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First Drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf Japanese-Spec

The Electric Future is Here: Unique Styling, Seating for Five, Hatchback-Like Ride — and Zero Emissions
June 28, 2010 / By Peter Lyon / Photography by Masanobu Ikenohira

Click to view GalleryThis is a real watershed moment. Rarely in automobiledom does a “new car” like the 2011 Nissan Leaf come along that makes us stop and think about our current mode of transportation. By new, we don’t just mean the successor to a current model. We mean brand-new, as in a totally new — and silent — way of thinking about getting from Point A to B.

The five-seat, five-door Leaf is the world’s first purpose-built, mass-produced, all-electric car. Its launch in the U.S. early next year could very well serve as a defining moment in automotive history, a keystone toward building a no-emissions future.

Click to view GalleryAs it’s purpose-built, the Leaf employs its own unique platform and a body that meets all C-segment safety regulations. It certainly looks better in the flesh than in photos. The first thing that strikes you is its forward-slanted, rakish front end and a general look that’s more compact minivan than hatchback. Designers were able to differentiate the Leaf’s styling from conventional hatchbacks and give it an individualistic, short-nosed front end simply because the car doesn’t have a bulky engine up front. Protruding headlights were penned to reduce drag not only around the front end, but over the door mirrors as well. The airflow channeled up and away from the door mirrors by those ambitious headlights helps to drastically reduce wind noise and drag, while the overall silhouette and high rear end were designed to maximize interior headroom while minimizing drag.

It’s powered by 48 laminated lithium-ion battery modules and a high-response synchronous electric motor that generates 108 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. The battery pack is located directly beneath the front and rear rows of seats to keep weight low and centered for greater on-road stability and handling. Nissan claims the Leaf will travel up to 100 miles on a full charge, and will take around eight hours to recharge using 220-240V power supply.

From the driver’s seat, the Leaf feels like any other hatchback. Push the starter button and a momentary Wii-like jingle plays to inform that the vehicle is ready for action. Flick the mouse-shaped gear selector to “D” mode, floor the throttle and like with any other EV, you’ll have 100-percent instant torque on tap. From zero to 30 mph the Leaf accelerates faster than a 3.5-liter V-6, but progress slows as the revs rise. The Leaf will reportedly reach 60 mph from rest in 11.5 seconds and its top speed is limited to 90 mph, but then, the Leaf was not designed for loads of highway miles.

Click to view GalleryPower delivery is silky smooth, effortless, and above all, whisper quiet apart from a barely audible whir from the motor. The car’s acceleration betrays its rather hefty 3310-pound-plus curb weight, which means many buyers will have to get used to the Leaf’s considerable off-the-line pace. To warn pedestrians of its presence, engineers have fitted an engine bay mounted speaker that sounds a low-pitched whistle at speeds of up to roughly 20 mph and in reverse, a sound that’s oblivious to the car’s passengers. This answers early critics of the EV’s potential dangers for children and the visually impaired, although interest groups are already agitating for the sound to be audible at all speeds.

Click to view GalleryFlick the mouse to “Eco” mode and the on-board computer automatically switches its programming to dial down the air conditioning and throttle response while boosting regenerative braking, which reportedly improves driving range by as much as 10 percent. Interestingly, you can feel a noticeable retardation of the car when switching from D to Eco. It’s almost like changing from fourth to third on a standard slush-box automatic. And when switching back from Eco to D again, it almost feels like you’ve engaged a mild turbo as the Leaf finds some extra legs. But then, the Nissan EV never really feels slow. Whatever you do with your right foot, acceleration is always instantaneous and strong enough to keep up with highway traffic, even when merging at around 60 mph.



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