Nissan LEAF Test Drive

27 03 2011

Nissan LEAF during a test drive. Click to enlarge

On March 26th 2011 Nissan held a test drive event for their all electric car, the Nissan LEAF at Franklin TN.

The Event

This was a source of disappointment. Nissan set up a series of tents on the Parking lot of their Headquarters in Franklin TN. It was a cold and damp day and the tents had no form of heat. Punters had to be content wearing multiple layers of clothes as they listened to a sales pitch and lined up to drive the LEAF’s. I had a 1pm appointment time scheduled. Other than quick registration, the appointment didn’t assure you of a  place in line or any priority, one lined up with walk-ins. The ‘refreshment’ lounge consisted of a cup of instant coffee and a packet of cheez-its. It made me feel the event was done on a tight budget. The guy delivering information about the car and the logistics of the event was both upbeat and informative. He was the only spark of life I saw that day.

Nissan LEAF Battery Pack mockup - Click to enlarge

The LEAF reservation system

I am on the list of 20,000 people who have first refusal on a  new vehicle. I have not taken advantage of this since I would never buy a  vehicle without seeing it in person and have a test drive. I also found out I am in the first 1000 in the nation to qualify for a  free home charging station. All reservations and purchasing activities are conducted on line. Local dealers do not contact you until you indicate you want a quote.

Drivers Side - Nissan LEAF - Click to enlarge

The LEAF

I am pleasantly surprised by the vehicle. I expected a cramped compact car that would not appeal. The LEAF is both spacious and comfortable, especially for a  compact car. Ford have great technology in the vehicles that is more appealing to me than going all electric. However the technology in the LEAF is reasonably advanced, and the built in navigation has a large display compared to aftermarket GPS systems. The feature that caught my attention is the ability for the vehicle to adjust the cabin climate while it is charging, therefore you have a warm car to enter into in the winter or a cool car in the summer. While this goes against the grain of being green, it is one way Nissan have managed to squeeze every mile they can out of a charge. I like the idea of going to the grocery store, plugging in and when I return I’ve got a full charge and a cool car for the frozen goods, never mind the comfort of driving off cool on a hot summers day even is its left in hot sunlight. In most cases charging stations will be free to attract customers to stores, at least initially until the novelty wears off.

Nissan LEAF Engine Bay - Click to enlarge

The drive was impressive, the car is very quite under hard acceleration on the interstate. It handled well around curves and the steering gave a positive feel. The acceleration is smooth and powerful for a small vehicle, and of course no surge during gear change, as the electric motor doesn’t need gears.

I wish Nissan could have given test drivers more than 1/2 mile on the interstate. They had a representative in the passenger seat directing you round a predetermined 2 mile route in Franklin TN. My assigned representative did speak when asked a  question, but wasn’t easy to get information out of.

Nissan LEAF Main Dashboard - Click to enlarge

One thing that surprised me was setting off from rest. My expectation was that the car once energized would be stationary until your depressed the accelerator, just like a bumper car :-). This is not the case. Nissan have made the vehicle emulate how a conventional automatic works. In gear an automatic will creep forward while idling in gear, the LEAF behaves identically, as you release the brake with the gear selection in drive it starts forward gently.

A dislike of the car for me is the gear selector. It is very nice and compact, however I had to be coached how to put the car in gear, I accidentally put the car in Eco mode on my first attempt, had the representative reset it back to Neutral for me and I succeeded on my second attempt. It wasn’t obvious to me I had succeeded, but I took the representatives word for it.  The parking brake is an electronic button rather than mechanical. Clearly this is something an owner will learn after the first trip, however these factors mean that if you give someone your keys to go for a spin, they may struggle getting the car to engage gear and release the parking brake.

Nissan LEAF - Upper Dashboard

Nissan LEAF - Upper Dashboard - click to enlarge

Why couldn’t they have a miniature version of a standard automatic gear shift with P, R N and D that everyone is already accustomed to? I know they are looking to save weight where they can. and a conventional gear shifter wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate, but they could have made a facsimile electronic version.

Nissan LEAF - Nav, radio and Climate control - Click to enlarge

Another drawback of the LEAF is the lack of a 220V extension cord, it doesn’t appear to available even as an optional extra. The vehicle comes with a 110V extension cord one can use at a pinch if a charging station isn’t available. The 110V charging takes 16 hours for a full charge from empty. Home charging stations aren’t cheap, about $3,000 I understand. Why not provide the owner with a 220V extension cord/transformer and simply have the home owner get a standard 220 outlet installed in their garage by any qualified electrician? The Chevy Volt got this right.

Summary

I came away impressed and interested in getting a quote. Something I had not expected coming into the test drive event. A salesman did call the house within 12 hours of me requesting a  quote.

Electric Charging Stations - click to enlarge

I have done some initial financial analysis of gas vs electric and have come to the conclusion that gas  at 3.41 per gallon and electric at 0.9c per KW/h that it’s pretty much the same cost over the life of the vehicle (8 years or 1000,000 miles) . I’ll post a spreadsheet and a list of assumptions in a future blog post. I assume once the battery pack warranty runs out after the 8 years  the vehicle will be of little or no value on the open market. Nissan were not willing to release prices for the battery pack even though cars are on the road and being insured.

Nissan LEAF passenger seat, gearstick visible.

The decision to buy (or not) will be based around the advantages of being insulated from foreign oil price hikes and oil speculators versus losing the ability to travel long distances. The LEAF is a commuter car, not a touring car.  If oil goes up in price then the economic case for the LEAF gets stronger and stronger. Compared to the Chevy Volt, the LEAF makes much more economic sense, however the Volt can go much further thanks to its gas engine generator. The LEAF becomes a clear choice over gas cars when gas goes above $5.60 a gallon. The Volt breaks even at $8 gallon and is compelling at over $10. I believe Nissan have got the right balance between cost and convenience. The Volt is simply a bad buy due to its higher purchase price and higher running costs.

If anyone is successful with an electric car, it will most probably be Nissan. Without the government subsidies/credits, the case for electric is weak at best. With the government assistance, the jury is out.

Update 2011-03-30 – I’ve started a blog just for the LEAF. Click Here to view it.

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