2011 Nissan Leaf - Click above for high-res image gallery

We've met the Nissan Leaf before. First at its coming-out party in Japan, followed by an all-too-brief stint behind the wheel of a Versa-based prototype late last year. Now we've had a chance to sample Nissan's first foray into the world of electric vehicles in production form and the automaker picked one of its most important markets – the heart of Silicon Valley – to give us some seat time.

If there's any area ripe for early-EV adoption, it's San Jose, CA. And during a quick test loop through the tight confines of Santana Row and a run through the city's suburban surrounds, it's obvious that the first mass-produced EV is officially ready for prime-time.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

If you're anything like the 16,300 people who have reserved a Leaf for lease ahead of its December launch, you've already devoured all the salient details in the run-up to its release. For those of you late to the party, here's the quick and dirty version of what you get for your $32,780 – or just over $25,000 after you factor in applicable state and federal incentives.

The Leaf is a five-door, five-passenger city car fitted with a 24kW lithium-ion battery pack complete with 48 separate modules housing four cells a piece. We're pointing out the number of cells because if one fails, Nissan can replace the individual modules without having to replace the entire battery pack – further proof that the Japanese automaker is keenly aware of the issues that could plague a mass-market EV.

All those crazed electronics get routed to the front wheels through a front-mounted motor producing 107 horsepower and 208 pound-feet of torque. Top speed comes in at just under 90 mph and Nissan claims a 0-60 mph time under ten seconds. Neither figure matters much in this particular slice of the auto world, but both numbers suggest this isn't yet another four-wheeled electric toy.

What arguably matters most is range, and with the Leaf, Nissan contends the slippery hatch (.29 cD) is good for 100 miles per charge – a reasonable amount for its target demographic of urban dwellers and inner-city commuters. When the juice does run out, you can plug one of three different cables into one of two front-mounted ports: 110-, 220- or 440-volt.

The first option is available to anyone who can plug in a toaster, but it provides barely enough juice to top up the batteries after 20 hours of charge time and it doesn't do bagels.

The two other options are far more advantageous. An electrician can adapt your existing 220-volt clothes dryer outlet, thus reducing charge time to around seven hours total. The cost of the in-house charger runs around $2,200, but the Feds will take care of half that amount and Nissan will not only arrange for the installation, it'll allow you to roll the cost of the setup into your monthly payments. If you're lucky enough to live around one of the 440-volt "Quick Charge" stations, you can get up to 80 percent of the battery's capacity in around 30 minutes. Expect to see these popping up all over the U.S. – from California to New York – in the coming months and years... assuming all goes according to plan.

On the subject of cost, the aforementioned $32,780 sticker is the base price (again, not including any government rebates), but if you want the backup camera and spoiler-mounted solar panel, you can option up for the SL model at a $940 premium. The rearview camera is a reasonable accessory, much more so than the solar panel, which simply trickle charges a 12-volt battery to supply electrons to the headlights, clock and a few low-power accessories. Nissan officials admit it's more of a marketing ploy than a functional addition, but that hasn't stopped 85 percent of pre-order customers from optioning up for the SL trim. And for just under a grand to burnish your soon-to-be unassailable green halo, why not?

So, with the facts and figures out of the way, what's it like? To begin with, bigger than we expected.

On our initial approach, we thought the Leaf was sitting on a podium. Once we got a clear view, it was obvious that not only is the greenhouse expansive, but it's on the large side of the B-segment. The footprint is like any other subcompact, but the beltline rises high and there's copious quantities of glass expanding from the windshield back.

Although aerodynamic efficiency is a top priority, it's not immediately obvious that the Leaf is anything other than a standard around-town runabout. The only tell-tales are the panel up front that hides the two charging ports and the rather rotund rump that protrudes several inches past the rear wheels in a rather Gallic fashion (fitting, considering Nissan's Renault ties). The taillamps are thin and long, running from below the functional spoiler to halfway down the hatch, and a quartet of diffusers at the rear tip you off to the smooth underbody tray beneath.

