All-electric Leaf kept me on my toes

There are few cues to let on that the 2012 Nissan Leaf is an all-electric vehicle, save for the lack of a meaningful grille and a centre-mounted faceplate that pops up to reveal the charging receptacles. Pronounced headlights are not only energy efficient, but split and redirect airflow away from the mirrors, to reduce wind noise and drag.

By Neil Moore,
Metroland Media/ -

My week with the Nissan Leaf was as much an adventure as it was a road test.

Which meant that my time behind the wheel of this all-electric vehicle was anything but dull.

Not that the Leaf delivered a heart-pounding thrill ride – although it certainly wasn’t sluggish. But more like occasional bouts of anxiety, wondering if I’d be pushing this 3,394-lb compact hatchback home or back to the office.

Another spin would be to say that this vehicle transformed motoring from something that I took for granted into a task required careful planning – and steady monitoring.

Indeed, the Nissan Leaf can’t be approached like any other car, despite the fact you steer, brake and accelerate as you normally would.

Its lack of a gas tank is both a strength – and a weakness.

I like the idea of a zero-emissions car that you can run all week on only a few bucks worth of electricity. Not just because I’m thrifty, but because I really do care about our environment.

Wide haunches give the Nissan Leaf a firmly-planted look. The slim LED taillights reduce energy use, and the roof-mounted antenna cuts the wind.

That being said, I’m not crazy about there being no backup power. The Leaf, unlike the Chevy Volt, has no gas engine to rely on when the battery craps out.

Which it will do if you take its 160-km range too literally.

For example, winter mornings often mean frosty windows, not to mention a cold car and little to no daylight. Turn on the headlamps, front and rear defrost, standard heated seats (both front and back), and heated steering wheel – which feels so nice after scraping windows – and the 160-km range drops faster than Mitt Romney’s friend count on Facebook.

Case in point: a four-kilometre trip to work knocked 19 km off the meter. And on the way to a black tie function one Saturday night, which included a long uphill grade, my wife and I nervously watched the meter count down one kilometre every few seconds.

Needless to say, I turned down the heater, shut off the delightfully warm steering wheel and mutually decided we’d forgo our toasty backsides. Several long downhill stretches and a few kilometres later, we had magically “regained” most of those lost kilometres.

The 2012 Nissan Leaf has a bright, airy interior, and with loads of amenities that include automatic climate control, navigation and plenty of instrumentation to help keep track of energy use and distance left to your next charge.

I left the house with 106 km, and arrived after driving 17 km with 102 left. The trip home, however, wasn’t quite so generous, as my wife demanded the heated seat which helped gobble double the expected distance.

According to Nissan, the algorithm that calculates how many clicks are left on the battery, monitors your driving style and accessory use – including climate control – and assumes you’ll continue down that reckless path. Mend your energy-sapping ways, and the numbers improve.

Putting the Leaf into ‘Eco’ mode (via the wonky little palm shifter) also helps conserve battery, but it really sucks the life out of this car.

Otherwise, the Leaf is quite lively when you plant the pedal, thanks to its 48 laminated compact Lithium-ion battery modules and a high-response 80kW AC synchronous motor that delivers 107 horsepower and 207 lb/ft – with all that torque available at launch.

By comparison, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV only produces 66 hp and 145 lb/ft of torque, and although lighter, isn’t nearly as quick. But on the upside, it seemed a little easier on the battery.

I’ll acknowledge that electric vehicles aren’t positioned as drivers’ cars, but a little nimbleness doesn’t hurt. Also helping improve the Leaf’s driving dynamics is its underfloor battery placement, which lowers the centre of gravity and delivers more fun in the corners.

The heated front seats are wide and supportive, and upholstered in a nice, grippy fabric. The Leaf also offers heated rear seats as standard, but keep an eye on battery use.

The suspension – an independent setup with stabilizer bar in front and torsion beam with stabilizer in rear – along with a rigid body, also helps deliver a smooth, composed ride.

If you drive the Leaf in a way that takes advantage of its assets, expect to plug in more often. Which for me was a problem as I had only the Level 1 charger – a unit with long cord that plugs into the Leaf’s front-mounted receptacle, and your regular 110-volt outlet.

It takes approximately 19 hours to charge from depletion to full power, but without 19 hours between the end and beginning of each workday, I had to be vigilant about plugging in whenever possible.

Most Leaf owners will probably opt for the 240-volt “Level 2” home charging station. This takes about seven hours for a full charge, but such convenience doesn’t come cheap. The average installation can cost about $2,200.

The DC Quick charger, which requires a 480 volt, three-phase utility, can apparently provide 80% charge in as little as 30 minutes. But at a cost of around $15K, it would defeat any savings in going electric.

There are quite a few of these, however, installed in public places throughout the GTA and along the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, and the Leaf’s “Carwings” telematics service can direct you to the nearest one. I dropped by a quick charger at the Windfall Ecology Centre near my office in Aurora, and could have plugged in had the need arisen.

There’s no shortage of cargo capacity in the Leaf hatchback, with 410 litres of space that expands with the 60/40 rear seats dropped.

Indeed, there are several complexities in owning an electric car, but the Leaf itself was surprisingly normal in most ways. It had a bright, modern interior, with ample passenger room both front and back.

I wouldn’t say the fit, finish and choice of materials was on par with other $40K vehicles, but it comes well equipped whether you choose the base SV model ($38,395) or Leaf SL ($39,995).

Standard fare includes smart key with remote windows down, hatch release and pushbutton start; automatic climate control; heated front and rear seats with 6-way manual adjust for the driver and 4-way for the front passenger; six-speaker AM/FM/CD/MP3/WMA audio system, navigation, Bluetooth, auto headlights and more.

The SL model ads a photovoltaic solar panel spoiler, fog lights, cargo cover, HomeLink and rearview monitor.

The Leaf also provides an ample 410-litre cargo hold, which expands when you drop the 60/40 split rear bench.

This Leaf is currently using the 110-volt “Level One” charger, which takes about 19 hours, but many owners will opt for the 240-volt unit that does the job in as little as seven.

Bottom line: in so many ways, the Nissan Leaf is a practical little hauler for around town. And if the industry could overcome its range problems so that one could drive nearly as far as a conventionally-powered car, and then charge it as quickly and easily as filling a tank of gas, (and shave a few bucks off the price) you could sign me up tomorrow.

Until then, electrics like the Leaf – which has sold only 206 units so far in 2012 – are destined to remain niche vehicles.

But we all know what happened to the once overpriced, bulky and impractical cell phone…

Nissan Leaf SV 2012 at a glance:
BODY STYLE: compact electric hatchback
DRIVE METHOD: front-wheel-drive, no gears, single-speed reducer
ENGINE: 48 laminated Lithium-ion battery modules with high-response 80kW AC synchronous motor (107 hp and 207 lb/ft)
RANGE: 160 km (approx – depending on temperature, terrain, driving style, accessory use, etc.)
CARGO CAPACITY: 410 litres
BRAKES: 4-wheel discs with ABS, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist, regenerative brakes
PRICE: base SV $38,395, as tested SL $39,995

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