Test Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf Electric

aDSC_1180t

Though we report primarily on diesel powered cars at DieselDig, we do often look at the alternatives out there in the market for those of us looking beyond the gasoline powered car. Recently we tested Nissan’s new Leaf 100% electric car.

Our Ocean Blue 2011 Nissan Leaf SL-E was bright and attention getting from the start. The exterior is modern and artful, following Nissan’s contemporary design themes. In some angles we did find some heritage design elements harkening back to the B-210 series of the 1970’s in the C pillar. And what one notices when standing with the Leaf is that it’s larger than its photos suggest. This is a substantial car, not an ultra-sub-compact.

Inside, Nissan designed a very modern and flowing interior that is almost shall we say Zen-like. The light colors and curves look to be lifted straight from a concept car. In execution however the design translates in to a comfortable and very functional interior that is free of gimmickry and form over function. Its futuristic but very real.

Seating is comfortable and supportive with cloth made from fabrics that utilize recycled materials. Manually adjusted seats were easy to set right. Rear seating provides plenty of space as does a generous rear stowage areas behind the seats.

The dash has a bi-level instrument cluster that takes advantage of sight lines through and over the steering wheel well. The center stack is simple and easy to use. Our Leaf featured the NAV system with touch screen was a bit difficult to see in some light however.

The center console features a modernist palm drive selector. Once the car is powered up, you simply pull the puck to the left and push forward or back for Reverse or Drive. A second tug rearward will put you in ECO mode with extends battery range by modifying accelerator control, HVAC & radio settings, and increases regenerative braking. To put the Leaf in park, you simply press the round P button in the center.

To start off, you put your foot on the brake and push the power button with the Leaf’s key within range. When powering up the first thing that happens is the lighting up of the dash followed by a futuristic chime affirming the Leaf is ready. Putting the one speed gear-set in drive or ECO-drive will generate a range estimate on the instrument cluster depending on your choice.

When you lift your foot off the brake the Leaf nudges into motion just as a regular car with an automatic transmission would. Power delivery is smooth and quiet whether you are driving slow or aggressively. Only a futuristic whine can be distantly heard from the motor if you have the windows down and the radio off. Once beyond the lack of sound and shifting of gears, the Leaf powers you down the road like any other car.

The electric motor cranks out 107hp and an impressive 207 lbs. of torque, which is where all the action is. The specifications speak of a top speed of 90mph, but that doesn’t at all mean that it can’t easily keep up on the freeway. We spend well over 100 miles in freeway driving during our test week comfortably and easily cruising at 65-70 mph.  Around town the Leaf never feels underpowered, especially with ECO mode turned off.

The published range of the Leaf is around 100 miles. It can be more than that if you drive right, or less if you don’t. We experimented with several driving modes including having all power accessories off and driving exclusively in ECO mode, to sailing down the freeway at 70 mph with the AC, headlights, radio on without ECO mode.

Anything you use like the lighting, HVAC and radio pulls down your overall range since these items run off the same electricity as the motor. But we were surprised at how well the Leaf did even when all the accessories were on. From our test drive notes you can see we spent 10 minutes in a drive-thru with the AC on and the range didn’t deplete at all. Around town, stop and go traffic is actually a good thing because you get more regenerative braking charge back into the battery.


This is why the EPA rates the Leaf at 106 mpg equivalent in the city and 92 mpg equivalent on the highway. Freeway driving tends to eat up range faster due to higher wind resistance and less regenerative braking cycles.

On the road the Leaf feels solid and heavy, like a substantial car. It should as it weighs in at some 3375 lbs. It rides smooth and quiet and has some spunk for quick turns around corners, but pushed hard the low rolling resistance P205/55R16 tires tend to sign off early into a linear push. One of the remarkable things is how ECO-mode transforms the feel of the car whether it’s on or off.

If you switch to ECO-mode while driving it feels as if 2000 lbs. was instantly added to the car. Accelerator response becomes lethargic and the car slows at a greater pace when you coast. Switch ECO-mode off while driving and the car springs to life with a sense of speed and spunk. It all comes down to different software mapping for the drive-by wire accelerator that either allows you to have more power, or conserves it. In our many experiments however we found that driving without ECO mode only looses about 10% in range but is so much fun.

Cruising around town, maneuvering in and out of parking lots feels just as natural as a regular car. We spent much of our time living with the Leaf just as we normally do, shopping, going out to dinner and taking the kids to Karate.  While range anxiety with electric cars is often talked about, we never felt it with the Leaf since our local routines seemed to fit well within the ranges the car has. And because the power usage became pretty predictable, we never felt surprised by losing more miles than we expected.

Our tester was equipped with a number of options including  splash guards for $140, Eco Design Package for $260, Protection Package for $170, a cargo net at $20 and a safety kit for $75. The grand total sticker price came in at $35,430 including an $820 destination charge. There is of course a $7500 tax credit which brings the net price down to around $27,900.

While that is still a premium car price we are glad to share that the Leaf is well outfitted with features and design elements that bring it upscale to a point where the price isn’t completely out of range. Additionally, the interior fit and finish and quality of materials is far from bargain basement car status.

Its included 120v trickle charger would have it near topped off after an overnight charge. A total charge with the standard outlet takes about 22 hours. But if you owned a Leaf you would opt for the 240v fast charge unit which can top it off in 7 hours.  And plugging it in is easy via its nose mounted charge outlet hidden under a cute nose piece that flips up. A small solar panel on the rear spoiler helps to keep the accessories battery maintained.  And if you’re curious, the main battery pack is warrantied for 8-years or 100,000 miles.

Overall we found the Nissan Leaf to be a pure delight to live with and drive. It’s one of the most “normal” electric cars we’ve driven yet. It powers you around comparably to an equivalent gasoline powered car in a style that is both unique but not a circus act. It’s comfortable for five and can keep them cool inside on a 95 degree day. And in our world, that makes a good car.

Read more about alternative powered cars on our partner site Motoring2.com

About the author

Sam Haymart

Publisher and editor of Steed Publications news outlets including this one, ActivityVehicle.com, Motoring2.com, and others. He is host at TestDriven.TV and has been an auto journalist since 1994.