Falling for the Leaf

Is the Nissan Leaf a car I would want to drive every day? To me that's the first question. If "eco" was all that mattered, I would drive a Smart Car or ride a bike. Through the years I've done my time in various Mazdas, Hondas, Volvos and Audis, and even spent last Christmas driving my mom's Prius. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with the 2013 all-electric Leaf SL—a hot little Cayenne Red one that we’ll affectionately refer to as Fancy.

Charged and ready, a Nissan staffer gave me the keyless entry/ignition fob and a 15-minute rundown on how to drive the car. It would have taken less than five minutes to understand the minor differences from a plain old gas-powered car, but I asked a lot of extra questions. The only critical difference boils down to “Park” is a button on the shifter. Everything else about driving off the lot is pretty much iPod simple.

In the short time I was there, a rainbow of Leafs silently slid in and out of the Olympic-sized parking lot of Nissan’s North America corporate HQ in Nashville. Apparently, a good number of employees like the car. 

Leaving Cool Springs at rush hour in a new car, any new car is exiting. And slow. But, every time I hit the breaks the Leaf basically smiled and said “Thank you” with its entertaining dashboard from the Tron films. Test driving during the rest of the holiday week provided five evenings, three full work days and a day off to see if the Leaf lives up to its commercials where everyone smiles like it’s Fantasy Island.

The first three days it was hard to stop playing with tech inside the car. I like buttons and dials. By Friday I could watch the road again, pretty much like driving any nice car. A nice car that makes other people stop and stare.

The SL package includes comfy leather seats heated front and back. Turns out that warming the backside reduces the amount of electricity needed to keep everything else warm on a cold winter’s night. The steering wheel warms up too. Kinda fancy for a car in this price range.

The seats sit up higher than a typical four-door hatchback or sedan, which is helpful for those of us who like to see around traffic. You slip in, not down. It sits more like a Mini Countryman, if you know BMW’s new small SUV. In fact several Mini drivers who rode with me volunteered that the Leaf’s inside fit and finish were favorably similar to a Mini.

Set-up of the hands-free blue tooth connection for phone and music player took less than two minutes, without a manual. Using the alternative USB connector option took no time. Pretty much all the functions on a connected device can be managed through the car’s touch screen all the way down to play lists and album covers. Best of all, most everything can be managed from the steering wheel with thumbs as well as the touch screen.

The Leaf sounds good too. Maybe the lack of engine noise helps clear the air inside the cabin to make it easier for the sound system to compete for attention. Bose custom-built a system for the Leaf that reportedly uses less power to improve the car’s performance while still providing Bose-quality beats. Once I realized the equalizer on my iPod was set to spoken-word and adjusted it to a more appropriate setting for music the system showed it can pound out bass notes with the best.

The Nav menus are surprisingly uncomplicated too, even for someone easily distracted like me.  The maps are Google-good with real-time traffic information and options to search for whatever you need nearby. Reportedly the system will also play a DVD if the car is in park, though I'm not sure when that would be particularly handy. Maybe you can burn some music videos to a DVD for those long waits on a pick up at the airport? 

If you park in a garage or scrape your wheels on the curb when parallel parking, or have a cat that likes to nap behind the car, the Round View Monitor now available on the SL is handy. Unlike my experience in a Prius, seeing out the back and side windows is not a problem. But, with the cameras and proximity alert beeps, squeezing through tight spots next to columns and parked cars was a lot less nerve wracking.

Of course, the all-electric Leaf has its own official app. In fact there are at least two from Nissan and quite a few from third-parties. The Leaf is designed to provide its driver with real time updates on charging status and nearby stations. It is also easy to start up air conditioning or heat so the car is comfy before you get there.

A number of the systems in the Leaf draw power from a standard 12 volt car battery instead of the main lithium-ion batteries that run the motor, so only the major systems directly impact the miles available. Reportedly there is little or no loss of charge when the car is sitting, even over extended periods. The SL also includes a small solar panel on the spoiler that provides a little boost for the 12 volt battery on sunny days.

Fancy is pretty, but is she practical? Excluding midlife crisis cars, a vehicle also needs to get your stuff, family and friends around town. To make this test drive a little more relevant to anyone taller than me at 5’9”, I invited players from the Nashville Grizzlies Rugby Club to test out the cabin. The Leaf’s arching ceiling provides plenty of headroom, even for a couple of 6’4” adults in the front seats. The rear slopes down, but a six-footer still sits as comfortably as possible in any hatchback.

The cargo area was another pleasant surprise. For 2013 Nissan moved the fuel port to the front, opening up more space for cargo in the rear. Leaf has the usual 60/40 split rear seats that add more space as needed. One difference: they sit on top of the batteries, so cannot fold flat like the Mazda 3 and others. Really though, if this does not provide enough cargo capacity, you should probably be looking at minivans or an SUV. Or questioning your choice of job and hobbies.

