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Nissan LEAF Under the Hood and Test Drive

November 19, 2010

Man Meets Machine

After writing about the LEAF for over a year I finally got my hands on one.  Last Dec., I first posted a video called Nissan Intros LEAF EV. Now I’ve finally had a chance to take one out for a short drive.

I was invited by Nissan, along with others who have reserved the LEAF to get up close and personal with the car. There are tours set up across the country in cities where the LEAF will be first introduced next year. To see if there’s a tour coming to a locale near you see the LEAF tour dates.

Here’s a 10 minute video of my test drive. My daughter Jamie, our Intrepid Reporter often hosts the Innovational Musing videos. Unfortunately I got lost in Hillsboro trying to find Solar World where the test drives were being held and was way late. Jamie was in such a funky mood (who could blame her) that she didn’t want to appear on camera, but was nice enough to shoot the test drive. You’ll notice I’m in my orange OSU Beaver shirt. They lost to UCLA later that day in the last seconds of the game – putting all of Beaver Nation into a funky mood.

Like everything else LEAFy, Nissan has done an excellent job in its marketing and promotion of the vehicle. Aside from the sappy polar bear TV ad and some annoying customer surveys their campaign has been deft and polished. The test drive tours are well worth the time and are well designed with presentations by friendly and by-and-large well informed staffers.

I’ve done a lot of writing and research on EVs and have been impressed with Nissan’s long term commitment to electric vehicles starting way back in 1947 with the “Tama Electric Car” that was created by Tokyo Electric Cars Company – one of the ancestors of Prince Motor Co., Ltd., which later merged with Nissan. See a full article on the “History of Nissan EV Development” in Modern Racer.

1947 Tama Electric Car

It was a unique period in the auto industry and the development of electric vehicles. Due to the post-World War II energy shortage at that time, the Japanese government encouraged entrepreneurs to produce EVs to cope with the crisis.

The LEAF continues…

Is the LEAF Right for You?

Having spent about forty years in advanced technology and manufacturing I am very critical of how things are designed, made and perform. While I am an advocate and fan for EVs, I am also skeptical and practical in my approach to transportation. I don’t believe the LEAF is for everyone, particularly if it’s to be your only car or you don’t live in a house with a garage for charging. And the charging infrastructure to adequately support EVs or plug-in hybrids is years away.

However, the LEAF, the Volt and other EVs we cover in Innovational Musings are ready for early adopters and folks who can use these kinds of vehicles for short commutes and around town driving. EVs won’t pencil out, unfortunately, until the lithium-ion battery costs come down (it won’t be anytime soon) or gas goes to well over $4 per gal (could happen next week). If it wasn’t for the fed and state tax breaks of $7,500 and $1,000+ for EVs the economics would not make any sense at all.

According to Paul Hawsom Nissan’s product planning manager for sports cars and EVs, a 25-mpg car running on $3 a gallon gas will cost 12 cents per mile to operate, or $1,800 over 15,000 miles. The Leaf or comparable EV operating on electricity at the national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour will cost 2.6 cents per mile. That means $396 over 15,000 miles. “The advantage exists even if gasoline drops below $1.10 per gallon,” Hawsom said. And since there’s no real purchase penalty to a subsidized Leaf, the savings start immediately. See the Forbes article…

Nissan just received news from the EPA that it has rated the LEAF a combined rating of 99 miles per gallon (equivalent) which breaks down into 106 city/92 highway. The official EPA range for the car is 73 miles, less than Nissan promotes, but their claim is based on driving conditions.

Nissan introduced the Maxima in the U.S. in 1981

1981 models were the first 'talking car' sold in the US and offered only one voice warning, a female voice reminding the driver to "Please turn off the lights".

