Monday, March 7, 2011

Nissan LEAF: Impressive

Three days ago, I got the opportunity to experience the Nissan LEAF 100% electric automobile – the Nissan “Drive Electric Tour” came to the NC State Farmer’s market this past weekend and I spent several hours with the car Friday, March 4th.  The Drive Electric Tour is an effort by Nissan to enable average people around the US to learn about the technology behind the car, how it works, what it’s pluses and minuses are and what it’s like to own and use such a vehicle in real-world scenarios.

Disclaimer: I have no connection at all to Nissan motor company, and I wouldn’t call myself a Nissan fanboi. But I am somewhat biased in favor of electric cars. The short 100 mile range of this car is a problem but doesn’t discourage me from considering shelling out the $32k to have one. I say this because I consider the range of the product to be a "soft" problem - something that can be solved in the future with better batteries, better automotive components, or better energy management.

I do struggle with the price of the car. But I’ve priced the components individually and you can’t build this car yourself for anywhere near $32k if you use all-new components.

This post is a quick summary - I'll follow up soon with more detail.

The Event

The Tour consists of four large glassed-in portable buildings that function like a mobile technology expo. Outside, they had one static car on display and cones set up in the parking lot outlining a course. All the buildings were connected by passageways in order to guide you through the process of being oriented to what the car is, how it works and the “extras” you get with this car vs. the average gasoline engine car.

After going through the tour, we got to drive the car. There were three of us in the car: me, my spouse, and a college student working as a guide. The guide was an intern who had been educated about the car, a college student hired by Nissan to ride and interact with prospective customers. We found out he didn’t travel with the tour, but was a student working on a Marketing degree at a local college.

The drive loop was about 2 miles and it was real-world: hilly, with stop signs, stop lights, turns, exits, on-ramps, etc.  It took us about 12 minutes to navigate the loop. When we returned, we thanked our guide and exited the car. At that point we were free to get coffee/tea at the final pavilion, look at the car on static display or make a video of our thoughts and impressions about the car.


This car is quiet – unbelievably so. It’s a surprise at how pleasant the experience is. Music and conversation inside the car happens at a level like you’re sitting in your cube talking to someone across your desk.

Performance of the car is great. There is a “Drive” mode that gives you best performance at a small cost in range. Then there is an “ECO” mode that gives you less performance but helps extend the range of the pack.

Instrumentation on the car is beautiful, very well laid out and does a great job of giving you feedback on the state of charge in the battery pack and how the car is “feeling”. You can easily tell what it will cost you in range if you run the heat or air conditioner, and you can easily tell if you are driving the car economically enough to assure you get where you are going.


I had a slight problem fitting in the driver's seat of the car (I'm 6' 1") but nothing any different from any other small vehicle. The problem is solvable if the driver’s seat had gone back another two inches. There was tons of room in the back. Hatch space was excellent.

The only negative that might surprise people is that there is no spare tire – they give you a can of fix-a-flat and that’s it.  We’ll see how that design choice plays out in the real world.


When this car gets on the road it’s not only going to change the way people drive THAT car, it’s going to change the way ANYone in a car behind it drives. Being stingy with energy is going to be a necessity with this car, so you’re going to see people driving slow with it because if you don’t drive slow, you run the risk of being stranded with the car and not being able to get to a charger. I can see wrecker companies and AAA-sponsored support services adding a generator to their trucks with a standard charging plug so they can give this car enough juice to get it to a fixed base charger.

Despite that shortcoming, if you have a predictable commute and can easily quantify how much energy you use daily and where you need to take the car, it’s going to be a huge hit. The car is spectacular. I’d love to have one. It’s better than any gasoline engine automobile of similar type.  Nissan’s got a winner on their hands and I think they are going to do pretty well with it.

Regardless of whether or not you’d ever buy one of these, go online, see if they are going to be anywhere near you with the Drive Tour and make an appointment to go drive this car. Even if you know you’re not going to get one, it’s an impressive experience – educational, fun and very satisfying.

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