An electric car causes you to rethink how you drive because the distance left on a charge, or range, always lingers in the back of your mind. The distance-to-empty figure depends on how you drive and how much you use accessories, such as air conditioning.
The Nissan Leaf doesn’t have an on-board gasoline engine like the Chevy Volt, so if you drain the battery there is no backup.
The car’s range is roughly 100 miles on a full charge. The average daily commute is 40 miles or less, so for most drivers, running out of electricity isn’t an issue. But tack on a last-minute change in plans, and the amount of juice left in the battery can be an issue.
I borrowed a car from a suburban dealer and consumed most of the car’s charge in a day of errands, even while driving in the most conservative manner. When I had to deviate from my planned route, I had to re-calculate to see if I had enough charge left in the battery. As it turns out, I drove about 65 miles that day, and I still had about 20 miles remaining, but it seemed closer than that. I plugged the car into my garage’s standard 110-volt outlet for the night.
The next morning, with the trip computer showing a range of 98 miles after charging for about 10 hours, I headed back to the dealership. Fourteen miles of driving briskly and running 70 mph in rush-hour traffic sapped the battery rather quickly, and the distance-to-empty shrank to 53 miles.
During my day with the Leaf, I enjoyed trying to squeeze as many miles as possible out of the batteries. When an electric car is slowing or braking, the electric motor becomes a generator and it returns energy to the battery. That’s why I coasted up to stops and used the brakes lightly for as long as possible.
The Environmental Protection Agency has given the Leaf an mpg-equivalent rating of 92-106.
Nissan says driving the Leaf costs roughly 3 cents per mile compared to 12 cents per mile for a gasoline-powered car that gets 25 mpg.
Electric motors deliver all of their torque from rest, so the Leaf’s 80-kilowatt motor accelerates nicely if you mash the throttle (although range suffers dramatically). Acceleration from 50 to 70 mph isn’t quite the same as a gasoline engine. Top speed is 90 mph.
The Leaf handles well. The car feels as if it has a low centre of gravity and that makes it agile in turns.
Charging takes eight hours with a special 220-volt charger that costs about $2,000 with installation. The car also plugs into a standard 110-volt outlet, but a full charge can take up to 20 hours, according to Nissan.
The 600-pound lithium-ion battery pack consists of 48 modules, and each module contains four laminated cells. Each flat cell is about the size of a license plate. The pack is placed under the seats for optimum weight distribution and for the least intrusion into the passenger compartment.
The styling is unique. Electric cars are so quiet that items such as the windshield wipers seem louder, so Nissan worked to make the car as quiet as possible. Nissan said the side mirrors were particularly noisy in early testing, so the designers created headlights that protrude from the fenders and direct wind past the mirrors. At 60 mph there is hardly a whistle.
There are two models. The SL adds a photovoltaic panel on the roof spoiler to charge the battery that runs the accessories, fog lights, backup camera and automatic headlights. The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles. The powertrain is covered for five years or 60,000 miles and the battery is covered for eight years or 100,000 miles.