Nissan has been pretty light on the green vehicle offerings thus far, leaving the field to their competition. Other than the Altima Hybrid, and the recently announced M35 Hybrid in their Infiniti line, drivers looking for hybrids had to look elsewhere. There was a reason for leaving this market segment undeveloped, though: Nissan took the time and money normally devoted to hybrid development and leapfrogged the technology, going straight to electric vehicles (EV’s). And the fruits of their labor, the Leaf, will be hitting markets next year.
Nissan claims that the technology that underpins the Leaf EV ha been in various stages of development since 1992, and it’s hard to doubt them considering the level of thought put into the car. The Leaf essentially has one major goal: to hide what it is. Nissan’s engineers wanted to make an EV that looked and acted like a regular car.
On the outside goal is largely accomplished. Just looking at the Leaf, one would assume it’s a compact five-door (if it weren’t for the huge “Zero Emission” decal). It avoids the styling of the Prius and the Honda Insight enough to make it unique, but not so much as to loose the aerodynamic properties that make the design of those cars appealing on a fuel-efficiency front. The prominent logo upfront actually covers two electric charging points (110-volt and 220-volt), which is a good move as far as I’m concerned. A lot of EV concepts out there have the charging point where the gas cap normally is, for the sake of “this is an electric, it doesn’t need any gas!” credentials. Put, that’s not necessarily nominal for charging it in your garage without running extension cords. If the charging point is at the right rear of the car, and you park that car on the left side of a two-car garage, nose in, then it’s in the middle of nowhere. A middle front or middle rear charging point makes the most sense.
Okay, with that rant out of the way, let’s continue. The Leaf can handle four adults comfortably. There total capacity is listed at five, but it’d be very uncomfortable in that back seat unless some of those people were either petite or children. That’s not a complaint against the Leaf in particular, however, as it’s a common truth among all five-seaters of this size. The interior does have a nice, clean design. Aside from the large center display panel and the requisite dashboard displays, it’s largely free of energy-hogging technologies (don’t expect a rear seat DVD player). Again, this is what you’d expect from your run-of-the-mill compact five-door.
The power is also comparable. The 80 kW engine equals to 107 horsepower and 208 lb-ft of torque. The horsepower is right on the money for this segment, and the torque is a fair bit higher thanks to the unique characteristics of electric motors. Top speed is listed at 140 km/h (87 mph). The battery pack has a 100-mile range. This number was the goal thanks to a few recent studies which showed that 70% of the world’s drivers travel less than 100 miles per day. In fact, over 80% of drivers go less than 60 miles per day. Yes, there are some who will bemoan the lack of range that a quick gasoline fill-up will get you, and the Leaf certainly won’t handle a day-long road trip, but how important are these factors to the average driver who jut does a weekly commute to work, with a few errands tossed in?
Charging time for the Leaf is a bit slow. A full charge on a 220-volt line will take 8 hours, and on a 110-volt line it will take about 16. Nissan does have a trick up its sleeve, though. The Leaf can use a special three-phase charger. These chargers are pretty expensive ($45,000), but the largest market isn’t private use, but public use. Many cities (most notably San Diego, who partnered with Nissan on the endeavor) are running pilot programs of installing these three-phase charges in parking lots so that you can park, drop a dollar or two into the charger, and then get some juice. These special chargers can get the battery to 80% capacity in under 30 minutes, an 30% in under ten.
These charging stations are still rare sights across the country, but they offer a look at a new way of driving. What if, instead of filling up your tank every couple hundred miles, you would just get quick jolts of electricity when you stopped and needed it? If you stop at the grocery store on your way home from work, you could just plug in, do your shopping, and come out to a half-full battery. Then, drive home and charge the car fully on your own electricity (which will be cheaper) for the work commute the next day. We’re still years away from such a reality, but the premise is sound.
And, that’s about how you could sum up the Nissan Leaf: years away but the premise is sound. It may be hitting markets next year, but the cost difference between a five-door compact, and an electric five-door compact will be large. Unless there are heavy subsidies, the car won’t sell too well. But, it does provide a tantalizing glimpse at what the car market will be like as soon as five years from now. As the economy of scale kicks in, and more and more electric cars are made, cheaper ways will be found to produce the components, which will lower the cost and result in even more sales, which will, again, cause designers to find cheaper production methods, etc. But here’s a simple fact to consider: in five-door compact of equal size to the Leaf with a small, efficient engine (47.5 mpg), the average fuel spending for a month (approximately 625 miles of driving) would be $65 dollars. The cost of the electricity necessary to drive the Leaf EV that distance is $13 dollars. Once the initial purchase price goes down, it wouldn’t make sense to not drive an electric vehicle.