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Nissan Leaf – Click above for high-res image gallery

Nissan has gone into a back room, pulled out its Ouija board and decided that the time is right to make a huge bet. The Japanese automaker, along with its partner Renault, wants to be the world leader in pure electric vehicles. Even though you can go buy an Altima hybrid right now, the company didn't develop its own gas-electric technology (the sedan uses Toyota tech). This time around, Nissan believes the future belongs to vehicles without an internal combustion engine (ICE) and is preparing to put its own foot forward. It's way too early to know for sure, but Nissan's gamble could pay off handsomely. Toyota leads the hybrid race, General Motors and others are adding plugs to vehicles with liquid-fueled engines, but no major automaker has claimed the pure EV pole position. If everything goes right, Nissan will be that automaker.

The flagship vehicle for the automaker is, of course, the Leaf EV hatchback, which was unveiled in August and recently made its North American debut in Los Angeles. We were on hand to take a Leaf mule out for a short (very short) spin and heard directly from Nissan how this unique-looking EV will secure Nissan's place in the auto industry as tremendous changes take place in the coming years. Follow us after the jump to learn about Nissan's wager and find out if the Leaf has got the potential to (silently) propel the company to the top.

Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
The short answer is, yes, the Leaf is a promising piece of machinery and fans of pure EVs can safely celebrate what Nissan is doing here. Drivers who need to drive long distances can stick with ICEs for now; those who like the idea of battery power but don't want to rely solely on electrons should consider the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt. For battery electric vehicle (BEV) fans who want a major brand name plastered on their zero-emission vehicle, there are a small handful of options: the Ford Focus BEV, Renault's varied line-up, and the Nissan Leaf.

Like the competition, the Leaf offers about 100 miles of range and a decent recharge time – you can get an 80-percent quick charge using a special charger in 30 minutes, while a more common 200V outlet will need about eight hours to fully charge the lithium ion battery pack. These numbers don't make sense for everyone, but Nissan doesn't care. All that matters is that they make sense for enough people.

As reported previously, Nissan believes that plug-in vehicles will make up ten percent of the new car market by 2020. By considering who makes up this ten percent, Nissan contends that range anxiety and other worries that BEV critics throw out aren't a big deal. Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told Autoblog that since Nissan will lease the batteries at a competitive price, the customer experience will be simplified, leading to plenty of interested buyers in that first ten percent of the market. Then, in 2020, when automakers are looking to expand to 11 percent and beyond, battery technology will have advanced far enough beyond where it is today. The increased range and reliability will be attractive to a new set of electric car buyers. Then the market expands, the technology gets even better, and we rinse and repeat.

For the serious plug-in fans, Ghosn said it is "possible" that his company will sell gliders (car minus powertrain) or the entire car with batteries, but he made it clear that this is unlikely. Offering anything other than the leased batteries, he said, might confuse people and wipe out the work that the company plans to do in promoting the Leaf as a simple decision. And Nissan is trying to introduce the Leaf as a simple, affordable electric vehicle.

See. Learn. Drive.

The Leaf's next year looks like this: the public tour that kicked off in Santa Monica this past weekend continues through North America until February. Nissan PR calls this the "See" portion of the rollout. The next phase will be a series of technological displays across the U.S. where EV fans and curious passersby can learn about the batteries and the electric drivetrain. The details of this tour are still being worked out. Phase three will be a ride and drive tour, Nissan's first in about five years, that will hit two dozen markets during the summer and fall of 2010. This will be the first chance for the general public to get behind the wheel of the Leaf. Speaking of which...

Behind the Wheel

The stationary show car that will be making the rounds in the coming moths is how the Leaf looks. The modified Versa that Nissan brought to LA is how it drives. Nissan put the Leaf's electric powertrain into the Versa, known as the Tiida in Japan, because the two cars are about the same size. Before the Versa mule, Nissan tested the powertrain in a Cube body, which we drove in May. A lot of media representatives and stakeholders were in Los Angeles to drive this vehicle, and Nissan shuffled everyone through by shrinking the size of the driver loop to just four-tenths of a mile. Our total time behind the wheel: 90 seconds.

