Test Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf

Nissan turns over a new Leaf:

It’s the world?s first affordable zero emission hatchback

The Nissan Motor Co., Ltd. has launched what they are claiming to be the world?s first affordable, zero-emission car in the form of the new 2011 Leaf, which is a 4-door, medium-size, lithium-ion battery powered, plug-in electric hatchback, capable of comfortably transporting five adults.

The Leaf is based on Nissan?s ?B? car platform which also supports the Versa, but is 6-inches longer. Nissan has had a long history in both electric vehicle and battery technologies beginning research and development in 1992. In 1995 the Prairie EV was launched, followed by the Altra EV and then the Hyper Mini and several test and concept electric vehicles.

The Leaf is a 100%plug-in electric vehicle with zero emissions. There is no supplemental gasoline engine as in a Hybrid Electric vehicle, so no more oil changes. Obvious competitors will be the Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the MINI-E, with the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in figuring in the picture as well.

Leaf?s power comes from a 600 pound laminated Lithium-ion Manganese Graphite battery pack mounted low in the vehicle floor for optimum weight distribution, and a high-response synchronous AC electric drive motor (80kW / 208 pound feet of torque) with a power capacity of 24kWh / over 90kW, delivering energy to the front wheels. Top speed for the Leaf is 90 mph and the range capability is 100 miles (US LA4). The battery pack consists of 192 cells, with 4 lamininate cells per module in 48 modules. The battery comes with an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty, and after 10 years, the battery is expected to retain 70-80 percent of its original storage capacity.?

When battery power is drained to a minimum point, recharging is quite simple via a supplied 120 V portable trickle charge cable that may be plugged into any conventional household outlet. An optional 240V charging is available. There are actually three levels of recharge technology: Level I is a 1.4kW trickle type that fully recharges in roughly 20 hours; Level II is the normal recharge method for both home and public usage at 3.3kW? (220 V) that requires approximately 8 hours; and the third level ? DC Fast Charge is a quick type for public and private use at 50kW that will deliver an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes. Level must be hardwired, and the standard for quick charging is still pending, and essentially cost prohibitive for home and public usage. There are currently 13,000 public?charging stations nationwide. The charging plugs are located in a small forward compartment located just below the hood.

Leaf has no gas tank, tailpipe or conventional transmission either to complicate maintenance. In fact, the only real maintenance requirements are tire rotation and windshield wiper blade replacement. Okay, washing and waxing occasionally wouldn?t hurt.

There are two operational modes: a Normal Drive mode; and an Eco mode, which increases efficiency and delivers 10% more range by reducing power output while increasing regenerative braking. Mode selection is accomplished via a center stack-mounted ?Palm shifter? that operates on the principle of a computer mouse or joystick.

The Nissan Leaf is ideally suited for sustainable mobility in a partnership with the Sumitomo Trading Corp, having created a business around the secondary use of?Lithium-ion batteries, employing a 4R business philosophy: Reuse; Refabrication; Recycling; and Resales.

The Leaf?s dedicated EV body was designed to provide what Nissan refers to as ?smart fluidity? ? a fusion of sophisticated aerodynamic management and aerodynamic acoustics with the freedom provided by the new EV layout.? The smooth, elegant lines of the body begin with the low, compact hood, and moves through the distinctive shoulder character line and on toward the integrated large rear spoiler.

The exterior styling is distinctive and is emphasized by a sharp, upright V-shaped design featuring long, upward-slanting LED headlights with a blue internal reflective appearance.? The headlights effectively split and redirect airflow away from the door mirrors, helping to reduce wind noise and drag, and also consume only about 50 percent of the electricity of conventional halogen headlights.? At the rear, the slim-type aerodynamic LED taillight design and angular corners blend with the aerodynamic muffler-less rear bumper and rear diffuser managing the aerodynamics of the rear end without sacrificing rear interior space.? The drag coefficient measures only 0.29.?

The exterior also utilizes a flat underbody (including a large front flat floor cover, motor area undercover, front undercover and rear diffuser with fins) to help manage under vehicle airflow.? An innovative vortex-shedding roof-mounted antenna is but one of many design elements incorporated in reducing wind noise.? Other noise reduction measures include a quiet-operation windshield wiper?motor, a sound insulation windshield design and a dual-isolated motor-mounting system.

The interior includes navigation as standard fare, push button start, a digital meter cluster, CARWINGS ? a remote charge status monitor and advanced user interface for range management including connectivity through smart phone applications. Information screens are provided for tracking energy flow in both the Nav system and driver info display.?

The Leaf comes in two trim levels:? SV and SL ? the latter including leather seating surfaces. A solar panel and rear backup camera are optionally available.

I experienced the 2011 Nissan Leaf in Nashville and Franklin, Tennessee during the national press launch. The base price is $32,780., while the price as tested can vary depending on options and tax credits. A typical price tag would be $25,280 ? minus up to $7,500 federal tax credit, along with other possible credits.

SUMMARY: Driving the Leaf is really not a dramatically different process from piloting a conventionally powered or hybrid powered vehicle, except that it is eerily quiet. One tends to notice road and wind noise more due to the lack of an engine. Drive rationally and conservatively and watch a tree grow graphically in the information panel, or drive in a completely normal manner and simply monitor potential range.

Acceleration is instantaneous in a luxurious silence, and the handling serves up a nimble feel. It rained on arrival day prior to the test drive and there were those who were concerned about operating an electric vehicle in the wet. Not to worry as the Leaf underwent severe durability testing, packed in ice to measure internal pressure by rapid cooling and fully submersed as well as exposed to high pressure washing. It proved to be completely water-tight. In addition, the battery pack escaped damage in a 40 mph frontal off-set crash test.

?Braking features a normal set-up along with ?Coasting? regenerative braking, which contributes to maintaining battery power levels.

?I found the Leaf to be fun, enjoyable and reliable in both normal and Eco modes. The only areas for improvement that I noted were: for a locking mechanism for the charge cable when recharging; better light management in bright sunlight, which renders the IP illegible; and for a softer edge for the center stack. Bottom line, given all of its advantages, the Leaf makes for a good sense purchase or lease for the average commuter.

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