April 25, 2011

The Nissan Leaf, Driven

Great things are happening in the automotive world. Cars are becoming more sophisticated each year with more technology being crammed into the car. To put this into perspective, look at the smart phones that are on the market today. Now, take a look at the laptops that were being sold around five to seven years ago. Pretty comparable performance wouldn’t you say? Ask any automotive enthusiast today and I doubt they would have thought 10 years ago that today’s cars and trucks would be as technologically dependent as they are now. Servos, wires, and micro processors galore, gone are the simple days of carburetors and mechanical throttle linkages. Now we move to the next revolution: the electric car.

Initially skeptical about anything electric, I had a rather pessimistic view of driving this car. I enjoy feeling the force of being thrown back into my seat and the sound of the engine revving on command. Not to mention the idea of sitting on top or in front of a series of lithium ion batteries just doesn’t sit too well with me. However I was pleasantly surprised about the car.

The controls are pretty intuitive on the Leaf. This includes the giant navigation screen which seems to be almost standard on all cars in this day and age.  A few minutes behind the wheel and it was figured out. The dash itself has the usual dash setup with the charge in the battery setup to look like a fuel gauge, the speedometer, and a temperature gauge. There is also a meter that displays the amount of energy that is being recovered while off throttle. However, I never really figured out why there was a temperature gauge, but then again I was sitting on top of batteries, driving a car. As I took the knob for the car and clicked it down into drive I noticed there was an “E” selection as well. Before leaving on the test drive I asked what it meant and was told that it is the economy mode that allows you to conserve the battery and slightly increase your distance. Think of this more of a limp mode that allows you to save yourself from calling AAA. This economy mode decreases your acceleration significantly, and made feel like the cargo area had been loaded up with a hundred pounds of lead.

One interesting thing about the navigational system is that the car will actually find a charge station for you once your battery reaches a certain point. The battery on a complete charge will actually have range in perfect conditions of 100 miles. Unfortunately this is also the downside of the vehicle. If you run the battery down completely, from a regular 120 volt outlet it takes the majority of the day. With a 220 volt power station it takes around 8 hours. But the likelihood of most people running the charge down on this vehicle like this is low. Also to install a power station inside your house will cost between $3000 to $4000, but this is pretty much a must have for anyone that plans on using the car on a daily basis. For the people who use this car as a commuter vehicle to go to work, the plan is to have commercial areas for people who need to recharge their vehicles for the return trip home. How much it will cost for you to use a commercial charge station is anyone’s guess, getting a clear answer is difficult because each place uses the “well we plan to” or the all too familiar “eventually there will be” type of thought lines.

Initially when I pulled away from the lot the car felt really docile. Not the rough ride I halfway expected from a short wheel base car. Though, when I stepped on it I was actually surprised to find that there was a good amount of torque available and it zoomed right up to around 50 miles per hour, unfortunately the posted speed limit. Well I say zoomed, but the car honestly sounds like a jet turbine spooling up for takeoff. There were some decent corners on the road I was on and the car seemed to handle rather well, though I suspect that the batteries underneath the floor contributed to this since lowering the center of gravity helps significantly in cornering. Passenger room in the rear is also surprisingly comfortable. Also the fit and finish of the interior is also impressive and quality is high. Though I must say that the way the interior is arranged, it reminds me vaguely of a Honda Civic interior.

Over all I was actually impressed with how the car drove and how it performed. However, with current events that have happened in Japan, the only factory making the Leaf is there, the production was halted for a bit. This is bad news for the consumers here in the United States as the car has had 20,000 orders placed, but Nissan has only able to fulfill only 453 of those orders since earlier this month according to Reuters. At a starting price of $33,000 and some incentives, which will bring the price down to about $25,000, the car is certainly turning heads, especially against some of the other comparable cars that aren’t electric.

While being innovative the Leaf still falls a bit short in my opinion. As it stands right now the conventional gas and diesel engines are still the best option for people that regularly commute great distances or drive in stop and go traffic a lot. I can see the Leaf appealing to people who don’t have to go further than the range of the Leaf too often. The Leaf is great and the technology is great as well, but the infrastructure isn’t quite there just yet to support a solely electric car community. Another thing that is going to really hurt it the car as well is the price, for $25,000, after tax credits, you can find a lot of other cars that are similar in size, and cost less. Cars like the well established Volkswagen Golf TDI.

Next time I will start a three part series about alternate energy solutions and their various postives and negatives, whether they are actually viable now, in the future, or not at all.

1 comment:

  1. This is really useful because as you know we're in a "what car next" or "stick with what we've got" mode. I had a hunch electric wasn't quite there yet for our needs, even though I think Houston is identified as one of the top electric car friendly cities, maybe top 5.