In the short parking lot course, there were two straight-aways, which allowed us to punch the car and discover that, while the Leaf powertrain doesn't accelerate like a Tesla Roadster, it's got more than enough get-up-and-go for a standard family car, even with four adults on board. Considering the Leaf will cost something like a third or a fourth as much as a standard Roadster, we think the car will cause a fair share of EV grins once it's unleashed into the wild. After getting up to speed, we found the regenerative brakes felt great. While Nissan is still fine-tuning the system for production, they grip solidly whether you're going fast or slow, gently applying pressure or hitting them hard. Knowing how difficult it can be to get regenerative brakes to provide the proper feedback while also providing a "normal" driving experience, Nissan is certainly on to something here. There's also a benefit to the buyer because the regenerative system means the brake pads will need to be changed less frequently than they would on a traditional vehicle.

Ghosn claims the Leaf "comfortably seats five," but we were not able to actually sit in the vehicles. Based on the Tiida, which has dimensions that are close to the Leaf's, we think that if you want to ride with five, pick a smaller friend to ride on the hump.

Outside looking in

More than one person has compared the Leaf's backside to the rear end of certain curvaceous celebrities. In person, the Leaf doesn't look all that bootylicious. It's not sparse and sleek in back, but the curves don't distract from the overall gracefulness. It looks good, and if Nissan wants to get ten percent of the people to fall in love with EVs, then providing a distinct shape is a good idea (see: the Prius).

Two Leaf prototypes exist: One current touring the U.S. and another that's still in Japan. We can easily imagine that the tour vehicle will be ogled non-stop over the next year. The stretched head- and taillights, the two plugs hidden under a front panel (not exactly the most convenient location, admittedly), and the long overhang over the rear window all make it clear that this is not your average car.

Charging up the car, charging up the roads

The first generation of Leafs, the 2011 Model year, will have 3.3 kW charging systems. After that, charging at 6.6 kW will be an option (price: undisclosed), as will high-speed charging. People who want the 6.6 kW charging option shouldn't wait until the 2012 MY Leafs, since the first models will be upgradeable. This bit of news pleased the Plug In America advocates we talked to in Dodgertown.

While Nissan expects that the cost of a home charger in the garage will be around $500 to $800 for the hardware, there's a lot of work to be done to get communities plug-in ready. Nissan has been working harder (in public, anyway) than any other OEM to form partnerships to get quick charging infrastructures built in time for the first EVs to hit the market. To that end, Renault-Nissan has signed 35 MOUs with governments around the world.

While Nissan is making a big push for this help now – and for subsidies that make buying a plug-in car cheaper for individuals – Ghosn believes that government help will only be required for the first three to five years. After that, the market will supply the demand and economies of scale will make sure the cars are affordable. Until then, government aid not only helps sell cars, but it also helps Nissan figure out where to invest its limited resources. Ghosn said that his company is not out soliciting government help, but is certainly rewarding governments that promote plug-in vehicles by focusing their efforts in those places where there is EV support.

This is the Nissan plug-in vehicle strategy in a nutshell: find the fans, give them an EV that they can afford in places where they can easily recharge, and build from there. The Leaf will be followed by a zero-emission Nissan light commercial vehicle and a pure-electric Infiniti compact luxury car. These vehicles show off Ghosn's belief that pure EVs are the way to go – no plug-in hybrids, no conventional hybrids, no hydrogen, no compromises. And it should be interesting to see if this strategy works.

Photos copyright ©2009 Sebastian Blanco / Weblogs, Inc.
Our travel and lodging for this media event were paid for by the manufacturer.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      why is there a rule that all green cars must look like they got hit with the ugly stick, why couldnt they turn the sentra into an all ev car...
        • 5 Years Ago
        Cheap, Efficient or Appealing. You can only pick two.
      • 5 Years Ago
      "Nissan will lease the batteries at a competitive price"

      So if I buy one in full, I'll still need to pay Nissan every month for the batteries? How's that going to work? Is the car being discounted so it doesn't generate a huge sticker shock like the Volt will?

