Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: 2011 Nissan Leaf SL: An eclectic, electric

2011 Nissan Leaf SL - Subcompact Culture

The Nissan Leaf charged on to the scene (yes, that's a pun) this year as the first mass-marketed all-electric car on the U.S. market. It's got a range of about 100 miles and will charge on regular household 110-volt current or 220-volt current. It's got all the amenities of a "normal" gas-powered vehicle, but there's no gas engine, no emissions, and little noise. So what'd we think?

Nissan Leaf headlightEXTERIOR
Andy: Frankly, I don't think the Leaf is much of a looker. It's got big, bulging headlights, bulbous lines, and I can't help but think it looks somewhat like a frog. With that being said, it's a function-over-form design. It has a low coefficient of drag, and much of its looks can be attributed to the fact that Nissan is trying to get the best fuel economy out of this vehicle.

One of the more prominent features on the front end is the charging door, which opens with the pull of a latch located by the hood release.

Mercedes: Although Andy doesn’t care much for the exterior, I like it. At first glance, the car does look a bit froggish, but once I had the chance to see it up close, drive it, and spend time with it, it grew on me. Yes, the headlights bulge and the body’s a bit bulbous, but I feel the lines and attributes of this car feel intentional, well-designed, and forward. The exterior styling makes for a “take-notice-of-me-because-I-am-different” type of car.

Nissan Leaf interior

Andy: The Leaf's interior is techy and Spartan at the same time. It's got all kinds of digital gauges on the dash including range, battery temperature, power meter, and of course, speed. There's black glossy plastic, cream-colored white suede-cloth upholstery, light blue illuminated bits, and some brushed metal. It's all very clean looking, almost a bit bland ... almost.

The interior actually has a minimalist quality to it, but it’s very comfortable. The front seats are spacious. The rear seats are also easily capable of accommodating two adults, three in a pinch. One backseat gripe: There is no room under the seats for your feet. I know; oddly specific.

Nissan Leaf cargo area
The cargo area is somewhat strange, as there's a divider between it and area and rear seatbacks. I assume it must have something to do with the battery pack’s location. It’s not too intrusive, though. A large suitcase fits easily.

Mercedes: I thought the Leaf’s interior stole the show, at least from a design point of view. I felt like I was driving in a sophisticated, calming, and serene space. I miss it. I particularly liked the center instrument console was accented with a high-gloss black finish, and was juxtaposed against the rest of the interior with the details Andy mentioned.

2011 Nissan Leaf SL - Subcompact Culture

Andy: I haven't ever driven anything quite like this. You turn it on like you would any other car with push-button start. There is, of course, no noise, though, which takes some getting used to. Even the gear shifter is different. To put the Leaf in “park,” for example, you simply press a button on the knob’s top.

Since the Leaf is all electric, you get the instant torque associated with electric motors. From 0-40, the Leaf actually feels quick. After that, it loses some gusto, but there's no problem merging or keeping up with traffic, especially when not in eco mode. When it comes to braking, it has a very strange pedal feel. It’s springy and feels strange under foot.

The car’s low-point is handling. Combine the softly sprung suspension with low rolling resistance tires, and you’ve got a car that doesn’t like the twisties. The highway ride is quite good, though.

2011 Nissan Leaf at charging station - Subcompact Culture
As mentioned, the car gets about 100 miles on a full charge. You have to plan your trips carefully, though especially if you don’t have a full charge. It makes you think about both how and where you drive, too. Lead footed? Your range will quickly diminish. The eco mode does add several miles to the range, but it decreases performance.

Speaking of charging, the car comes with a cord for 110 volt current. The Leaf can be charged using 220 volt, but you’ll need either a dedicated 220 volt charging dock at your house (about $2,000 according to Nissan), or you’ll need to visit a charging station, which did, basically to check one out. We had several people come up to us and ask us about the car, too. It is quite the conversation piece.

Mercedes: Andy pretty much nailed this on the head. I loved having the bottom-end torque and quiet ride, but longed for a stiffer, sportier suspension. The Leaf’s shift knob is a nub. Literally. A little mole hill, if you will. No actual stick, just a knob that you move from P to R or D. But it looks cool and is remarkably intuitive to use.

I had a lot of fun driving this car in the city, and it cruised well on the highways. We, however, always took note of how many miles we had left on our charge. We were careful not to joy ride too far for fear of being stranded with no way to recharge. That part was a bummer.

Nissan Leaf at charging station

Andy: Although the Leaf only has a 100 mile range, it is surprisingly easy to live with. Yes, you have to plan your trips, and you won’t be making long-distance jaunts. But, as a commuter, it is comfortable, quiet, and competent. You won’t win any autocross events, but people aren’t buying Leafs (Leaves?) for that.

At $34,000, the Leaf isn’t cheap. Nissan estimates you’ll likely spend an average of just over $550 a year on electricity, and that’s quite a bit less than the amount of gasoline most people spend. Plus, there are incentives to offset the cost. Is the cost worth it? Only buyers can decide.

Mercedes: The cons for me are a high purchase cost, low mileage range on a single charge, and cushy soft suspension. The pros are a beautifully designed interior, sloping and futuristic exterior, no emissions, and quiet ride. I really enjoyed it. Too bad I had to hand back the keys after a week’s review…

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