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Hello, Leaf: First Impressions

A week with Nissan's electric vehicle

By Jacob Gordon of Jan 31, 2011 11:29AM
For all the heated debate over the viability of electric vehicles, at it's core the argument tends to be a philosophical one -- after all, it's safe to say most people haven't seen a fully electric vehicle tooling around their neighborhood, let alone driven or owned one. Jacob Gordon of is test driving a Nissan Leaf this week, and through his real-world experiences he'll help us answer the question that should have been asked all along: Is it a good car?

Writer Jacob Gordon of with the Nissan Leaf. (Photo by Carmen Michelle Jaudon.)

I first saw this car in person when it was unveiled to the world in Yokohama, Japan. In a whirl of fanfare and scads of scrambling camera crews (not to mention mountains of complimentary sushi) we finally got to see it: A fully electric, affordable four-door from a major manufacturer. That was the summer of 2009. Now, the Leaf is ready for prime time and arriving in the garages of its first customers. I'm not a customer, but I do have a brand new Leaf to drive around for the week -- and I must say, as I watched it pull up my quiet street in Nashville, it was distinctly odd to see this much-hyped vehicle in the real world.

But the real world is where the Leaf must compete. Nissan wants the Leaf to be a real car for real people. So I tried to oblige them: I spent a week with the Leaf doing what I normally do (which is maybe not exactly the same as your routine, but should be familiar enough for most people). I took it grocery shopping; I scraped the ice off on a 28-degree morning; I packed my steel guitar and Fender amplifier into the trunk (this is Nashville, after all) and spent a weekend going out to eat, seeing music, and stopping by a friend’s farewell party. I also did a lot of weaving and passing on the interstate, got a speeding ticket in my neighborhood (“hey, you can write about this in your review,” the cop suggested), and I even made it home without running out of charge (barely) after driving too far out into the burbs.

What I found is that living with an electric car is different, and not without its adjustments.

But I like it.

First Impressions

Judge for yourself if you find the Leaf attractive. In my view it looks futuristic, sure, but no more futuristic than a new non-electric Nissan might be. The new Juke, for example, is probably a more daring design experiment than the Leaf (which, it should be noted, borrows a good number of cues from the Versa and Murano). The Leaf’s bugeye headlamps are certainly novel, but after a week with the car they actually became one of my favorite features. (You really have to stare into them for a while to appreciate how much is going on.)

Inside,I was impressed that Nissan kept things stylistically understated. For a radical car, the company could have tried to pull an off-the-wall interior like the Cube’s undulating cockpit. But no: The Leaf is original and crisp, but not over the top. If anything, it leans too heavily on the side of modesty. Nothing in the interior screams luxury, though everything feels high-quality and solid. Controls are well placed and, for the most part, intuitive. (I’ll get into more detail on gadgetry in an upcoming post.)

Driving the Leaf is remarkably satisfying. Not mid-life crisis satisfying, but you’ll probably be happy with its peppy acceleration, which is available both out of a stop and in freeway passing. Handling is tight and responsive as well -- especially for a car of this price tag.

We’ll go into what it means to own a car that eats electrons instead of hydrocarbons later, but suffice to say it's a different ballgame. The neighbors certainly notice. (It helps to have “Zero Emissions” emblazoned on the side, though that's optional.) People get in the Leaf and scratch their heads, and you tend to hear either “wait, I still don’t get it,” or, “woah, it’s totally silent!” The Nissan Leaf is a fascinating car to experience: Satisfyingly familiar yet radically new.

Stay tuned for the rest of the posts in this series. I’ll be getting into more detail on driving performance, how to charge up, and the Leaf’s high-tech features.