      -LouisJ @ http://www.providagroup.com
        • 5 Years Ago
        You people are so caught up on tradition. Leasing batteries for the LEAF is no different than paying for cable for your TV or paying for a line to use your cellphone. Besides Nissan states that paying for the batteries will be cheaper than paying for the battery and the electricity to power it combined. Now how is that bad?
        • 5 Years Ago
        @ Sea Urchin

        See http://www.charlierose.com/ then type in "Ghosn" in the search box.

        Watch the clip @26:40min on Ghosn explains that the battery will be leased:

        Charlie Rose: "Now, do you think that will be the model forever, or just for the near future?"

        Carlos Ghosn: "No, for the near future." After this, Carlos Ghosn explains the reasoning behind why they are leasing in the near future, that 2nd and 3rd generation batteries will be lighter and cheaper to produce Inferring that current batteries are too heavy and too expensive to be included in vehicle price in the short term.

        I think for the short term it's a good idea to do this because, if you just buy the leaf it won't be obsolete in range and performance 2 years down the road.
        • 5 Years Ago
        So wait a minute -- when you go to buy a car today, you never have to buy gasoline (or diesel) again? That's fantastic, where can I sign up?

        Nissan is going to lease you a battery, in place of selling you gasoline. (Think of it as buying your road miles -- at a fraction of the price of gasoline miles!)
        • 5 Years Ago
        Oops I mean to say that leasing the batteries + paying for the electricity to power it combined will be cheaper than paying for gas in a comparable ICE vehicle.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You get new battery technology as it becomes available so you get a more useful car than the one you bought originally, seems like a good idea to me. Also, I was watching Charlie Rose this past weekend and Ghosn said they only plan to lease batteries for the next few years, when they foresee high tech batteries being produced in sufficient numbers to justify selling a complete EV.

        Besides, the early adopters this vehicle attracts, will i'm sure, be quite happy to receive the latest and greatest battery tech as it becomes available, not "in a few years" like has been promised again and again( see aptera...).
      • 5 Years Ago
      So does this mean that the whole Ethanol thing was just a scam that GM and Cornistan were pulling on the taxpayers?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yep, pretty much. This whole ethanol out of corn thing is one of the biggest scams ever. Not only did it do nothing to bring down the oil prices (when you calculate in all the subsidies), it also helped to drive the cost of food up... The way I see it with electric vehicles, home of the future, bunch of solar panels on your roof, total energy independence from big energy companies, your only worry would be to replace car batteries once in a while and do some solar panel maintenance which over time would also become cheaper. Thing is, government will have to think of a way how to screw citizens regardless, solar energy surcharge tax... Hydrogen powered cars still need a secondary energy source to extract hydrogen, with electric cars, solar energy is the source.
        • 5 Years Ago

        not only was it a big scam, but burning ethonol in a combusion engine produces aldehydes (acetladehyde and such) which are know carcinogens and currently the EPA does not track this compound as emmision control for combustion engines

        so if you were to convert all car's to ethoanol then we'd all need to worry about lung cancer.
        The EPA needs to get their chemists workign and let them begin to track this to determine wht type of effect it can have and how you can elilminate it from the emisions, likely some type of catalyst change on the catalytic converter which currently is not in place

        the US gov't should have spend more $$ of solar pannels, developing one that is more efficient (capturing and converting light to elctricity) than today's 15% would bring huge gains and having one that you can place on your roof instead of your standard shingles returning 60% efficiency would bring cost down since it should be used in all new shingles and would produce more electricity then we would need
        • 5 Years Ago
        Ligor, why waste money of R&D that will benefit everyone, its much better to give it to unions and lawyers.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Nope. Not at all.

