The Nissan Leaf – First Drive

by Zach Billings on October 24, 2011

Nissan Leaf MassachusettsFriday, October 21st, was the grand opening of Milford Nissan. I was in attendance primarily to film with the Canon 5DMkII and Stedicam that we have at work. Also in attendance was a new Nissan Leaf from corporate, which was there for prospective customers and local business owners to try out. After five hours of filming with our 8lb video rig, I disappeared on a much-needed break and took the Leaf for a spin.

Simply put, the facts say the Leaf isn’t good enough. The range it too short, the charging time is too long, and the charging infrastructure is nearly non-existent, even in parts of the country where the Leaf is out. Nonetheless, EVs or hydrogen cars are going to be the future of wheel-based transportation. From front to back, Tesla has done it better so far in terms of EVs, and I personally believe that hydrogen is the future, but I couldn’t pass up a chance at driving the – rare on the East Coast – Nissan Leaf.

Zach Billings Nissan LeafGetting into the car, it’s spacious and comfortable. To offset the cost of the expensive driveline, the seats are cloth, not leather, and there isn’t anything that screams luxury at you. There doesn’t need to be. Hold the brake pedal and press the start button and the car beeps at you; the only indication that it’s running, since there’s no engine to start. As soon as the car is “on” all the dashboard instrumentation lights up and you forget about the lack of luxury as you fixate on the technology.

I looked down at the unusual shifter and figured out how to put the car in drive. I then started easing forward without a sound. Having driven an Altima Hybrid this wasn’t all that strange yet but the sound deadening on the Leaf is, well, extreme, so the absolute isolation from the world is quite apparent. I pulled out onto the road and put my foot to the floor. The initial torque from the electric motor was good and the first 30mph come quickly. After that the torque band begins to fall off and the horsepower starts to take over with less noteworthy effect. I would say that to 30mph the Leaf feels akin to an Altima in terms of acceleration. After 30mph it feels more like a Sentra and possibly a little slower. All the hype I’ve heard about the torquey electric motor didn’t really translate to real life and I was a bit disappointed with acceleration.

Ride quality on the Leaf is fantastic, as it needs to be to deaden road noise. The experience of driving can largely be summed up with one worth: silence. You barely hear bumps, you barely hear other cars, and you barely hear any wind. True to the reports, the most predominant sound on the Leaf is the subtle, futuristic-sounding whine of the motor as it speeds up.

Fitting with the deadened, isolated feel of the car, however not really a good thing, is the handling. I’m a bit of a handling snob, sure. I’ve been called a fool for attacking the Nissan Quest over it’s poor handling precision and absurdly slow steering ratio, but the Leaf really does take it one step too far. The steering wheel provides zero feedback to the driver. There is no road feel what-so-ever and, although American drivers traditionally prefer a more numb steering feel, it’s way over the top. I was able to drive through a heavily potholed section of town with just one finger tip on the top of the steering wheel. While this may seem cool in theory, what it means in day to day driving is constant steering corrections, especially on the highway.

All in all the Leaf was polished and did not feel shoddily built or lightly designed. Not forgetting what the car is made to be, I would say that acceleration leaves a little to be desired and steering feel really just needs improvement. Ride quality was great to go along with build quality and this car can really waft you around well for a small car. Would I buy one? HELL NO, and not because of the handling or acceleration. It’s got a 100 mile range and I have to charge it for 8 hours on the home charger or 4 hours on a speed charging station. That’s just silly. Nissan goes on and on about their statistics on most peoples’ round trip to and from work is under 75 miles. That’s nice. I can drive to work and back. What about picking up the kids then running a few errands around town in the afternoon? What about a drive up to a mountain 60 miles away to go hiking? People keep telling me the Leaf is designed to be a second car for a family, with a gas or hybrid car as the long distance car. At over $30,000 for the Leaf I’d like to know why? Lets get an electric car with a realistic range like the new Tesla sedan, or better yet hydrogen cars that can be filled at hydrogen stations. The car and Nissan’s execution of it get an 8/10 for what it was supposed to be, a 4/10 when you consider that Tesla has already ‘pwned’ the Leaf, and a 1/10 for having the idea in the first place, since it should have been done very differently.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob November 1, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Heh, I’m not sure I follow when you say that Tesla “owned” the Leaf. The Tesla is awesome, but it’s also a hundred grand. It’s not really in the same ballpark price-wise, and it doesn’t target the same type of customer.

Also, don’t forget about the $7500 tax credit that’s still available on these… brings the price down well into the mid-$20k range. That’s not so bad, in two specific scenarios I can think of.

1. A person who never leaves their city. Drive all around town, never use a drop of gas. Pretty cool.
2. A family where the husband and wife each have a car. One drives the Leaf to and from work and errands, and the other drives the gas powered car. Weekend trip? Park the leaf and take the gas car. Great setup.

It’s certainly not ideal for everyone, but it’s a great fit for some.

P.S. You didn’t dig the acceleration, seriously? This thing has cajones.

Zach Billings December 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm

I was harsh on the Leaf in my blog but I certainly like what it represents. It’s a good first attempt at a mainstream EV in the modern auto world. You are correct that the Tesla is not in the same market segment as the Leaf, both in terms of price and intended purpose. Nonetheless, the Tesla is a car I’d consider worth while to purchase if you have the money. They’ve achieved what Nissan wishes they could, albeit at a higher price. I believe hydrogen will be the alternative fuel of the future and for now you’re better off with a compact hybrid or a smart car than the Leaf.

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