The Nissan Leaf is the stuff of science fiction. An actual, no-kidding, all-electric car, costing less than $35,000 and aimed at regular consumers.
Yet Nissan opted to wrap this revolutionary ride in excitement-repelling protoplasm. It's the stuff of Amazing Stories magazine, if you'd take out the cyborgs and time travel, and replaced "amazing" with "sort of interesting." "Back to the Future" without the flux capacitor, Comic-Con without costumes.
The arrival of a mass-produced electric vehicle (EV), sans gas tank or tail pipes, should feel momentous. You're not spewing bad stuff into the sky. (The same can't be said about energy production itself, but still.)
The act of driving the Leaf oddly belies this buzz, feeling like a run-of-the-mill hybrid. A slightly down-market Toyota Prius, perhaps. Run out for pizza and by the third mile you've forgotten the historical significance and are wishing the seats were a bit better cushioned.
There's method in this (lack of) madness. Nissan is making a huge bet on EVs, with the potential to eventually produce several hundred thousand worldwide.
So it makes sense that the act of motoring should feel "normal" to most drivers. After all, ardent early adopters are few and far between. (Remember the huge audience for the Segway? Me neither.)
Mileage Count Down
The Leaf starts at $32,780 not including a $7,500 federal tax break. Leases begin at $349 a month.
The Leaf and its competitor, the $40,280 Chevy Volt, were both released late last year in limited markets. The Volt is not a pure EV, as it has a small gas engine which can recharge its batteries, offering a superb mix of practicality and new-age technology. So far, it has outsold the Leaf.
The natural disasters in Japan will have an effect on production. The Oppama plant, where the Leaf is made, has seen delays, though a ship with 600 of them left before the earthquake.
To its credit, the Leaf doesn't look like a standard five- door hatchback — it's far uglier. Many people will do a double- take at the pinched nose, oddly jutting headlamps and squishy silhouette.
The interior has a few sci-fi details, like a blue-lit knob which selects drive and park. The navigation system shows your range graphically on a map, and a digital readout counts down your number of remaining miles. Call it the Doomsday Clock.
You can also pre-program the car to turn on the heater or A/C — say ten minutes before you leave for work every day.
Otherwise the plastic dash and manually-adjusting cloth seats are pretty standard for a mid-level sedan. Bluetooth, navigation and power windows are standard. There are two trims, the SV and pricier SL, which includes a solar panel built into the spoiler and a rearview monitor.
The Leaf runs on an 80 kW AC motor powered by a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The EPA insisted on giving it fuel economy numbers: a 99 miles-per-gallon equivalent. This means exactly nothing, since it doesn't hold gas, reminding me of an old joke: How many surrealist painters does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Fish!
Range is 100 miles, give or take many, many miles. Real- world range depends on everything from topography, driving mode (eco or regular), and whether you might like to pass slower vehicles or stay forever in the right-hand lane.
Also worth remembering: Heat isn't free in an EV. I had the car for two days in February, when it was so cold that my breath crystallized. Not only are extreme temperatures bad for batteries, climate control uses lots of energy.
Instead of frittering away range using the luxurious heater, I donned a puffy coat and thick wool socks while driving. Fashion can also be a victim of the green-and-clean life.
Yet overall range actually proved to be good, especially for the miserable weather and stop-and-go traffic around Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Over two days I drove more than 60 miles in the two boroughs, with the computer indicating another 19 miles of range. (My feet were frozen though.)
My biggest issue was the lack of access to a 240-volt charger, which most owners will buy and install in their home garages. A full charge takes eight hours with one.
Instead I had to make do with a regular 120-volt outlet in the Quik Park near my apartment. According to the Leaf computer, after only 33 miles it would take 16 hours to get back to a 100 percent charge. Parking was quick; recharging wasn't.
The Leaf will be most rewarding to those suburbanites with a set pattern of daily driving. It isn't unlike recharging your smart-phone each night. You tend to have a pretty good idea how many calls and what amount of web surfing you can partake in before hitting the out-of-juice danger zone.
When you do forget to recharge, however, the next day can be worrisome and annoying.
And for some reason, my Leaf failed to take a charge. A Nissan rep said no problems were found with the car or charger, and suggested the issue was my 120-v outlet. The next day's driving was a bit tense.
Just a small bit of excitement for a revolutionary ride.
The 2011 Nissan Leaf SL-E At a Glance
Engine: 80kW AC synchronous motor, rated at 107 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque.
Battery: 24-kWh lithium-ion pack.
Range: 100 miles, more or less, depending on weather and driving style.
Price as tested: $35,430.
Best feature: A real-life electric vehicle without any emissions.
Worst feature: For all of that, it's kind of mundane.
Target buyer: The local commuter looking to out-green his Prius-touting neighbors.