        GM has heavily invested in cellusic ethanol, which doesn't have the problems that corn-based ethanol does.

        Besides, Ford and Chrysler do FFVs, too, and have since the early-mid '90s. Toyota is getting into them, too.

        So no, it wasn't a scam. Corn was a dead-end. But cellulosic ethanol is coming into realization and it looks to be a good alternative until we get our power grid converted and battery tech improves in life, packaging, and cost to reduce our dependence on oil.

        Oh, and just because Nissan says 10% of the market will be electric by 2020 doesn't mean it's in any way actually going to happen. Not even close.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Tiger, so now we use wood and grains for energy, am i crazy or we suppose to evolve. Cavemen used to burn stalks of grains for fire, now we are doing the same.
        • 5 Years Ago
        nah...you can still use ethanol from cornistan to generate electricity.
      • 5 Years Ago
      less money spent on gas during the week is more money for cruising in a gas guzzler on the weekends... i can dig it.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Is that port in the front where you put in your pixie dust and dilithium crystals?

      To the tune of a 50's-era informational film:

      Paternal-looking man with slicked hair and white lab coat: "One day, when man is colonizing Mars, you may find yourself driving an electric vehicle, Jimmy."

      Freckled school-age boy with glasses: "Oh boy, mister! How does it work?"

      Man: "Well Jimmy, man will one day harness limitless energy eminating from the combined good-will and general positivity of the world community. That energy will be funneled into your electric car where it will power you to your destination. Rather than harmful fumes, it will emit only the hopes and dreams of an eager nation."

      Boy: "That sure is swell, mister!"

      Man: "It sure is, Jimmy. It sure is."
      • 5 Years Ago
      There is NO reason for headlights to stretch from the front bumper cover to the windshield. It doesn't help lighting performance. It doesn't lower costs. It's not improving serviceability. And it's certainly not good for appearance. Why do manufacturers keep doing this?
        • 5 Years Ago

        "How is that better accomplished with expensive, clear, (reasonably) optically correct plastic than it would be with sheet metal?"

        It it could be more expensive to form a complex metal part instead of molding a complex plastic part. These cars are prototypes, this could change. Im sure they did or will do a cost benefit analysis taking into account of many things in addition to just material cost alone.
        • 5 Years Ago
        How is that better accomplished with expensive, clear, (reasonably) optically correct plastic than it would be with sheet metal?
      • 5 Years Ago
      All Hail the Jar-Jar mobile!!!
      • 5 Years Ago
      this looks so very slick!...like the aliens left it here...

      • 5 Years Ago
      More like tip of the ugly spear, amirite?
        • 5 Years Ago
        The tip of the ugly spear that hopefully will be plunged into the side of Carlos Ghosn so we never have to see it again!
        • 5 Years Ago
        Even an ugly spear is killer. It is no more ugly than the Prius and arguably better looking.

        Nissan has a potential very successful business model
        • 5 Years Ago
        nah. it looks fine and distinctive in person, with the mazda3 already out this doesn't seem as garish were it alone in the bizarre looking hatchback world. A few people looking at the car with me were shocked until I mentioned it’ll probably also be a Renault – then everyone said the looks made sense. Anywho it’s more attractive than the versa in person, it’ll do fine and I’m looking forward to driving one – admittedly I was a little surprised Nissan wasn’t letting us out in it, last time I played with a pre-production Nissan it was the Fuel Cell Xtrail… of which precisely 50% less existed than currently do the leaf, and Nissan had no problems letting the general public have ago in it.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Looks like a fat upper lip on the front of the Leaf EV.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This olwrench, retired way out in the country, wants one, or a pure EV Volt.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I can see in my head how this car could look good...sharper lines, bulging rear fenders, reshaped nose (it looks like it has an overbite). But as-is it...just...really sucks. I mean that melted gummy bear face should be added to Nissans "Colossal F***-Ups" folder---filed in between the decision to put a truck motor in the 240sx and the decision to not sell any of their '98-'02 sports cars in North America.
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