The Leaf is the gateway to a brave new electric world from Nissan. Forget GM's EV-1, the Mitsubishi i-MiEVV and Mini E; the five-seat Leaf is the world's first mass-produced, purpose-built electric car. And it could very well be a defining moment in automotive history on the way to cleaning up emissions and weaning us off fossil fuels.
If you weren't sold on its looks, I can tell you that it's better in the metal than in photos. Designers were able to differentiate the Leaf's styling from that of conventional hatchbacks by giving it a short, rakish front end simply because the car doesn't have a bulky engine up front. Protruding headlights reduce drag around the front end and over the door mirrors, while the overall silhouette and high rear are designed to maximize cabin space while minimizing drag.
The Leaf employs a unique platform and body, rather than being an electrified version of an existing model, hence the “purpose-built” tag. It's powered by 48 laminated lithium-ion battery modules and a high-response synchronous electric motor that generates 108hp and 206lb-ft of torque.
The battery pack is located directly beneath the front and rear seats to keep weight low and central for greater on-road stability and handling. It will give a range of 100 miles on a full charge, claims Nissan, takes about eight hours to charge using a 220-240V supply and produces no tailpipe emissions.
In the driver's seat, the Leaf feels like any other hatchback. Push the starter button and a 3-4sec computer-like start-up jingle plays to inform you that the car is ready for action. Flick the mouse-shaped gear lever to D, floor the throttle and you have 100 percent instant torque on tap. Power delivery from the CVT is silky smooth, effortless and, above all, whisper quiet apart from a barely audible whir from the motor. (A speaker in the engine bay emits a low-pitched whistle to warn pedestrians of the Leaf's presence.)
From zero to 30mph, the Leaf accelerates faster than a V6, but progress slows as revs rise. The Leaf will reach 60mph from rest in 11.5sec, which is comparable to base-engined conventional hatchbacks. Top speed is 90mph, but then the Leaf wasn't designed for big freeway miles.
Flick the mouse to Eco mode and the on-board computer dials down the air conditioning and throttle response while boosting regenerative braking. This increases the car's operating range by as much as 10 percent.
The Leaf handles with surprising poise and purpose of mission. It turns in with precise, well weighted steering and exhibits almost no body roll or understeer.
The ride quality was firm and comfortable on Nissan's proving ground in Oppama, Japan. But even on Nissan's smooth test track, we were not so sure about the choice of eco tires. While they maximize mileage and minimize rolling resistance, the all-weather tires do not grip as well as the summer tire option and tend to squeal in corners. But, even with the eco rubber, the Leaf's brakes deliver excellent stopping power with a good helping of regenerative effort on the side.
As the first kid on the electric block, Nissan has tried to make the Leaf as appealing to as many buyers as possible. While the car looks very approachable from the outside, the interior is finished in a bright, stylish trim with wave-like contours and blue-hued illumination.
The Leaf is arguably the world's best-connected car: It is fitted with smart phone connectivity and an “intelligent transport” system, whose main aim is to assist what Nissan calls “range management.” As a result, owners can phone their Leaf to tell it to charge the batteries or turn on the air-con on hot days, and the car itself will call to inform you when it has finished charging.
Seats are comfortable, head and leg room are sufficient and the trunk, which houses the charging plug and cord, will take one large suitcase.
If you don't drive more than 70-80 miles a day – and Nissan's research suggests that more than 80 percent of us don't – then the Leaf might just be the perfect planet-friendly transport for you. It's slightly more expensive than its conventional counterparts, starting at over $25,000 after assorted government EV rebates and incentives, but Nissan claims its lower running costs will recoup the price difference after about three years of use.
We think it will generate strong sales, but there will also be many potential buyers waiting to see how the car performs and how the infrastructure issue pans out. Do you have a quick charging station near you?