First Drive: Nissan LEAF EV

By KBB.com Editors on August 3, 2009 11:22 AM

Nissan has taken some hits for its approach to hybrid vehicles, which industry pundits have labeled laggardly, but now the company is hoping to leapfrog all others to the top of the environmentally friendly tree with the all-electric vehicle it calls the LEAF. Technological leaps found in the LEAF include an advanced Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack (Nissan has been researching Li-ion batteries since 1992) and a sophisticated car-driver interface that includes special efforts like emailing your PDA when your car has reached a full charge. Another leap, one of faith, is that a large enough number of consumers in the United States, Japan and other countries will be comfortable enough with a car that offers a range of just 100 miles to buy one.

Nissan is doing all it can to reach that critical mass of numbers by pricing the attractive five-passenger hatchback at about the same level as an equivalent gasoline-powered car; somewhere in the Sentra-Altima range, Nissan officials tell us. And critical mass is what is necessary for success, since the goal of Nissan's electric vehicle project is to take a big swing at carbon dioxide emissions that are thought by many to be a culprit in global climate change. A niche vehicle won't make much of a difference if the bulk of the vehicle fleet continues to burn gasoline.

Nissan has lofty goals for its electric-car strategy, including a long-term target CO2 reduction of 90 percent. Nissan is not alone in believing that such a target is impossible without a strong reliance on battery-electric cars, as vehicles fueled by gasoline, clean diesel, natural gas and ethanol all produce carbon dioxide. So, too, do hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The LEAF is an integral part of what Nissan refers to as a "holistic" approach to energy use and transportation. Battery-electric vehicles like LEAF are zero-emission, and they allow the use of electricity derived from various sources, including oil, natural gas, biomass, nuclear, wind, wave action and other hydroelectric means. Certainly some electrical generation is not zero-emission, but Nissan notes that the LEAF and vehicles to come that share its technology are.

So what will the driver find when the LEAF comes to the American market next year? Having driven an engineering prototype propelled by the LEAF's powertrain, we can report that the driver will encounter an exceedingly simple interface with the car. A pushbutton turns it on, and a console-mounted selector allows you to choose whether the car moves forward or backward. Acceleration is rapid thanks to the immediate torque available from the 80 kW electric motor that drives the front wheels. Though we were unable to confirm it during our brief test at Nissan's Yokohama proving grounds, top speed is said to be nearly 90 mph. With its Li-ion batteries mounted under the floor, the low center of gravity offers a smooth ride and reasonably good handling, though the low-rolling-resistance tires don't offer a whole lot of "stick." What will be immediately apparent to its driver is how smooth and quiet the LEAF is. Design chief Shiro Nakamura noted that extraordinary care had to be taken in controlling wind noise, because there is no engine noise to mask it. With a straight face, one Nissan engineer told us a key benefit of the hushed electric drive system is that it won't disturb your neighbors.

While a zero-emission car, especially one as good as the LEAF promises to be, is a laudable goal, there are hurdles to public acceptance. One is range. One hundred miles is more than most people drive in a day, but exceeding the 100-mile limit has onerous consequences. Nissan is addressing that with a push for municipalities and businesses to install fast-charge facilities, but it remains to be seen how quickly such an infrastructure will develop. The other hurdle is battery cost. Nissan Senior Vice President of Product Planning Andy Palmer said the estimated $10,000 cost of each LEAF's battery pack would not be part of the vehicle's purchase price. Instead, it is anticipated that the consumer will lease the battery pack from Nissan, paying a monthly fee as part of his or her "fuel" cost.

While both hurdles have their ramifications, it is likely the LEAF will allow Nissan to take a spot amongst the leaders of those marketing environmental technologies. And owning one is certain to give its driver a green badge of courage.

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