The week of the test drive I asked Facebook friends what questions they have about the Leaf. Hands down, range anxiety topped the list.

For city living, this issue has been way overblown by people who have yet to actually spend time in an electric car. Yes, of course it is nice to know you could escape to Canada or Mexico on the spur of the moment if you accidentally rob a bank or something, but really, how often is that likely to happen?

The first three days I did my regular in-town commute, drove somewhere for lunch and did every errand I could think of. I never got below a 50 percent charge, and was easily back to 100 percent using the slowest charging option overnight. The trickle charger is just a big extension cord with a box near one end that plugs into a standard 110 outlet at home or away.

In fact, I could have made three days of regular driving without a charge. No problem.

Day four we tested the range with a drive out to the country. Of course it rained.

With a full charge we headed out on the interstate as fast as traffic allowed, mostly uphill, running front and rear wipers and climate control to keep the windows defogged. The Leaf handled well in the rain. The ride was smooth and remarkably quiet. It is amazing what happens when you subtract engine noise.

At 39 miles from home we dropped to a 49 percent charge. But, that is not the end of the story. The range meter actually gained miles when we returned driving on back roads. The 2013 Leaf sports more efficient regenerative brakes that really love hills and stop signs.

Using the built in Car Wings app in the navigation system it was easy to find charging stations at restaurants, retail and gas stations within range. A lunch stop provided an opportunity to plug into a 220 volt Blink charger. The system works through any smart phone that can handle a web browser and email. By the time we finished the meal, about 50 minutes, there was more than enough range added for the return home. It cost $2 for about 25 miles worth of electricity as a Blink guest, and about half that for those who sign up as Blink members.

More fast-charging stations are coming online every week. Check out the many charging station apps to see what is already available near you. Some apps even indicate how many charge stations are at a location and how many are in use.

Nobody wants to be in that car that breaks down or runs out of gas. With more than 100 million miles on the road for the Leaf since its introduction there are a lot of owners with hands-on experience out there, and reliability does not seem to be a problem.

A number of Leaf owners report they only use the trickle charger. After taking Fancy down to less than 10 percent, an overnight plug-in got her charged back up to more than 90 percent by the time I was ready to leave for work. There are also 220 volt chargers that can be hard wired for home use that charge about twice as fast.

The last day I finally tried out one of the new 440 volt super charge stations. They are fast. The charge meter in the car increased a percent about every 15-20 seconds. As these continue to pop up at gas stations, supermarkets and retail stores it will be even easier to top off the batteries without interrupting your day or changing habits.

Yes the Prius can travel further. How often does that matter? And do you really want to be stuck in a Prius for hours? For everyday comfort and a fun drive inside a metro area, the Leaf is a lot more appealing.

So, who is more environmentally friendly?

On the minus side, questions about the cost and disposition of the batteries will linger until the new tech has been around long enough to judge beyond supposition. But, production and transport of gasoline and oil in trucks, trains and pipes takes quite a toll itself.

In the meantime, we already know that it's physically less complicated to manage pollution coming from a handful of smokestacks than from the several million personal pollution-makers on the road today. The Leaf motor additionally does away with the need to dispose of a lot of used oil and other engine maintenance, plus reduces noise pollution in the city. There is no downside to that.

She’s decorative and useful, but what does Fancy cost? Electric aside, with the Nissan lease deal available now the Leaf is less expensive for a nicer ride than a lot of other cars. Add on a Nashville Electric estimated average savings of about 70 percent per mile for fuel, no oil changes or other common maintenance and the Leaf makes a lot of sense as a city car.

Nissan’s 24 hour roadside assistance, including emergency charge up, is a nice deal-sweetener that demonstrates a commitment to its all-electric baby on par with more expensive lines. If they continue the free-loaner car option for Leaf owners who occasionally need, or fear they might need, to make a longer trip by car, it is hard to think of any reason not to like the Leaf.

In the real world, the Leaf is comfortable, fun to drive and has plenty of range to get me where I need to be without worry. Bottom line, the leaf makes sense for anyone with a daily commute of 50 miles or less. Even on a hot, cold or rainy day it has plenty of range for the unexpected or spur-of-the-moment errands without stopping to charge. Much longer commutes are easy too if you can plug in at work, which is gaining in popularity. Many big employers and eco-friendly small businesses already have charge stations available for staff.

Fancy did not let me down. In fact, she gave me a good time and I felt a little wistful when I finally turned over the key fob at the end of the week. When it is time to trade cars again, the Leaf is definitely on my list.

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