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Turning A New LEAF -- Literally

There are a number of cool opportunities unique to CES, and one of them was being able to test drive the new Nissan LEAF, the first all-electric vehicle available in the U.S.

by Jeff Reinke, Editorial Director, PD&D

The sound of slot machines greeting you upon disembarking the plane. Taking in the balmy 50-degree weather after leaving temps just above 10 only hours before. Seeing the astonished looks of CES attendees when accidentally stumbling down to the Adult Entertainment Show section of the Sands Convention Center -- honestly, I was only down there because the cab lines were shorter.

In addition to those sites and sounds are a number of pretty cool opportunities definitely unique to CES. For me, one of them was being able to test drive the new Nissan LEAF – the first all-electric vehicle available to the U.S. market.

For those unfamiliar with the vehicle, let’s first take a look at the specs. The 2,200-lb. vehicle’s lithium-ion battery (covered by an eight-year warranty) takes about 20 hours to fully charge in providing an average driving range of 100 miles. More impressive to me was the vehicle’s ability to generate over 200 ft.-lbs. of torque in hitting a top speed of 90 MPH.

Admittedly, I was pessimistic about the vehicle’s merits, and those doubts were not initially diminished when getting behind the wheel. Let’s just say the LEAF is not made with a 6’3” driver in mind, but then again it’s hardly the only vehicle with a grudge against taller operators. Also, as my Nissan co-pilot repeatedly reminded me, the LEAF is not meant to replace the old Griswold family roadster for cross-country trips. Rather, it’s positioned as a commuter car, and with that in mind I don’t think the minor space constraints would be too much of an issue for my 20-minute drive to and from the office.

After getting settled behind the wheel as comfortably as I could, it was time to push-button start the car. Honestly, because everything is so quite, I wasn’t sure the vehicle was actually “on” until a tone similar to those found on new high-def TVs confirmed that we were ready to go.

While it may not sound like the best analogy to use when describing what is supposed to be cutting edge vehicle technology, it was accurate when my passenger described the functionality of the shifting lever to that of an old Atari joystick. Instead of a traditional lever, the shifting knob was simply moved forward or backward to put the car in gear, and a button on top was pushed to put the car in park. These were all very different dynamics for a guy who has only owned standard-model Chevys.

Getting out on the road, I was very impressed with the LEAF from both handling and acceleration perspectives. Even though I was only on a route stretching a couple of miles within the city, I did potentially violate some city driving ordinances in testing how well the LEAF could punch it from a light or standstill. Due to the lack of noise and other feedback mechanisms I was used to receiving from an internal combustion engine, I was shocked to look down and see I had hit the 50 MPH mark with relative ease.

Also, although my passenger may not have appreciated the way in which I validated the LEAF’s ability to hold tight turns, the car responded very well. I assured my Nissan-appointed co-pilot that the driving experience could have been worse. After all, we could have sent our Associate Editor Meaghan Ziemba.

The dashboard is also worth noting. Not only is there a gauge indicating how many miles the vehicle’s battery has left, but there’s also a battery temperature gauge. Heat rarely aids in operational efficiency and this is definitely the case with the LEAF. So while a hotter battery won’t shut the vehicle down, it will negatively impact its mileage range.

Looking under the hood offers a distinct, but expected paradigm shift. Not only is it much smaller, but obviously there’s no motor, belts, etc. I found it interesting that a traditional 12-volt battery is still provided to help with ignition and support creature comforts that include a standard GPS and back-up camera.

I think it will be interesting to see how well the LEAF and its li-on battery age, and if those charging times and commensurate output can be maintained over time. What’s somewhat frustrating to me is that although there has been tremendous discussion about electric vehicles, we have to remember that this technology is still in its practical application infancy.

Maybe it was the Sin City sunshine. Maybe it had to do with no longer having to share close quarters with the most fidgety passenger in the history of commercial air travel for four hours. Maybe it was simply that the LEAF exceeded my low expectations, but I liked the vehicle. While it won’t appeal to the hardcore car owner who wants to feel the engine, change the oil, etc., if one is looking for a relatively inexpensive (starting sticker price of about $27,000), low-maintenance way to get from point A to point B, I wouldn’t advise against the new Nissan LEAF.

Does the Nissan Leaf rev up your engine? Do you think its charging times and commensurate output will be maintained over time? Send your comments to [email protected], or post your comments below.