Early drive recalls GM press drives 18 years ago

Nissan Leaf EV – Click above for high-res image gallery

I got a Leaf early-drive opportunity at Nissan's Farmington Hills, MI, North American Technical Center the other day. With just one car and other drivers awaiting their turns, it was short – about seven miles in 15 minutes or so – but very educational.

You can make up your own mind about the car's exterior styling. I think it looks like a bug-eyed mutant fish, but it's definitely distinctive, which most agree is important for an electric vehicle (EV). During our briefing before the drive, I learned that those odd protruding headlamps are shaped that way for good reason: they direct air around the side-view mirrors to reduce wind noise at highways speeds. One thing about EVs: once you "drain the swamp" of ICE powertrain noise, every other noise source emerges and annoys, including some you never knew were there.

Speaking of noise, as you probably know, Nissan has added an EV-like whine when the car is moving forward at less than 18 mph, and a muted fork-lift beep when it's backing up, to warn the vision impaired (and the rest of us) of its approach.

The Leaf's interior is also unconventional, but in a positive way: clean, functional, upscale and high-tech. Controls are mostly touch buttons, while instruments are ultra-sharp graphics. Speed is a big number directly in front of you in a deep, hooded dome atop the dash. Range, battery state of charge (SOC) and an array of other useful information can be found in a hemispherical display above the horizontal spokes of the leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel.

Instead of a conventional shifter, a chrome plastic mushroom protrudes from the center console, and it fits your palm just right. Move it left and away for reverse, left and back for drive. Do it again while in drive to select Eco mode, which gives heavier regenerative braking to pump more juice back to the pack and adds resistance to the go pedal to discourage stomping it hard. Full power is still available, you just have to push harder to get it. (This post continues after the jump.)

The Leaf drives as you would expect for an EV: instant torque, good acceleration, no shifts, quiet cruise. At one point, we had no trouble beating a line of cars to a merge point. The standard nav screen offers loads of useful information, including the radius within which you can drive on your remaining charge and locations of public charging stations within it. It also displays the effect on range of turning on the A/C. When the read-out said "-5," we tried it, and our indicated range dropped from 72 to 67 miles. The range gauge also reacts instantly to a shift into or out of Eco by increasing or decreasing its prediction by about 10 percent. Cool! (see a more detailed description of this here.)

The experience was an interesting role reversal for me. As vehicle test and development manager for General Motor's early '90s EV engineering team – which later evolved into the Advanced Technology Vehicle (ATV) Division – I was typically in the right seat demonstrating first our original Impact concept car, then early development mules, then "Proof of Concept" (POC) prototypes and finally production EV1s to everyone from GM board members and executives to members of the media. Now, nearly two decades later, I'm receiving demos instead of giving them.

One of my fondest memories of that time is a series of media drives we did using three of our seven "Proof of Concept" cars way back in 1993. GM had nearly gone bankrupt the year before, thanks to the terrible leadership and mostly awful products of the 1980s Roger Smith CEO era, and new CEO Jack Smith (no relation) had canceled and delayed product programs to save money and, as it turned out, the company.

He had also, quite reluctantly, put our production EV program "on the shelf" for future review and (maybe) revival. While nearly everyone inside and outside GM was thinking we were canceled, we downsized from about 400 folks to 100 (mostly engineers), moved off-site and continued working our backsides off.

At one point the following year, I managed to convince our leadership and (totally clueless) PR manager that we should put some selected media into our POC development cars to show both their potential and that we were still alive and kicking. We ended up doing nearly two weeks of hosting key magazines and reporters, one at a time, for half-day sessions.

We'd meet the morning guests (usually just one or two per session) at the Lundstrom House, just outside the Milford, MI, Proving Grounds, then drive them inside the grounds in POC cars to the MPG R&D building, where we had our powertrain development car on a chassis dyno for testing. Following a "walk-around" demo, our top engineers would brief them on every subsystem, then we'd put them behind the wheel for a hosted drive on public roads.

To simulate an infrastructure and put some miles back into the cars, we had 240V chargers set up near the restaurant in town where we would meet the afternoon group for lunch. Then the first bunch would leave, and we'd put the second through the same program.

The result was a collection of mostly outstandlingly positive articles in major national magazines, most predicting that the eventual production car would be the "best EV ever." Which it was. But it was also a very expensive (to GM) two-seater with very limited range (50-70 miles on the original '97 PbA batteries, about double that on the '99-model's available NiMH), its lessees numbered in the hundreds, and (as we all know) it was soon canceled.

I learned much later that those 1993 magazine raves about our early POC cars were highly influential to the Board of Directors' decision to revive GM's production EV program. Without that series of modest media shows that year, the whole program might have been dropped, the EV1 might never have happened, and all the valuable experience and lessons from it might never have been put to excellent use in GM's later two-mode hybrids, fuel cell EVs and the soon to be launched, potentially game-changing Chevrolet Volt range-extender EV.


Award-winning automotive writer Gary Witzenburg has been writing about automobiles, auto people and the auto industry for 21 years. A former auto engineer, race driver and advanced technology vehicle development manager, his work has appeared in a wide variety of national magazines including The Robb Report, Playboy, Popular Mechanics, Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek and Automobile Quarterly and has authored eight automotive books. He is currently contributing regularly to Kelley Blue Book (www.kbb.com), AutoMedia.com, Ward's Auto World and Motor Trend's Truck Trend and is a North American Car and Truck of the Year juror.

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