Saturday, October 1, 2011

Test Driving the Nissan Leaf

Well, I suppose once a year or so I should update this blog! Sorry for the long absence.

Anyway, I had a chance today to drive the new, all-electric Nissan Leaf as part of their promotional tour of Canada with the new car.  I'm not much of a car review or automotive expert, but I figured it is still worth recording my impressions since this is such a unique new vehicle. These are just my overall impressions of a quick tour & test drive. You can find loads of more detailed reviews by searching online.


Definitely a nice look to the vehicle. It doesn't scream oddball, or high-tech. If anything, it looks like a slightly bigger version of the Versa.

 The main exterior difference? No tailpipe at all!!

The engine compartment is actually kind of funny since they have mocked it up to look as if it is an internal combustion engine. The guy at Nissan said that under the aluminium cover that looks like a valve cover is just a printed circuit board! On the front of this photo you can see the connector for the charging station. The battery you see there is obviously not the battery that drives the engine! That is just for the accessories like the a/c, lights & heating. You can get an optional solar panel on the spoiler that charges this battery - but not the main big batteries, which are in the back.


Inside the car has a very "deluxe" feel. Nice leather on the steering wheel, pleasant textures everywhere an nice quality plastic on the controls. I wonder how long it would take me to get all that nice pale colored surfaces all grungy! Over time, I think a darker interior might show the wear a bit less, but on a new car it just looks spiffy!

This also gives you a sense of the control layout, which is very sensible and easy to use. My only quibble is the little shift controller knob which you can see in the lower right of the picture above. You flick it to the left and down to go into "drive" do that twice and you are in "eco mode" and flick it left and up to go into reverse. Cute, but why would it have been hard to just put a good old shift lever labelled "D", "D-E" and "R"? It isn't hard to get used to, but it is one of the few things that doesn't seem ergonomic.


I did get a very short test drive, so I didn't get too much time to play with the displays & interface. The main display shows your speed & power level in a sensible way:

 The main touchscreen panel provides well organized controls - with an obvious focus on power consumption and range.

Again, I didn't get a chance to play a lot with this system, but my only concern was it seemed rather busy and I wonder about "driver workload" or distraction with so many options.

The Drive

What was it like to actually drive? I did get a quick drive of about 10 minutes or so which took me on some city streets and a quick jaunt on the highway and I have to say it is very impressive indeed. You start it with the power button you can see on the lower left of the above photo (maybe "boot it up" is more appropriate) and then pop it into drive with the selector and the funny thing is it just sits there dead silent! It took me a minute to realize that, of course, it's not like the engine would idle or anything - the motor does nothing until you press on the accelerator!

Once you do hit the accelerator, the driving experience is really very normal and pleasant. It is certainly the absolute quietest vehicle I have ever driven and the weight of the batteries really gives it a solid feel. I was reminded of the old saying about the Rolls Royce that all you could hear was the noise of the clock ticking on the dashboard! The pickup was very brisk since the electric motor delivers huge torque immediately, but all you hear is just a little whine as it runs up. What impressed me the most was just how comfortable and natural it felt to drive - there was really no feeling of having to transition or re-learn how to drive. I did try the "Eco" mode and that felt like it just put a wet blanket over all the power and acceleration, but then, that is what it is supposed to do - preserve your battery over performance.

Will I buy one?

Well, sadly, probably not soon. For once thing, there likely won't be real volumes of the vehicles available in Canada until later next year, but at the end of the day the range thing just doesn't quite work for me - although it is pretty close.

It is rated at 160 kms on a charge and the Nissan people told me that some testing showed under the best conditions it could do almost 190 km, but I really wonder what the real-world range will be in the extremes of the Canadian winter or our hot summers. I live in a smaller city and I often drive to surrounding communities that are 50 or 60 km away, which would start to push the range. That being said, I work from home so the total amount that I drive in a month is pretty limited, so why spend the extra to get an EV which won't be driven when I could get a very efficient gasoline vehicle for less? However, if I was commuting, say 25 kms or less a day, the range would really be quite acceptable and the extra cost justified when gas starts to creep up to $1.50 a liter. As well, the Nissan folks make a very good point that the car is really very simple mechanically and will need little by way of regular servicing compared to an internal combustion engine.

Ultimately, I don't see this as my next car (I plan to buy in the next six months or so), but if the next model gets up to, say, 220 km, I would definitely think hard about it. Driving away in my manual transmission Honda (which I like a lot) felt rather like climbing into a Model T.

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