being able to drive your Leaf off the lot.

Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Coda, Tesla, BMW, and GM have already, or will likely soon have similar test drive events for their plug-in models.  The Chevy Volt and several other GM models will be available for test-drives at the Main Street in Motion events coming up in San Diego, Houston, St. Petersburg (FL), Maryland Heights (MO), Arlington Heights (IL), Shakopee (MN), Auburn (WA), and Austell (GA).  So check out a plug-in EV for yourself and see what you think!

-- Gina Coplon-Newfield, Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative for Electric Vehicles. First, third, and final photos by Wellington Gonzalez. The rest by Gina Coplon-Newfield.

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