My weekend with the Nissan Leaf

    Consumer Reports News: May 20, 2011 10:53 AM

    Recently I took the Nissan Leaf home over a pleasant springtime weekend. However, I didn't actually drive it home: I towed it on a trailer since I live 75 miles from the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center. That distance is a bit of a stretch for the Leaf's battery range, and I sure didn't want to risk a roadside adventure like my colleague Jon Linkov experienced.

    When I unloaded the Leaf the car's display said I had a full charge--94 miles of range. However, after driving 70 miles around my town the gauges indicated that I still had 30 miles of range left. We've already noted that the indicated "miles-to-empty" should not be taken too literally. To that end, Nissan is conducting a recall to reprogram the software to be less optimistic.

    Still, the Leaf proved to be ideal for short trips in urban and suburban settings over the weekend. But there is no denying the constant need to keep an eye on the remaining range gauge and the anxiety it provokes. Case in point: When I turned on the air conditioning the range instantly plummeted by 12 miles or so, and my wife accused me of environmental insensitivity. OK, no A/C.

    Nissan-Leaf-recharging1.jpgAs a small car, the Leaf proved to be a relatively roomy and practical runabout. It handled responsively and rode comfortably over Fairfield County's winter-ravaged roads. Brake feel is a bit odd, with less initial bite than most drivers are accustomed to. Acceleration is notably brisk and very quiet. In fact, the Leaf's stealth qualities make it easy to creep up on pedestrians despite the whine the car emits at low speeds. When reversing, the car emits a beeping sound to warn pedestrians.

    The Leaf served well as a grocery-getter—a week's worth of essentials easily fit the trunk. We shuttled the kids to and from their activities, turning a few heads and sparking several conversations in the process. Our car even starred at a Green Earth Fair in Westport, CT, where I found myself explaining the car's virtues and limitations to a wide audience.

    Nissan-Leaf-ChargePoint-site.jpgThinking about living with this car on a day-to-day basis drew me to search for public charging stations on which identified a free charger at the South Norwalk train station. I swiped my "ChargePoint" card we got with the Coulomb chargers we installed at our track, and, voilá, I got the authorization from the system and juiced up for a few minutes.

    As a result, the Leaf's telematic system added that location as a charging spot on its navigation system. Charging stations like this could be handy for a commuter who uses the train. While many more of these chargers are planned, to facilitate the adoption of EVs, don't expect them to remain free forever.

    Clearly the Leaf can serve as suburban transportation without inflicting too much compromise, but it is best when the climate is mild and there's another car in the garage as backup transportation.

    According to the car's on-board computer, the Leaf was getting 4.4 miles per kwh, attained by refraining from both the air conditioner and highway driving. Back at our track, using our 240-volt charger, recharging took almost six hours and 18 kwh of electricity. The energy useage came out to be 3.9 mi/kwh, attributable to an efficiency loss you get with AC (alternate current) charging. At my local rate of 19 cents per kwh that translates to $3.42 or 4.9 cents per mile. That's pretty inexpensive and emission free. For comparison, a Toyota Prius at 44 mpg overall would cost $6.36 to cover the same distance with today's gas prices, translating into 9.1 cents per mile.

    It proved to be a pleasant, livable around-town car, and the notion of not consuming a drop of petroleum in the Leaf is just an added bonus. For now, let's forget about the 7 gallons of diesel I pumped into our Volkswagen Touareg TDI tow vehicle.

    For more on electric vehicles, see our guide to alternative fuels.

    Gabe Shenhar

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