No Science-Fair Project, Nissan Leaf Grows on Right Buyers

By Sue Mead, May 19th, 2012

The zero-emission, all-electric Nissan Leaf is real-world science, designed to attract buyers who commute less than 100 miles a day and those who can use solar or other electric-powered vehicles charging stations at work or in public locations. Available in SV and SL trims, the 2012 Nissan LEAF starts at $35,200.

Manufacturer photo: The 2012 Nissan Leaf continues in its second year of production to lead the drive into the "no gas, no tailpipe" zero-emission era
Manufacturer photo: The 2012 Nissan Leaf continues in its second year of production to lead the drive into the "no gas, no tailpipe" zero-emission era

Enhancements for 2012 include a standard battery heater, heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, heated outside mirrors and rear heating and air conditioning duct on both models. Buyers are eligible for a $7,500 government tax credit; lease programs start at $289 a month.

There are 48 four-cell lithium-ion battery modules housed in the floor of the Leaf, each rated at 24k kilowatt-hours (kWh). These batteries are designed to maximize drive time and minimize charging time, which Nissan estimates at 30 minutes for an industrial-strength charger and eight hours for a typical home charger.

Leaf is rated to achieve as high as 100 miles for each charge, but consumers should beware that batteries over their lifetime lose the ability to hold a charge, and that's true for the Leaf's system. The actual driving range will vary based on the age of the batteries as well as other factors, such as weather, temperature and individual driving habits.

The battery pack powers an 80kW AC synchronous motor rated at 107 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque. Unlike a conventional internal combustion engine, Nissan Leaf delivers 100 percent of its torque from start. Nissan describes this as being comparable in driving feel to a conventional V-6.

Manufacturer photo: The 2012 Nissan Leaf continues in its second year of production to lead the drive into the "no gas, no tailpipe" zero-emission era

We drove the new Nissan Leaf on city roads and highways, and motored on the backcountry two-lanes near Franklin, Tenn., where Nissan USA is headquartered. The Leaf is no science-fair project; it drives like a mature automobile. With 107 horsepower, there is ample ability to muscle its diminutive package and the 207 lb.-ft. of torque bring a power-on-tap feel when you depress the gas pedal. There is little-to-no sensation of electric-car feel, other than its stand-out quietness.

Independent front suspension and electric power steering keep the Leaf steady on the road. We also found good maneuverability with steering response and brakes that halt the Leaf with smoothness and command.

One of the surprise-and-delight features of the Leaf allows drivers to use web-enabled mobile phones to turn on air conditioning and set charging functions remotely, even when the vehicle is powered down. An on-board remote-controlled timer can also be programmed to start the Leaf's charging.

While there is good room and good visibility from the front seats, we found the rear seats of this hatchback a bit cramped. But, clearly its mission is to perform as a commuter and short-distance runabout car.

A consideration for us when driving or riding in a small car is safety. We were pleased to learn that the Nissan Leaf has earned a 5-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's New Car Assessment Program. Leaf has also been named a "Top Safety Pick" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Manufacturer photo: The 2012 Nissan Leaf continues in its second year of production to lead the drive into the "no gas, no tailpipe" zero-emission era

The Leaf is cute and curvy, sporting futuristic looks, a snubbed nose and large, prominent headlamps. The rear glass is expansive and the taillamps are big and bold. Filling the role of a fuel tank, owners find a charging port behind a small door that opens at the front of the car.

Inside, Leaf looks like a high-tech, gadget-geek's dream. A twin combination meter display in front of the driver includes an "eyebrow" information display for the car's Eco indicator and speedometer. A liquid crystal display shows the power meter, battery temperature gauge, multi-function display, remaining energy gauge, capacity level gauge and distance-to-empty display.

A 7-inch information screen dominates the center stack, and provides details from Nissan's CARWINGS telematics system, which lets drivers use mobile phones to turn on air conditioning and set charging functions remotely, even when the vehicle is powered down.

In addition to the battery-related gadgetry, there's standard Bluetooth, AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 stereo system and a neat palm shifter that was inspired by a PC mouse. Nissan's navigation system is standard, as well.

Specifications

Base price $35,200 (as tested: $36,050)
Curb weight 3,385 lbs.
Epa mileage rating 106 mpgE city, 92 mpgE highway
Horsepower (net) 107
Motor type 80 kW AC synchronous electric motor
Overall length 175.0 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 207
Transmission single-speed reducer
Vehicle type 5-passenger FWD midsize hatchback
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