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First Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf [Review]

Tailpipe-free driving is here and its name is Nissan Leaf. Does the first modern mass-market EV sizzle? Let's find out.

They're singing a new song in Nashville, Tennessee. Actually, the tunes are coming from the suburb of Franklin about 25 minutes south of Music City, USA. "Zero emission mobility" is the new buzz-phrase and its artist is the Nissan Leaf.

Starting with what looks like a heavily restyled Nissan Versa (but isn't), the Leaf has been modified to carry a 600 lbs. series of lithium ion batteries that rests under the floor and the rear seating area. It still has a Versa-ish rear end, but the Leaf's nose looks like it has had a little human growth hormone sprinkled on it.

Squaring off in consumer minds against the rather unsimilar Chevrolet Volt extended-range EV, the Leaf is the first mass-market modern EV ever offered by a major automaker in North America. Yes, we've been down this path of plug-in driving - but not in most of our lifetimes.

Reddy Kilowatt would be proud
Reddy, a stick figure made of a red lightning bolt with a light bulb for a nose, would be totally jazzed by what he would find in the Nissan Leaf. A five-passenger hatch, it doesn't look as mondo-polarizing as the Toyota Prius once did, but maybe we're just used to the aero shape now.

Styling from the previously mentioned front end continues toward the upswept LED headlamps, whose lenses are formed to divert wind away from the mirrors to reduce drag. The LEDs consume 50 percent less energy than comparable halogen headlamps. An aerodynamic front undertray, along with motor and cabin underfloor covers, help to smooth things out further.

The result is a vehicle that is quieter than many luxury cars. Nissan engineers realized that as quiet as an EV may be, other sounds become more noticeable. Especially in the case of creaks and other sounds that may come from chassis flex. As a result, the NVH team set out to build a highly rigid body with sound insulating windshield, and an airflow control acoustic insulator in an optimized location.

Inside out
The interior of the Leaf is a typically curvy two-box hatchback affair. Featuring modernistic styling with futuristic touches such as a two-stage gauge pod, and "palm knob" shift control, it's as you would expect from a car with such sky-high technology. The blonde dash and console area is set off by contrasting piano black center stack accents, which enable easy locating and manipulation of the controls.

We characterize the seats as rather flat and bolster-less. But in fairness, this is not the car to toss through a turn on track day at your local speed drome. We were also surprised to find no lumbar support, which is usually included in cars pricing in at half as much. On the plus side, most of the materials used for interior fitment are recycled from end of life products.

The interior measures up at 92 cubic feet of passenger space, and 21 cubic feet of cargo space and it feels airier than the compact Volt.

Batteries not included
Nissan has been into battery operated devices since it started battery research and development back in 1992. The first Nissan EV came in 1995 and several others followed, but mostly in an experimental or research vein. Finally the Leaf concept was shown and a production version goes on sale in limited markets next month.

A simple concept, actually like a giant slot car, the Leaf is a battery, a motor and a plug. As opposed to a gas tank, an internal combustion engine and battery generators that power electric motors on the axles. Oh, and the Leaf has no tailpipe.

Using lithium ion batteries, which first gained a reputation for stability in cellphones, it was a natural to eventually implement their usage in an electric vehicle.

In the case of the Leaf's laminated lithium ion batteries, they are located low and tightly centered in the middle of the car under the floor. The total battery weight is about 600 lbs. Subjected to hot and cold, as well as high-pressure water tests, the battery packs have proven reliable, according to Nissan. Crash tests have shown no damage to the packs in 40 mph frontal crashes. We did not test either of these claims.

Once they reach the end of their useful life (eight years or 100,000 miles, but your mileage may vary), Nissan will transfer batteries to be reused, refabricated, recycled and resold by Sumitomo Trading Corporation. Full circle.

Let's motor
Yes, we know that motto belongs to another manufacturer, but with the Leaf powered by a motor, rather than an engine, we were not above appropriating it for our uses here. Powered by an 80kW AC Synchronous motor producing an equivalent 107 horsepower and 207 lb-ft. of torque, the Leaf is clearly no wallflower. Power comes on instantly, and stays steady throughout the powerband, unlike a typical internal combustion engine that builds up to a peak and then tapers off. It's kind of like that saying, "all-in." Top speed is hit as the needle clicks over the 90 mph mark.

As an aside, we like how the Leaf's electric motor resembles a traditional internal combustion engine more than the plastic-cladded monstrosities seen in most hybrid cars these days.

With a built-in single-charge range of 100 miles, the Leaf should be a capable performer in most city situations. When equipped with an available (optional) DC fast-charge port (440V commercial grade charger), the batteries can be recharged to 80 percent in 30 minutes. Otherwise, expect a full charge from a 220V outlet in eight hours, or 16-20 hours from standard 110V household lines. By the way, call up your local electrician for home installation of the 220V Level II charger. Charging timers are built onboard that allow you to take advantage of (possible) savings during off-peak power grid usage.

The gauge-pod on the Leaf has a variety of meters that help to monitor consumption and storage levels while operating the car. Everyone is going green, and Nissan is no exception, using a "tree" icon to help you modify your driving habits. Drive in a responsible manner and your tree "grows." We appreciate the symbolism, but think the Ford Fusion Hybrid's "growing leaves" is a much slicker solution.

The Leaf's suspension kit is pretty straightforward, having been used in many other platforms within Nissan's product portfolio. An independent strut front suspension, with stabilizer bar, is joined with rear torsion beams for a stable, if not high tech ride. Speed sensitive electric power steering keeps the car well pointed. Finally, a regenerative brake system helps the Leaf to produce its own energy for storage in the battery packs.

Roving along
Nissan's studies tell them that 72.4 percent of consumers typically drive less than 50 miles in a day. The Range Management system that is displayed on the standard navigation screen continually updates you on the point of no return, and also lets you know where EV infrastructure (charging stations) is located.

Here's a statement we never thought would pass from our lips: The new Nissan Leaf is actually fun to drive.

We were impressed by the smoothness that the Leaf displayed and the noise it didn't. With an interior that we would have to agree was luxury-car-quiet, it just wanted to go and go. Unfortunately, we had a tough time taking one of our eyes off the energy gauge while driving a test loop that measured about 50 miles. That's because on the day we drove, we were well aware that the only place close to Nashville for us to top off the charge of the batteries, was back at Nissan's US headquarters in Franklin, Tennessee.

Nissan plans to sell 50,000-imported Leafs (Leaves?) over the next two years and up to 150,000 copies at their Smyrna, Tennessee, plant starting in 2012. At around $33,000, it significantly undercuts the quasi-rival Chevy Volt, although both feature similar lease rates.

Leftlane's bottom line
Nissan's Leaf is yet another example of electric vehicle technology that offers alternatives to the internal combustion engine. A great city-based vehicle, it will get you to and from work with ease, provided you are within 100 miles or so. Beyond that, if you suffer from bouts of "range anxiety," a traditional hybrid or a Chevy Volt might be just what the doctor ordered.

2011 Nissan Leaf base price, $32,780.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.