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2011 Nissan Leaf
Electricity has its pluses and minuses, but that won't hold back the future

By Malcolm Gunn

2011 Nissan LeafAre you charged up about electricity?

Even if you have no idea how you're supposed to feel about electric cars, your high-voltage future is right around the corner, ready or not.

Along with the new Nissan Leaf, a host of battery-powered vehicles - not  gasoline-electric hybrids - will be offered for public consumption. Just how many of us will be prepared to adopt this radically different and silent-running technology? It largely depends on whether buyers perceive it as a backward step in terms of comfort and convenience. In the land of electricity, that means recharge time and driving distance/time before recharging.

On the outside, the Leaf certainly seems practical enough. Nissan's first all-electric model is a four-door hatchback that's somewhat larger than the automaker's compact Versa and nearly identical in size to Hyundai's Elantra Touring (wagon). That makes it large enough to comfortably transport up to five people and/or carry a respectable amount of cargo.

2011 Nissan LeafIt's a good thing that the Leaf takes a can-do approach to its job, because it's not exactly a looker. The front end resembles a goldfish that's busily scouring its bowl for sustenance, while the rear bodywork is a collection of odd shapes. Beauty is purely subjective, however.

"The styling will not only identify the Leaf, but also the owner as a participant in a new era of zero-emission mobility," chief designer Masato Inoue said.

The view from inside, however, is more pleasing, with the control panel providing some unique operating functions. For example, through a connection to a "global data centre," Leaf owners can receive assistance ranging from technical support to entertainment-system selections. As well, a dash-mounted display shows the level of battery power  (or range) remaining and will also indicate the location of the closest charging stations.

Yet another system can remotely switch on the air conditioning through a command from a cell phone. A built-in timer, also remotely controlled, can be pre-programmed to begin recharging the 192 battery cells located beneath the passenger compartment.

When driving, the juice is fed to an 80-kilowatt electric motor that produces the equivalent of 107 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. At full charge, the Leaf's anticipated range is about 160 kilometres, which, according to Nissan's research, is sufficient to satisfy at least 70 per cent of the world's drivers. But will they indeed be satisfied? Prudent operating habits will maximize the distance between "fill-ups," aided by technology that helps to charge the batteries when the brakes are applied. A single-speed controller (transmission) sends the power to the front wheels.

2011 Nissan LeafRecharging is accomplished simply by opening the flip-up door and plugging in the car. Using a standard 110-volt outlet, a full top-up takes 16 hours, while a 220-volt outlet cuts the time in half. However, quick refills using a special high-voltage charger will restore the batteries to 80 per cent of capacity in about 30 minutes, which is about five times as long as it takes to stop for gas.

Home charging stations will be offered for sale through Nissan's dealer network. There's no word on cost, but buyers will likely need one since charging out on the open road will be a rare thing.

Leaf pricing, on the other hand, is estimated at about $30,000 for the base model and will likely climb into the $35,000 vicinity after adding options such as a solar roof panel that will supply power to various accessories. Note that taking advantage of federal and/or provincial government incentives for zero-emission vehicles such as the Leaf could reduce the final purchase price.

The Leaf would appear to be less expensive than the upcoming Chevrolet Volt and it should be since the Volt also has a gasoline-powered electric generator to indefinitely extend its 65-kilometre electric range. If there are no charging stations, you can still drive the Volt across the country and back.

Nissan's boss Carlos Ghosn is convinced that electric vehicles will play an important role in his company's future, and this event will begin in late 2010 in a few select cities. In the months that follow, you can expect the Leaf and its contemporaries to be hooking up to power grids from coast to coast. But only if you're charged up about it enough to make the leap.

What you should know: 2011 Nissan Leaf
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact hatchback
Engine (hp): 80-volt alternating-current (AC) electric motor (107)
Transmission: Single-speed controller
Market position: The Leaf will be one of the first electric-only plug-in vehicles offered for sale, but will likely be joined by a variety of battery and gasoline-electric hybrid models set to arrive in the next two to three years.
Points: It's no beauty queen, but it's practical and it saves energy; Attractive base price, even without government incentives, but home charging station, battery leasing means you'll still be spending some of your gas money in a different way; Buyer acceptance of plug-in electrics yet to be determined; Nissan busily setting up partnerships with various utility operators for charging-station development.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
Base price (excluding destination): $30,000 (est.)

By comparison     

2011 Chevrolet Volt
Base price: $40,000, est.
On-board gasoline generator adds greater flexibility than pure electric vehicle.

2011 Mitsubishi iMiEV
Base price: $25,000, est.
Rear-wheel-drive sub-compact is ideally suited for inner-city transport.

2012 Ford Focus BEV
Base price: $30,000, est.
All-electric version of upcoming Focus will offer a 120-kilometre range.

Malcolm Gunn is an automotive writer based in Moncton, NB, and a regular contributor to CarTest!

Posted May 28th, 2010. © TM


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