The headlights are more compelling, bulging out from the fenders more than some concepts displayed on the auto show circuit every year. Predictably, they serve a functional purpose. When Nissan was testing the Leaf, they noticed a fair amount of wind noise coming off the side mirrors. And with any EV, exterior noise is amplified due to the lack of racket emanating from under-hood. So the lights were redesigned to split the air leading towards the mirrors, eliminating buffeting and drawing a clear line through the atmosphere.

However, noise had to be added back in. To assuage the fears of the sight-impaired, Nissan fitted a small speaker to the left-front side of the Leaf that emits a subtle tone up to 18 mph. After that, Nissan believes wind and tire noise will be enough to warn pedestrians of an approaching Leaf. And no, customized sounds aren't in the cards, but when you shift the drive selector into Reverse, it does emit a faint, commercial truck-like beep.

Our first stint inside was in the back seat, and after throwing our camera bag and coat into the commodious trunk (despite the fact that 900 pounds worth of batteries are mounted behind and under the rear seats), we were pleasantly surprised by the amount of space in back. Nissan claims you can fit three people in the rear, but as always, make sure the person in the middle is suitably malnourished and amiable.

Situated behind the driver, the ride was suitably smooth thanks to an independent suspension up front and a torsion beam in the rear, while 16-inch wheels wrapped in low-rolling resistance tires soaked up what little bumps were found in and around the city.

The materials inside are a few degrees better than what you'd find in an economy car of similar size, with cloth seating as the only material (dead cow wouldn't be P.C.) and a combination of plastics that ran the gamut from mildly plush to the high side of acceptable.

From behind the wheel, the seating position is surprisingly elevated, necessary to see over the acres of dash in front of you. A two-tiered instrument cluster is front-and-center, with a digital speedometer up top, flanked by a clock, exterior temperature gauge and an LCD "tree" to let you know if you're being a good boy with the electric throttle.

The second display, nestled in the traditional space behind the steering wheel, provides more information, including temperature and range, a power indicator and the normal assortment of trip and transmission information. It's relatively straight-forward, as is the navigation screen at the center of the dash that can display a myriad of power, charge and travel information. Taken as a whole, it's technofabulous, but the learning curve doesn't seem out of reach of your average iPhone user.

To get things underway, you press a small, glowing button to the right of the steering wheel, release the electronic parking brake, then move the silver, 'hockey puck' drive selector to the left and then down to select Drive. Release the brake, press the accelerator and you're whisked forward to the sound of... nothing.

As we experienced in the Tesla Roadster, this initial lack of noise is slightly unnerving at first, but as speeds increase, the sound of wind and the low rumbling of the tires take over. The steering is commuter-friendly light, slightly overboosted, but perfect for running around town.

Give the throttle a determined shove and the Leaf gets moving with authority. It's not blazing, certainly but it's adequately quick, with plenty of punch to motivate the Leaf's portly 3,700-pound curb weight. In Normal mode, throttle resistance is minimal, but switching to Eco stiffens things up to promote lighter inputs. However, if you take it to the floor, the Leaf responds with the same amount of thrust you'd get in the standard mode.

On the other hand, braking was slightly less endearing, with a wooden feel accentuated by the minimal amount of travel before things get biting. With the system set back to Normal, the regenerative brakes provide a subtle amount of "engine braking," but in Eco it becomes more pronounced, slowing the Leaf down quicker and giving the batteries a minimal jolt of energy. We were expecting something akin to what we enjoyed in the Tesla – the regenerative braking remained one of our favorite driving features – but it's decidedly less aggressive in the Leaf. And considering the application, it should be.

If there's any overarching sense from behind the wheel, it's that the Leaf is simply a car. The gadgetry is impressive, but no more so than some of the hybrid options available from Nissan's competitors. The interior is comfortable and spacious, with more than enough room for four people and their assorted trappings. Few things stand out, and that's exactly its point. Nissan isn't out to change the driving experience, it's just changing the method of motivation. And more than anything else, that's what's going to bring electric vehicles into the mainstream.

Photos copyright ©2010 Damon Lavrinc / AOL

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