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2011 Nissan Leaf Prototype (Japan) First Drive

So, what’s it like, the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the world’s first mass-produced, electric-powered family hatchback? Really, that’s what we want to know. Ever since Nissan announced that the car will be available for purchase or lease from its U.S. dealers in December, there have been plenty of particulars about the technology and yet we’re still a bit removed from the car itself.

That’s why Nissan has been taking assorted prototypes of the Leaf to various places around the globe and offering controlled test-drives. Unfortunately the experiences have been largely arcade-style experiences, very limited in scope. First we were able to take a few laps of Dodger Stadium’s parking lot in Los Angeles (one stop in a 22-city tour by the Leaf across America), and then we had a quick few circuits of a parking garage in London. We learned a few things, but not much.

Yes, we’ve already written extensively on the electric car technology that underpins the Leaf and have driven a number of early development mules that had the bodywork of the Nissan Versa. But here at Nissan’s Oppama proving ground near Yokohama, we’re standing next to a 2011 Nissan Leaf that’s pretty close to production-ready.

More Car, Less EV
And it’s impressive. Swift, near silent, easy and comfortable to drive, the 2011 Nissan Leaf certainly seems to be all this and more as it gathers pace and heads down the long straight at Oppama.

As we turn into the sharp bend at the end, the Leaf again stays right on line, tracking cleanly and progressively through the curve to begin the next lap. Throughout, it feels brisk, sure-footed and confident, with the electrics working seamlessly and effectively underneath. If Nissan wanted to introduce a totally new kind of scratch-built, battery-powered family car that’s practical, smart and uncommonly user-friendly, then the Leaf is just that, so far as this showing is concerned.

Of course, the Nissan Leaf does have a very different feel to it, as you’d expect with an 80-kilowatt (109 hp) electric motor under the hood that powers the front wheels. And then there’s the sizable pack of lithium-ion batteries beneath the floor that provides the juice.

No less clever is the Leaf’s ability to keep you abreast 24/7 of where the nearest recharging stations are.
Yet it’s those EV sensations that give the Leaf its futuristic feel and commercial edge. It would be very easy to buy a normal car, or even (whisper it) a Toyota Prius, but the Nissan Leaf with its zero tailpipe emissions gives you a different answer to the question of clean-air transportation.

U.S. Specification
The Nissan engineers at Oppama have managed to find us a 2011 Nissan Leaf that’s in U.S. specification. While this isn’t the full, final production car, it’s very close.

An engineer suggests that some of the hard plastics on the fascia might be changed, and that sounds good to us. If you remember the K-Mart interiors of the first Ghosn-era Nissans, well, the prototype Leaf is rather reminiscent of that. There are broad expanses of plastic that seem more in character for a Japanese microcar than an automobile that carries an entry price of $32,780. In the end, maybe this is not such a big deal in a car of such social importance, but then it’s hard to overlook when other aspects of the Leaf’s spacious, airy cabin are so good.

In front of you is an electronic display that NASA would be proud of. Among other things, the twin-level LCD graphics offer a power meter, speedometer and battery temperature gauge, plus an eco meter that evaluates the efficiency of your driving habits. To the lower right, you’ll find the all-important gauge for battery capacity and an indicator that shows how many miles you have to go before you’re out of juice.

No less clever is the Leaf’s ability to keep you abreast 24/7 of where the nearest recharging stations are, with the information screen for the satellite navigation system giving you the necessary directions. Nissan is talking about a driving range of over 100 miles as calibrated by the EPA’s LA4 city driving mode, so the Leaf is essentially a short-range commute vehicle, a role for which it is more than adequately suited.

The Charging Thing
With a 220-volt home recharger, it takes the best part of 8 hours to get a full battery charge, but it’s possible for an industrial-strength quick-charger to give you an 80 percent charge in less than a half hour.

The skillful packaging of the NEC-designed lithium-ion battery pack beneath the floor of the car’s rear-seat compartment keeps the car’s center of gravity low, which helps its agility. The combination of the heavy battery pack in the rear and a relatively lightweight electric motor up front also keeps the 2011 Nissan Leaf from being just another hatchback with a nose-heavy weight distribution. No doubt this is part of the reason why the Leaf doesn’t drive like your typical nose-heavy hatchback.

But the Leaf is heavy, weighing in at more than 3,307 pounds, according to what one engineer told us. That’s far heavier than most four-door hatchbacks of this package size. The good news is that the 206 pound-feet of torque available from the Leaf’s electric motor is available as soon as you press the accelerator, so the Leaf feels anything but slow as it moves off the line.

That Whole EV Thing
Starting the Leaf is something cool in itself. Press the “Start” button and you’re greeted with a catchy jingle, just like a mobile phone (or some Hello Kitty toy from the Akihabara district in Tokyo). Then, nothing. The car just sits there, waiting for you to make the first move. Because, of course, it’s an EV.

Move the transmission lever into Drive, watch for the green “Go” light on the instrument panel, release the brake and you’re ready to roll. Throttle action is noticeably sharp so the car jumps forward, but then it pulls smoothly and powerfully away, with just the faintest whirr of the electric motor in the background. Because the car uses a single-speed transmission, there are no gears to worry about, so the acceleration seems strong, seamless and extraordinarily smooth as the Leaf whooshes up to speed.

Once above 50 or 60 mph, acceleration then starts to trail off, just when a gas engine would still normally be building up steam. Still, the Leaf cruises beautifully, virtually in silence and with impressive body and suspension control. All-around refinement, in fact, is outstanding. If this Nissan was a tad more exciting to drive, it would be even better. But again, in the green car universe such things are perhaps not such an urgent priority.

There is also an Eco mode that produces softer acceleration response. It improves the cruising range by 10 percent, Nissan tells us.

Driving Like a Car
As our Leaf tackled the turns, hills, slopes and straights of Oppama, we noticed that while the steering is accurate and linear, the effort level feels a bit light and artificial. The 2011 Nissan Leaf handles well, though, with understeer and roll kept well in check.

Ride? We really have no idea, as Nissan’s test track at the proving ground is peerlessly flat and smooth. Even so, the Leaf feels supple and nicely damped. How it will deal with Detroit-style potholes, however, we’ll find out in some six months’ time.

As with so many electric and hybrid vehicles, the Leaf’s braking system feels a bit odd, as the transition from regenerative braking to mechanical braking is a little clumsy. Pedal action is decidedly short and heavy, rather like the first-generation Toyota Prius (the one that looked like a Toyota Echo), if you can remember back that far.

We were keen to experience Nissan’s tweaky “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians system,” so designed as to warn that the otherwise silent Leaf is coming. A loudspeaker in the nose emits a sweeping high-low sound at start-up and then cuts out above 12 mph. No doubt it works, but for better or worse it’s inaudible inside the car.



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