Nissan Leaf Sets Bar High For Electric Vehicles
New All Electric Car Impressive In Test Drive
The internal combustion engine is a truly amazing thing.
It is arguably, one of the most important inventions in human history.
After driving gas powered vehicles for over 30 years it is with a high degree of skepticism in which I view electric powered vehicles. In fact, I’ve often scoffed at the idea that electric cars could ever replace the combustion engine.
They’re not fast enough. The pickup is too slow. The range is too limited.
Well, after test driving this Nissan Leaf this past Saturday morning, a healthy meal feasting on my words may be in my immediate future.
Nissan Leaf Drive Electric Tour
This weekend, Nissan invited me to stop by the Nissan Leaf Drive Electric Tour in the shadow of Soldier Field and test drive a Leaf.
From the looks of it it was going to be a busy day for the Nissan folks as a line had formed at the entrance with many Chicago drivers looking to take their turn behind the wheel of this electric vehicle.
“It (Chicago) has been the best tour stop so far,” said Nissan Leaf Product Specialist Kate Quigley who says previous tour stops topped out at 300 drivers a day. “We had 500-600 drivers come through on yesterday (Friday).”
Before getting into the drivers seat, Quigley gave me some lowdown on the car and the technology.
Already, there are 6000 Leaf’s on the road in the U.S., and another 20,000 Leaf’s reserved nationally, with nearly 800 reservations made for Leaf’s from the Chicagoland area.
Nissan allows people to reserve a Leaf for $99 which puts their name on the waiting list, and then sends out a technician to their house or apartment for a home assessment for the power charger that is necessary for owning an electric vehicle.
The Leaf By The Numbers
While the range of the Leaf on a full battery charge averages 100 miles, Nissan is betting this range can be a selling point based on how most Americans drive.
“We know this car is not for everyone,” admits Quigley but says that 90% of American commuters drive 70 miles in a typical day with 70% driving 40 miles or less in a day. “I think this car fits well with a Chicago commuter. It’s a great car for short commutes. For 90% of car owners this is a no brainer.”
But what about the cost? Quigley says the MSRP on the Nissan Leaf is between $35,200 and $37,200–a bit pricey for the average car owner.
According to Quigley, Illinois motorists have a leg up over drivers in other states. Because not only do EV car buyers get a $7500 tax credit from the U.S. government, but the State of Illinois pitches in another $4000. That $11,500 in federal and state tax credits brings that sticker price down to as low as $23,700. Only Colorado, California and Georgia have more lucrative tax credits than Illinois.
Quigley says there’s another bottom line advantage to the Leaf. It’s virtually maintenance free compared to traditional gas powered vehicles.
“You have to look at the total cost of ownership,” says Quigley. “There’s no transmission to replace, no oil changes, no tuneups. All regular maintenance is eliminated.”
The only thing EVs need checked periodically is the battery and the tires.
Nissan has Leaf owners come in for a battery diagnostic check and to have the brake fluid flushed every year, which is free for the first two years. The battery and vehicle have a full eight year, 100,000 mile warranty.
Every 7500 miles, Nissan recommends a tire rotation and a cabin filter change.
According to Quigley, the Leaf costs 3 cents a mile to drive compared to 16 cents per mile for an average internal combustion engine passenger vehicle.
Behind The Wheel
When I finally open the door and sit down in the drivers seat of the Leaf, the general look and feel on the inside of the vehicle is generally similar to any other late model car. It’s comfortable and the dashboard is sleek looking.
What’s different on the dash is that there’s no fuel gauge. But there is a readout to tell the driver how many miles they can drive before they need to plug in somewhere.
The car starts with a push of a button and you immediately notice there’s no vrooom of an engine turning over. It’s more of a very low level hum or vibration. It is quiet.
There’s also no gear shift–at least not in the traditional sense. Although, there’s this small knob located between the driver and passenger seats where you would normally put your car into gear. It essentially works the same, but with much less options. There’s standard drive, reverse and eco mode.
We put the Leaf in gear and hit the accelerator. Again, no noise but a very peppy, smooth acceleration that quickly and quietly takes us out of the parking lot and onto the street.
It’s a short test drive on Chicago’s museum campus along Lake Michigan. A few lefts, a few rights, two U-turns and a few short blocks to test the acceleration.
The Leaf has shockingly fast pickup. Plus it’s smooth. And did I tell you quiet?
“Most people reaction is ‘Wow, it’s so quiet,” says Quigley.”They’re shocked at how quiet it is and shocked at the pickup. I’ve had no one come back from a test drive with a negative reaction.”
During the test drive, Quigley sits in the passenger seat and explains how the different drive modes on the Leaf work. We switch over from standard drive to eco mode and there’s a noticeable difference in performance as acceleration from a stopped position is a bit subdued compared to standard drive mode.
But eco mode gives drivers worried about running out of juice 10% more range or up to 130 miles on a single charge, by using a governor to regulate how the driver utilizes horsepower and increases regenerative braking.
“Regenerative braking helps recapture energy when you coast or brake,” explains Quigley. “Anytime you’re not accelerating you’re recharging your car.”
On the last leg of the drive, Quigley extolled some of the technological bells and whistles of the Leaf. Essentially, the car’s telematic system allows the driver to communicate with the vehicle via their smartphone or via the internet.
Quigley says the car can alert you if you forgot to plug it in to the charger or when charging is complete. Or, if the weather is extremely hot you can remotely engage the AC or pre-heat the car in the winter via smartphone.
Leaf Gets Thumbs Up From Test Drivers
After finishing my short test drive, I compared notes with a few other drivers.
“It was my first electric car,” said John Smith. “I enjoyed the lack of sound. Interior was comfortable. Good acceleration for short bursts was there. I enjoyed it.”
But Smith was concerned about the how the effect of Chicago’s cold winter weather would on a battery powered vehicle.
“If it (extreme cold weather) depletes the range, that’s a concern,” said Smith. “I don’t want to get stuck in a snowbank (with a dead battery)”.
But Quigley explained the Leaf comes with a thermal blanket that keeps the battery warm and allows the Leaf to operate down to temperatures of 20 below zero.
A pair of other drivers visiting from Austria made the Leaf Tour their first stop in Chicago.
“It’s great,” said Viktoria Ritter about the Leaf and who drives a hybrid electric vehicle back in Europe.”In Austria we have a Prius but electric motor is too weak.”
“The acceleration was awesome,” said Sebastian Ritter who agreed with his sister’s assessment of their Toyota vehicle back home. “It’s much better than the Prius.”
Overall, the Leaf is an impressive vehicle.
Quiet, smooth, fast.
While the limited range of the vehicle on a single charge might give some drivers logging a lot of long distance drives pause, city drivers in two car households may do well with an electric vehicle like the Leaf. Keep the gas powered car for weekend getaways or out to visit family in the suburbs, and drive the EV around town during the week.
While the $35,000 plus sticker price is a bit of a hurdle, the state and federal tax credits drops the cost of the vehicle to a pretty affordable level. Factor in the allegedly low cost per mile to drive the Leaf and a driver really needs to give this car a hard look.
Whether Chicago drivers will embrace the Leaf and other electric cars will be an interesting question for the future.
As for me, I have a big steaming plate of words I need to sit down and eat.