Until recently, plug-in electric cars were the stuff of “Ask Mr. Science” experiments. They were small, impractical, home-built cars overloaded with lead-acid batteries driving golf-cart motors.
But after our recent week with the new Nissan Leaf SL, we can say that electric vehicles are practical – up to a point.
Let’s start with what we drove. The Nissan Leaf is in most respects a well-built Asian-style compact car sold at a cost-competitive price. Our test car was stickered at $35,440, but after rebates it would cost about the same as the new Toyota Camry.
Like other compacts at this price, it is capable of carrying four passengers and a reasonable amount of groceries in quiet and comfort. Nissan notes that it is a five-passenger car, but squeezing a third person older than 10 in the backseat would have constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
The interior is well appointed, and the design and quality of the trim have been getting good reviews in the automotive press. Although the instrumentation and controls owe more than a little to the computer-game generation – the forward-reverse control is described as “mouse-like” – everything was intuitive to learn and easy to use.
With the hatchback, cargo capacity is easily accessible, but the dramatically raked rear end cuts down on space, as do the batteries under the rear seats, so a full-scale Costco assault would be challenging.
The Leaf certainly is large and peppy enough to cope with freeway traffic, should Interstate 280 be the fastest route to, say, San Jose for an evening at Santana Row.
It is definitely quiet enough to enjoy the audio system on the way. About the only noises we could hear were a slight electric whine from the motor and a little road noise from the tires.
So it is a real car – albeit with styling that is quirky in the extreme. People who like the distinctive appearance of the Prius will love the Leaf, because there’s no mistaking it for anything else. The manufacturer proudly points out that the bulging eyes of the headlight clusters are designed to channel air around the sideview mirrors, improving aerodynamics, but we really couldn’t think of any excuse for the bulging rear haunches or globular rear end.
Nevertheless, there are quirkier Japanese cars on the market, with no redeeming environmental considerations, so its owners will probably just think of it as cute.
As the first practical series-production all-electric vehicle, there’s a lot that is different about the car.
Power gets to the front wheels from an 80-watt AC Synchronous motor through a continuously geared transmission. Like me, you probably have no frame of reference for any of this, but this is what it means: It can accelerate to and maintain a top speed like any other medium-priced compact car, but the driver won’t notice any gear changes, because the electric motor has adequate torque at all speeds, without changing gears.
As with the hybrids, the Leaf has regenerative braking – recharging the batteries when you apply the brakes – and we had no complaints about responsiveness when applying the brakes, a problem with previous generations of this system.
Electric power is supplied to the motor from a lithium-ion battery pack guaranteed for 100,000 miles or eight years, and could last longer – Nissan simply doesn’t have the experience yet to say that it might last longer without replacement.
What Nissan does say is that, aside from brake pads, there isn’t any other required mechanical maintenance during the projected lifetime of the car. The car automatically runs its own diagnostics and will inform the owner and Nissan if anything does need attention, through the same telematics system that allows the owner to check the car’s state of charge with an iPhone.
The battery pack can be charged several ways. You can plug it in to any 110 household outlet using the included recharger, as we did, just like you’d recharge your power drill, and it will be recharged in 14 hours or less. If a 220-volt outlet, such as the one powering your clothes dryer, is available, that cuts the charging time by half.
Or, as most owners will do, you can install a quick-charging station at home at a cost of approximately $1,000, depending on contractor costs and rebates, which will charge the car to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes or less. In addition, in the environmentally friendly Bay Area, you may be able to find a public quick-charging station – there are an increasing number being installed on the Peninsula and in San Francisco, but finding one that isn’t in use is still pretty tough.
Though the Leaf has the longest range of any electric-only automobile right now, even at full charge, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the range at 100 miles, and that was what the meter on the dashboard said we had available after an overnight charge. However, as soon as we were under way, with the radio and air conditioner on, that dropped to 75 miles, which seemed to be reasonably accurate.
With the car at full charge, we had no problem running local errands during the day – groceries, dry cleaning, regular shopping and appointments. On returning from a shopping trip and an evening at Santana Row, the car indicated it could go another 20 miles. A trip into San Francisco would have been a nail-biter, right at the limit of the car’s practical range, and might have required an emergency stop for a few hours at a friend’s house on the way home.
However, like so many other environmentally effective strategies, this one isn’t quite ready for prime time. California still has a highly punitive electricity rate structure, and we’d guess that most Los Altos residents are probably already paying something around 25 cents a kilowatt-hour. Furthermore, though everyone talks about how cars can be charged at nonpeak hours, there still isn’t any time-based discount system. There has also been talk of a separately metered, lower rate to encourage use of electric cars, but right now there’s nothing on anyone’s agenda to make that happen.
What that means is that the promised 100 mpg equivalent on all the literature isn’t real – at least not here and not yet. Instead, my numbers pencil out that the car’s mileage rate of 34 kWh/100 miles would mean that the car would be cheaper to operate than an equivalent gasoline-powered car, but actually not much cheaper than a Prius Hybrid or even a high-mileage diesel.
In addition, because of the inherent space and distance limitations of the Leaf, it cannot meet all the transportation requirements of the average Los Altos family. As an errand and local commute car, it is perfectly all right, but it can’t do longer trips for recreation or work.
On the other hand, the early adopter of new technologies who is concerned enough with environmental issues to make a contribution to the effort can certainly be confident that for the transportation needs it can handle, the Leaf will be more sensitive to the environment than any gasoline-powered automobile on the road today.
While we were driving the Leaf, we researched some of the issues and talked with John Voelcker, who reviews automobiles for the Spectrum, the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In summary, he said, even taking into account that most of our electricity here is generated by coal rather than nonpolluting sources like wind, solar or hydro, a gasoline-powered car would need to get more than 100 mpg to match the net environmental impact of the Leaf.
And Leaf owners will also know that they are contributing to our country’s independence from foreign sources of oil and to the technical progress necessary to assure that when our power does come entirely from nonpolluting sources like solar, wind, hydro or nuclear power, we’ll have the automobiles to take advantage of the system.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.