Photo by Carmen Michelle Jaudon.
Next: Hello, Leaf: Daily Grind.
Feb 1, 2011 7:10AM
I've said it before and will say it again. Who in their right mind will commit to a 4 - 5 -or 6 year financial relationship with a vehicle KNOWING that said vehicle WILL be obsolete in less than a year???? Unless these cars come with an "automatic update", like Windows or Apple does, WHY would anyone buy one? It just doesn't make sense to me, at all. 
Feb 1, 2011 6:44AM

Curiosity has me looking forward to test driving one (any full EV), perhaps as a vacation rental type scenario. I am not interested in any way whatesoever to purchase one. It's just not my bag, baby.  I have felt all along that a properly engineered EV would suit the driving habits of a large percentage of city/inner ring suburb dwellers.

Does the vehicle come with a back-up alert "beeper" in any way? In regards to backing out of driveways/garages and parking stalls, silence is NOT a good thing.

Like the old saying goes, "Loud pipes save lives" 

I have witnessed first-hand the dangers of the electric hybrids as their owners put the gear selector in R and do not look over both shoulders.

Feb 1, 2011 6:00AM

With gas prices predicted to go past $4 a gallon or more, I think this car might make it. It's funny because most other auto manufactures know it's coming so they are making more smaller cars. On the other hand Detroit is still pumping out cars that get poor MPG. The tide will turn when gas goes up and stays there because Detroit still can't make a small car without other companies building it for them.

Jan 31, 2011 7:57PM
And by the way: if you want to look at some slick headlights, find your nearest 2002-2007 Mazda6, or any new C-class Mercedes. Or an Alfa Romeo 159. Or a 2005 Honda Accord ("Acura TSX").
Personally, I was a bigger fan of the 2nd generation and Japanese market 3rd generation Acura Integra headlamps.  The 4th generation Supra had some attractive headlamps too, and I really like the first generation Lexus SC's headlamps.  Also the fixed headlamp 2002+ Acura NSX were good, and so were the S2000's.  (seeing a pattern here yet?)

This one will sound weird, but I also think the "fishbowl" headlamps on the 3rd generation Toyota MR2 also look good (if you can keep them from yellowing).  Another one that seems weird, but I think the 1st generation Miata's big round pop up headlamps were attractive too.

But then I really like my 2nd generation RX-7's square sealed-beam popups, so feel free to ignore anything I said as the result of the mind of an automotive pervert.

I really miss the old Japanese sports cars.

Jan 31, 2011 2:14PM
In my view it looks futuristic, sure, but no more futuristic than a new non-electric Nissan might be.
Futuristic? It looks like an intentionally "uglified" econobox. This vehicle is incredibly ugly. Especially the "bugeyes" and the rear end. It is outrageously ugly. It hurts my eyes to look at it, which is why I'll be avoiding looking at this abomination in vehicle design as much as possible.

Whoever designed this vehicle: I would fire them with so much gusto and make sure they would never be able to land another car designer job. Ever again.

And by the way: if you want to look at some slick headlights, find your nearest 2002-2007 Mazda6, or any new C-class Mercedes. Or an Alfa Romeo 159. Or a 2005 Honda Accord ("Acura TSX"). That should serve well for the purpose of the standard against which all others should be measured. Or an aesthetic ideal, depending on how you would prefer to have it formulated.
Jan 31, 2011 12:38PM
The two following situations will be demanding for the batteries: eating the passenger compartment in Alaska during a cold day of february, or cooling it in Florida during a hot day of july, reducing the range of action.
Jan 31, 2011 12:14PM
Hi "Someone," 
Great question (the first one, anyway Tongue out). I can't claim to understand the exact electronics of it, but the Leaf didn't show any signs of performance-loss even at critically low battery levels. 
Thanks for the insightful comment. 
Jan 31, 2011 11:54AM


The only fully electric vehicle I own is a rechargable Corvette.  Yeah, I know they don't, but mine is about 10 inches long and comes from Radio Shack (the 'vette, I mean).  Anyway, after the charge begins to get low, the car suffers a noticeable reduction in acceleration even though it continues to run for a while.  Do the big ones have the same problem, or does the electronic wizardry compensate for the reduced terminal voltage, keeping the performance consistent right up until it runs out of juice entirely?  Also, does the Leaf's RC remote take AA batteries or is it rechargable too? Tongue out

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