• Jul 27th 2010 at 12:30PM
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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.

Follow the jump to continue.

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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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      lol 0 - 60 mph in 6 seconds though...man oh man am i suprised... aint slow of the line if you think abt it...
      • 3 Years Ago
      when the Electric car does what we are used to which is 300 miles per charge and the charge time is 10 minutes with a cost under 20,000 then that auto maker will be the next Apple Computer or Microsoft and this leaf is very close it will always be known as the car that woke up America. Never has a car changed the thinking of Americans like this car has Thank you Nissan for The LEAF a car with a place in history
      • 5 Years Ago
      @ Gary
      What hypocrisy? I don't really care about the emissions part, I just care about the convenience and luxury aspects!

      I've said before, I'd love to have a Nissan Leaf and a 370Z sitting next to each other in my garage (or in my best fantasy, a Range Rover Supercharged and a Porsche 911 Turbo next to the Leaf). But I'd be perfectly willing to settle for owning the Nissan Leaf and renting a Land Rover or Benz whenever I want to!

      This Nissan Leaf with its 208 ftlb of completely flat torque whenever you press the accelerator would be an incredible hoot around town, and I'd never have to touch a gas pump. No gasoline engine can match that! You don't even need a clutch or transmission, because this electric engine is ALWAYS on it's peak power. You just romp on the potentiometer ("throttle") pedal and you're spinning your tires!
      • 5 Years Ago
      .... And another thing, why the HELL do all eco cars think they have to have some ridiculous shifter?!?!?!?!? What is wrong with a conventional PRNDL?
        • 5 Years Ago
        It's heavier, and a lot of people want a futuristic interior look in a car that's supposed to be on the cutting edge of technology.

        IMO it looks great.
      • 5 Years Ago
      How do things like this actually get through styling review? Truly one of the ugliest slugs to ever hit the pavement. At least the Volt is attractive.
        • 5 Years Ago
        It actually looks pretty good in person.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I want this Leaf sitting next to a 370Z in my garage. 208 lbft torque in a compact makes for some VERY nice around town driving. Too bad they don't offer a buy option, only lease, or I would be queuing up.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You can buy it. $33K
        • 5 Years Ago
        I agree 208lb/ft of torque in a compact would be a lot of fun, but this will weigh about 2 tons with passengers (2), so that probably would kill the fun.
        • 5 Years Ago
        But realize that's not "peak" torque, that's absolutely flat 208ftlb of torque for every second you have the accelerator pressed down. That's a very different sensation from a gasoline engine, and the 0-60 mph of 6 seconds illustrates that.
      • 5 Years Ago
      For those ragging on the looks...people who want an eco-conscious electric car will easily overlook the appearance. In fact, if the look is distinctive (think Prius, which looks like a doorstop), they'll be more attracted to it.

      The big issue is the range in bad conditions. Hilly areas (Rockies, Appalachians, western coast, lots of places in between), extremely cold winters (New England, northern Great Plains and Midwest), and spread-out suburbs (where most people live) will make the Leaf impractical even as a second commuter car. Those living in downtown Austin will like it, though.

      And how come no one has commented on the fact that you have to spend an extra grand (after federal incentives) and go to the hassle of getting a 220 volt charger installed in your home? And then it takes 7 hours to fully charge!? Holy crap! Let's hope you don't need to stay out late one night and leave early the next day...
        Bryan Citrowkse
        • 2 Years Ago
        I'm in MN and my leaf is working out Great. battery heater kicks in when it needs it and the range doesnt drop too much when the temp drops.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Looks wise the Volt is much better.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Much better looking IMO than the Volt, especially in the interior where the Volt looks too much like an appliance. Nissan should have some sort of battery replacement program that upgraded the car's battery as the technology got better.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The Leaf is a good city car. Though it will constantly be compared to the Volt (and less so the Prius), it is not a competitor. The Leaf cannot be used for trips - it cannot be used to go 1/2 the distance of its capacity (to get back home) unless a charger exists elsewhere.

      But if it does not need to (ever), it is the best choice for those buyers. The Volt is for those who may have short trips for most of their travel, but do sometimes go past its charge limit. And the Prius is for those who want a slightly better mpg when driving in the city (and currently not have to plug in anything).
      • 5 Years Ago
      1- God this is an ugly little car. Most of the Nissan line-up is not that pretty anyways.

      2- You need a Garage or a private source of electricity to charge it: as my guitar teacher used to tell me: yeah nice, but if we dance? What do you do if you live in a condo: the underground garages are sure not ready for this.

      3- This is like a golf cart, the difference is : if my golf car is out of power, the Marshall will come and rescue me. No charge. Try this on a bridge in the rush hour. This could cause some anxiety. Life is not always this predictable. You can get stuck in traffic for many reasons, so there goes your autonomy.

      4- Many baby boomers will retire and will decide to keep only one vehicle because of budget restriction. Just a small economy gas powered vehicle will do the job.

      5- Most of my trip are short but from time to time I go to the cottage, 120 miles back and forth. I am still 20 miles short. I do not see quick 440 volts charging stations in this area anytime soon. As I will retire within the next five years, I do not think I want to own two cars. Renting one for the occasional trip? This takes out the decisions "on the spur of the moment">

      I believe the Ext-range vehicle like the Volt is a better compromise. Since the mechanical part of the vehicle is used much less than the the electric part, maintenance will be minimum. Plus, you can have only one car and have peace of mind. This will be a determinant factor, especially with woman.
        • 5 Years Ago
        No one is claiming that this is the end-all replacement for every car on the road. This is the first generation of actual production EVs for the masses. In your case, you should definitely look to the volt, prius, or something else.

        My commute is about 9 miles and my wife has a car. This would be perfect for me. Different cars for different people.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wow. That thing weighs more than my audi wagon. Holy crap.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I have a few vehicles.
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