First Drive: Nissan LEAF – It’s a Zippy, Roomy, Well-Designed Car

As one of the first non-Nissan people invited to spend some time behind the wheel of a pre-production Nissan LEAF in Japan this week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But, the word is in folks, and after having a good amount of time to experience the car from the inside out, my overwhelming feeling is that Nissan has a true winner of a car on their hands.

Even without the electric motor the LEAF would be a great little hatchback. But add that motor in, and now you have a great car with an incredibly compelling reason to buy it.

It Just Fits

Looking at the LEAF from the outside, it appears to take up the same amount of space as many other cars in the compact class. But when you settle into the driver’s seat, that feeling changes. There’s a roomy, open feeling to the cabin that the designers at Nissan went to great lengths to create.

I’m 5’8″ and I immediately felt at home in the car, but even if you’re 6’8″ you’re in luck. As I showed over at PluginCars.com, there’s easily enough room for a 6’5″ person in the front with a 6’5″ person sitting in the rear seat directly behind them and they’ll both have plenty of leg- and head room.

As can be expected from a hatchback, there’s also a rather cavernous amount of space in the trunk. But, because of the lack of under floor equipment in the back (e.g. a tailpipe), and the battery pack being located under the center of the car, the cargo area is incredibly deep… which will make things like transporting groceries and loading in awkwardly proportioned stuff all that much easier.

As Quiet as a Falling LEAF

Pulling away from the Opama test facility parking lot, all I could hear from inside the car with the windows up was the slight sound of rubber rolling over pavement. Nissan had enabled the pedestrian warning sounds on this car, but even with the windows down they’re almost inaudible. From outside the car you can hear them when you’re close, but they’re still very unobtrusive.

When the vehicle drives forward the pedestrian alert is a kind of quiet electric whooshing sound and when driving backwards it generates more of a beeping sound. You can hear the sounds for yourself in a post over at PluginCars.com, but suffice it to say that all the hullabaloo about how adding noises to electric cars kills their quiet appeal is completely overblown — at least with the LEAF. And, above about 20 mph those sounds turn off anyway.

I was able to take the car up to about 60 mph at the Opama test facility, and at that speed all you can hear is the quiet constant whir of tire noise. But the engineers have done a great job at reducing the wind noise as the car slices through the air as well as at sound insulation. As it was explained to me, the noise and resultant drag that are normally associated with the side view mirrors cutting through the wind have been significantly reduced in the LEAF by the fin-like front headlight casings. The moving air is split by the fins and diverted around the mirrors.

The Drive

Two words here: completely normal. And I mean that in the most flattering way possible. If you were expecting the world’s first mass-market, affordable electric car to do strange things as you drive it around, you are in for a big disappointment. Aside from the lack of engine noise, the car feels just like any other modern, well-designed vehicle.

The LEAF corners well, it has a very sturdy feel and it accelerates like a champ. In fact, due to the electric motor’s flat torque curve, the acceleration characteristics are better in the low speed range than even some high-end combustion cars. Same goes for overtaking acceleration.

Also, the battery — the heaviest single piece of equipment on the car — has been positioned right at the car’s center of gravity and the frame has been stiffened to keep the battery secure. This results in an very rigid frame and pretty good handling in the twisties. This also gives the LEAF an advantage over most of its combustion cousins because they have the majority of their weight in the front of the car due to the engine — making the balance lopsided.

The car has two driving modes, one in which regenerative braking is at a low level and is essentially unnoticeable — the so called normal driving — and another “Eco” mode in which regen braking is a bit more pronounced and driving range is extended by about 10%.

Not All Roses — Some Qualms

While my general feeling is pretty damn excellent about the LEAF, and I’m personally drooling with anticipation to purchase my own now, I do have a one issue that I hope Nissan can address either before launch or at some point in the near future.

The driver interface (the instrument cluster, specifically) — while very pretty with its soft glowing blue vibe — doesn’t communicate enough information to the driver. It lacks a simple charge level indicator and the estimated driving range remaining display varies drastically depending on the driving conditions. While some amount of this is good, the super dynamism of the LEAF’s display is somewhat disconcerting.

My battery was about 30% discharged at the time I got in to drive. In my 20 minutes of driving the car, my estimated range went from a high of 116 km (72 miles) to a low of 60 km (37 miles). The readout changed every 5 seconds or so to recalculate a new range based on my real time driving conditions. Most drivers are not going to get much out of seeing that their range is fluctuating so much. In fact, that could be a pretty distracting thing.

Drivers are used to seeing how much of their gas tank is still full, and the same will go for EV drivers. They’ll want to see how full their battery is. Over time, just as with your fuel gauge in a combustion car, drivers of the LEAF will come to know what 50% battery charge means in terms of range. It is, hands down, the most important thing an EV can display — but the LEAF lacks it.

Also, the LEAF could use a much better efficiency coaching tool. Currently it has a small stylized tree that “grows” if you are driving efficiently, but it is almost useless in terms of providing the needed coaching to tell you how to make it grow. As I’ve said before, all manufacturers should be looking to Ford for cues on how to create driver interfaces these days. Ford’s SmartGauge is light years ahead of everybody else. Partly, I’m just comparing the LEAF’s display to the one found in the Ford Fusion Hybrid, but it is a fair comparison.

So, that’s it for my overall general impressions. I’ll be dealing more in depth with the topics of range, the pedestrian alert sound, and a few other topics in subsequent posts here on Gas 2.0 and over at PluginCars.com as the days go on and I have some time to sort out my thoughts. So check back regularly for updates and to get answers to some of your questions.

Disclaimer: The author’s lodging and travel expenses were paid for by Nissan.

 

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.