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LEAF: Navigation system will help drivers find nearby charging station

Step back from the Nissan Leaf and gaze upon its unusual shape.

Nissan’s new all-electric, five-door hatchback is among the rare cars with an exterior design predominantly defined by function.

The Leaf is designed to slip through air with minimal turbulence and rolling resistance — and thus to use as little battery power as possible. The result is a car that can be driven about 100 miles between battery charges.

Those subtle protrusions atop the Leaf’s headlights direct wind away from the side mirrors, where it could slow the Leaf slightly or contribute to cabin noise. The unconventional sculpting of the Leaf’s sides and rear end are also products of the wind tunnel.

The small solar panel atop the rear lip spoiler produces a trickle charge for the battery that powers the lights, radio and instruments. Tires are of a special high-mileage compound. I could go on.

Your teenage children will consider the Leaf’s styling embarrassingly dorky, but this is a revolutionary car, no question about it, and impressive in this first iteration.

Nissan clearly means business with the Leaf and is building a plant in Tennessee to make the Leaf’s lithium-ion battery packs. Until then, Leafs will be imported from Japan, beginning with first the U.S. deliveries in December and then to Austin in January.

With no gas engine and its associated equipment, the Leaf should be reliable and inexpensive to operate, though I take issue with Nissan’s claim that it is a “zero emissions” vehicle. Power to recharge the Leaf most likely will come from a fossil fuel power plant.

The Leaf is amusing to drive, with none of the familiar sounds of gasoline motoring, engine revving and exhaust thrum. It’s eerily smooth and quiet. When backing, the Leaf issues a modest beep to alert pedestrians.

The 80 kilowatt electric motor provides 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. Throttle response is excellent, especially from a stop, and top speed is about 90 mph. Transmission is a continuously variable automatic. Otherwise, the Leaf drives with pretty much the same acceleration and handling acuity of conventional compacts.

As with hybrids, the Leaf uses regenerative braking, which reverses the electrical polarity of the drive motor when the car coasts or brakes to generate electricity and route it to the battery pack. That pack is under the cabin floor, invisible.

Clever graphics track range miles and battery power remaining. They also inform how much farther the car could be driven by turning off the climate control system, valuable knowledge if battery power dwindles.

While driving the Nissan during a daylong test session, I was surprised by how much the regenerative braking added miles to the range. On one trip, I started with about 75 miles of battery power remaining but was able to drive 15 miles before the range indicator dropped to 70 miles. Careful driving can pay off.

For drivers who would nervously watch the battery meter, electronic displays include a real-time navigation map with the car’s position and exactly how much farther it can go.

The navigation system also finds and displays nearby public charging stations, although few will be found for the foreseeable future. Dozens are planned for Austin, but just a couple exist now.

Most Leafs will be charged at home in owner’s garages or carports through a port in the car’s front end. Nissan will help Leaf buyers set up 220-volt home charging stations. Nissan says a fully discharged battery pack will take eight hours to charge with 220 volts. A 110-volt charge is also possible but would take about 18 hours
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