The 2011 Nissan Leaf is the world’s first affordable, mass produced, all electric vehicle (EV). It comes with an 8 year/100k mile warranty for the batteries, gets a purported 100 mile range on a full charge, and costs only $2.75 to fill up during off-peak hours. Best of all, fully electric vehicles are eligible for thousands of dollars in tax credits. But, after learning more about the Leaf and taking it for a test drive during Nissan’s Drive Electric Tour, I was left with mixed feelings.
For those living in states offering rebates, the Leaf is a pretty good value (click here to see what your state offers). After the federal rebate of $7,500, states like California and Georgia cut another $5,000 from the Leaf’s $33,000 base price tag. With its price now around $22,000, I think the Leaf is a pretty good value, even if it is a few thousand away from a comparable gas-powered car. On top of this, the federal government also offers a tax credit of $1,000 for the 220V Aerovironment charging equipment (covering about half the cost). Some states even give EV owners additional perks like free parking, use of HOV lanes, and exemption from vehicle excise taxes.
Another appealing aspect of the Leaf is how it drives. As batteries provide maximum torque from a standstill, the Leaf (rated at 207 lb-ft) pulls smoothly from stop, and up to 50mph without much effort. Acceleration after this point begins to trail off, but never feels strained since the motor makes about the same noise as a golf cart. Compared to a Prius, the Leaf’s zero-to-sixty time of 10 seconds dead is 2.5 seconds faster. However, the Prius closes this gap to only 1 second in the quarter mile. The Leaf also felt surprisingly stable due to its low center of gravity (accomplished by placing the 600lbs of batteries under the floorboards). Though its sloppy cornering did not deliver on what Nissan’s marketing department calls “seriously fun handling,” the lower center of gravity definitely makes the car feel more upscale and planted.
Despite this, the Leaf is not for everyone. The most obvious reason for this is the driving range. This is a disclaimer about the quoted 100 mile range:
“100 miles based upon EPA LA4 city cycle conducted in laboratory tests…Based upon EPA five-cycle tests using varying driving conditions and climate controls, the EPA has rated the Nissan LEAF a driving range of 73 miles. Battery capacity decreases with time and use. Actual range will vary depending upon driving/charging habits, speed, conditions, weather, temperature, and battery age.”
Taking these factors into account, the actual range is between 62 and 138 miles—the former in stop-and-go traffic in the winter, and the latter at a perfectly constant speed of 38mph in 68 degree weather. The Leaf’s performance is hindered in the winter because (a) lithium ion batteries perform best in moderate climates, and (b) the heater has to create heat rather than extract it from a conventional combustion engine.
When the batteries begin to degrade after five years, their initial capacity will be reduced to approximately 80 percent. To maintain battery capacity, Nissan says to avoid storing the car in extreme climates, driving uphill or quickly for long periods of time, and repeatedly using “quick charge” (480-volt, 30-minute charging).
The charging time is also a huge drawback. With a depleted battery, charging time is 20 hours with a regular 110v electrical socket; 7 hours with the 220v Aerovironment system; and half an hour to reach 80 percent using a 480v, “quick charge” station. While some parking garages and restaurants have installed charging stations to attract customers, it will be several years before we know if they will be available on a large scale.
The future of current rebates is another area of uncertainty. The current tax credit of $7,500 will begin to be phased out after a manufacturer sells 200,000 EVs in the U.S. Additionally, tax rebates for charging stations will expire at the end of this year. Even though tax credits will likely remain in the future, the EV industry will be hit hard if it cannot offset reductions in government subsidies.
It is therefore debatable whether battery technology is ready for primetime. With 20,000 vehicles already reserved, however, the Leaf is on its way to capturing Prius levels of recognition. More than just a technological phenomenon like the Tesla, the Leaf represents a significant milestone in bringing this cutting-edge technology to the masses. I would just think twice before buying one if you like to drive fast, or live in a northern state with hills.
SV Model MSRP: $32,780
SL Model MSRP: $33,720
Specs (Car and Driver):
Power: 107HP, 207 lb-ft
Transmission: 1-speed direct drive
Zero-to-Sixty: 10.0 seconds
Quarter Mile: 17.6 @ 78mph
Top Speed: 92mph (limited)