In the auto world, it’s amazing how quickly something novel can become an everyday item. In August of 2009, Nissan announced that it was building a completely electric car, and in December of that year, the LEAF went on sale.
Fast-forward to today, and on a trek of an area northwest of Toronto, the only second-glance my test car gets is at a spot where several writers gather mid-route to swap the driver’s seat for the passenger’s chair. Even so, people are really only looking because we have four of them parked together. On their own, electric and hybrid cars, once so futuristic that they turned heads and stopped traffic, are now pretty much considered regular vehicles.
Disclosure: A predetermined route and lunch were provided to the author by the automaker.
Nissan’s introductory event for the 2105 LEAF was more about adapting to an electric car, than to any major changes in the vehicle itself. Still, there are enhancements for the 2015 model year, including a standard backup camera and leather-wrapped steering wheel, a new “Brake” drive mode on the gearshift that increases regenerative braking during deceleration, a light in the charging port and the ability to unlock its little door from the key fob, as well as an available energy-saving hybrid heater system. The available navigation system also adds an “Eco Route” feature that lets you choose the best path for battery power.
Pricing for the 2015 LEAF starts at $31,798 for the base S trim level; $35,048 for the mid-line SV; and $38,548 for the top-line SL, which was the car I drove. In the SL you get such amenities as leather upholstery, 17-inch alloy wheels, 360-degree parking camera, fog lights, a solar panel that charges the 12-volt battery that powers the car’s peripherals, automatic LED headlamps, cargo cover, garage door opener, and navigation (which is also standard on the SL). That’s a lot of stuff, but Nissan says that many Leaf owners have moved into a battery car from a conventional premium model and don’t want to step down on features. In Ontario and Quebec, buyers also receive a government “green car” rebate against the purchase price.
Even the base S includes a heated steering wheel, and heated front and rear seats. That may seem odd, since they’re energy hogs, but there’s a method to the madness: if your butt and hands are warm, you’re more likely to turn down the even more power-hungry cabin heat. The climate system can also be set to come on during the charging process, when it runs off the grid instead of cutting into the driving range, so the car’s already warm or cool when you get in.
Since January of 2013, the Leaf has been built at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, further reducing its overall footprint since it’s no longer shipped from Japan. As a completely electric vehicle, with no gasoline engine as a range extender (as is found in cars like the Chevrolet Volt), there are no direct emissions, although its overall carbon imprint will depend on how the electricity’s generated at its source.
The car can be charged on a 110-volt plug if necessary, which will take 20 hours or so to completely “fill” a depleted battery, but the recommendation is for a 240-volt charger, which takes about four hours. On a full charge, the Leaf is rated at a range of 135 kilometres. I’ve found that to be very optimistic, though, and actual range will depend on such factors as your driving style, the ambient temperature, hills versus flat roads, and how much your passengers and cargo weigh.
The Holy Grail of battery chargers is the level three direct charge, which can bring a drained battery to within 80 percent of full capacity in about half an hour. This would make “pathway charging” possible—what you’d need on a longer trip, stopping at stations along the highway to charge up. Nissan has one at its head office near Toronto, and during our lunch stop, one of the cars plugged in and charged up within about 20 minutes.
But direct charge stations are still very rare and the standards for them are still in the process of being hammered out. Nissan says it supports the infrastructure but isn’t in the business of creating it. Hey, the automakers didn’t invent the gas station, either.
Stop “thinking gasoline”
Even with infrastructure, electric-only cars are not for everyone, but having driven several of them, I’ve found that you have to stop “thinking gasoline.” People with conventional cars tend to fill them up, run them until the gas gauge gets low, and then fill them again.
Instead, you should charge an electric car any time you have the chance, even if you have enough power to make your destination. Since the fast-charge plug was busy at lunch, my LEAF went onto a regular 240-volt version. It had only gained about 15 more kilometres when my sandwich was done. Given that most Canadians on average drive less than 42 kilometres per day, that could still represent a good chunk of the daily commute, or less time spent on the charger later on.
Conventional driving experience
Driving a LEAF isn’t appreciably different from driving a conventional car. Push the starter button, and the car is ready to go. The gearshift is a little blue-ringed saucer that you push or pull to put the single-speed transmission into gear. You can slip it into the new “B” mode, which increases regenerative braking to feed the battery, but it took a couple of tries to move the shifter smoothly between drive and brake modes.
The 24 kWh lithium-ion battery is under the floor, where it doesn’t appreciably cut into passenger or cargo space. It also gives the Leaf a lower centre of gravity, and while this is certainly not a sports car, it takes corners smoothly and without wallowing. I thought the electric power steering had better response and feel than on a LEAF I drove a couple of years ago. Speculation is that there might have been some tweaking when production moved to the U.S.
The electric motor is rated at 107 horsepower and 207 lb.-ft. of torque. You’re not going to win drag races, but acceleration is peppy enough to feel comfortable merging on the highway.
Building a Forest
I was light on the throttle, because I wanted to build a forest. As many alternative vehicles do, the LEAF’s instrument cluster contains a display that “grows” trees in response to efficient driving. Years ago, when I first heard about these things, I dismissed them as a silly gimmick. But I am weak and a sucker for rewards, and I now marvel at their brilliance: by using a carrot rather than a stick, the automakers improve our behaviour which, in turn, improves range which, in turn, makes the car that more useful.
The Leaf also uses Carwings, a telematics service tied into the navigation system, to perform such functions as finding the nearest charging station, and into a smartphone, where the owner can remotely set the car to start or finish charging, see the driving range, or receive text messages if there’s a problem with the charging system. At the media event, one car notified the Nissan rep that the building’s power had been shut off to the charger where it was plugged in.
While alternative vehicles still make up the tiniest sliver of the overall vehicle market, the Leaf reached a cumulative worldwide 100,000 vehicles in January of this year, and commands 45 per cent of the global electric vehicle market. It’s the best-selling battery car in Canada (the Tesla Model S is in second place), but Nissan expects to continue the upward sales trend.
It’s not a car for everyone—and it could use a healthy dose of pretty—but it drives well, its cabin is well-finished, and at the top level, it has a number of premium features. No longer an oddball novelty, it’s more of a conventional car that just happens to run without gas.