I bought the first Maxima offered by Nissan in 1981 and proudly drove it for a decade and well over 100,000 miles. We also have a 1991 Nissan 240sx (it has an innovative heads-up display) that we bought for my wife and it was passed down to both of our daughters and it has always run well and looked great. Take a look…

It Was 2o Years Ago Today

The First Generation of Practical and Affordable EVs

Nissan is a stable, no-nonsense automobile company with solid engineering and manufacturing capabilities. And from what I saw and have learned about the LEAF over the last year I believe that Nissan has designed and built a winner EV in every way possible. It is a very well thought out vehicle and is extremely well executed. The aerodynamics, battery and drive train technology, styling as well as fit and finish are superb. This is the first generation of practical and  affordable production EVs.

The car has lots of room for people and cargo. It is very easy to get into and out of and is comfortable to sit in and drive. The LEAF has excellent driver visibility, corners well and felt safe and solid.

The batteries add mass (the LEAF weighs about 800 lbs. more than a comparably sized Versa) and the sheet metal body provides structural strength so the LEAF feels like a real car that you would  feel safe loaded with loved ones at freeway speeds. It comes standard with a full complement of air bags, Bluetooth link for handsfree calls and an OnStar like communication system for emergency roadside services.

While the car handled well, is plenty fast enough and was a breeze to drive. Nissan in its effort to make the car easy to transition to from what the market is used to has succeeded in making it almost too ordinary and not all that much fun to drive. The motorcycle like Arcimoto Pulse was more fun to drive but much lighter and not as stable as the LEAF. Engineering is all about trade offs.

The Electric Steering Seemed a Bit Light

I thought the electric steering  was a bit light, which is OK a slow speeds, but I couldn’t find out if it automatically adjusted itself to match higher speeds and different driving conditions, something you’d expect from an all electric, computer contolled, drive-by-wire car.

I also have concerns in general about the increasing size, complexity and driver interactivity involved with the control consoles in high tech cars. The navigation and buttons are easy to use and operate intuitively.  But, how much info and interaction can a driver handle without becoming distracted? This is already a serious problem and will get worse before cars are smart enough to look out for us. See our series of posts on Intelligent Transportation Systems.

Given those small snipes I think the LEAF is a wonderful start on a new class of production EVs. It may not have the sexy looks and performance of the Tesla nor the range of the Volt but the LEAF is one damn fine automobile that the folks at Nissan can be proud of and it will be made in the USA.

I’m not alone. Jim Motavalli recently wrote in Forbes.

Five Reasons To Like Nissan Leaf

  • It’s really fun to drive
  • The graphics and interface are cool
  • The incentives are in place
  • There are charging options
  • The economics make sense.

See the full article in Forbes…

Jim and I are not the only ones who like the LEAF. Due to the enthusiastic customer demand for the innovative LEAF Nissan has had to reduce the number cars for dealer demos from two to one.

AUTOMOTIVE NEWS

Nissan will only receive 20,000 Leafs for U.S. sales in the first year. Production volume is limited by a new Japanese assembly line, and a new plant that is supplying the Leaf’s lithium-ion battery.

December sales launch remains on schedule.

Nissan is simultaneously investing $1.6 billion to construct another lithium-ion battery plant in Smyrna, Tenn., where it will also assemble the Leaf. But that supply will not come on line until late in 2012.

That project will produce 150,000 Leafs and 200,000 battery packs annually.

The LEAF was just rated as the “Best Car to Buy in 2011”  by Auto Blog Green. So it looks like it may be time for the U.S. to turn to a new LEAF for transportation. It’s about time don’t you think – or don’t you.

As for me, I’m not sure if I’m ready to trade-in my old 1987 Jag XJ6 (looks like below) for a new LEAF just yet. Or perhaps wait for the cooler Toyota/Tesla RAV4 EV in 2012.  I’ll post my decision soon…

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2010 1:14 am

    Great post! I had no idea that electric cars stretched back that far. I love the road test vid (good job Jamie), and the LEAF looks fun.

    I can’t believe that video with the 240sx was nearly 20 years ago. I wore that same outfit today to work.

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