We're still waiting for the jetpacks the future promised us, but another long-awaited mode of transport has finally arrived. You you may have seen (but not heard) the Nissan LEAF gliding around town. This curious-looking hatchback, the first electric vehicle (EV) to be sold by a mainline manufacturer, landed in Seattle and four other cities nearly one year ago. The LEAFs come in peace though they arrived in stealth. But like the fecund Prii before them, they have already begun to multiply. As of last month, Nissan had sold 8,048 of them.
"It's a real car, not a golf cart,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn declared when the Leaf was launched. Maybe, but it's also a question mark for drivers accustomed to a century’s worth of dinosaur burners. What's it really like? How does it work? Can it possibly be practical? To answer that, our family visited the local dealership and took the LEAF two-day test drive, putting the car through its driving paces and, more importantly, through its charging paces throughout hilly Seattle. The results were surprising.
It takes a while to master the zen of driving an electric car. At first there is a tendency to obsess over the battery charge indicator and estimated miles remaining. This is heightened by trying to find charging stations. The range on a nearly full charge (we left the house each morning with about 80 miles range, indicated) easily lets one whoosh around town for a full day and get home to charge overnight. Still there is comfort in the idea that one could “battery up” out in the world. Seattle has a miniscule but growing network of electric car charging stations at such sites as city facilities, big box stores, and, charmingly, the parking lots of electrical contractors. The LEAF’s navigation system directs you to the nearest station and updates its database as new ones come online.
When you find a charging station you'll have details to tend to; various providers have different policies and subscription routines. At Blink Network stations, located throughout city, you must have a membership card to swipe. At Charge Point sites you'll dial an 800 number to activate the station, get a free charge, and have a free card mailed for future use. All in all it’s like stopping at Shell and Texaco without being able to use your own debit card or find another station every few blocks. But once you sort it out, you'll enjoy reverse sticker shock; at Seattle’s electric rates, a full "tank" costs less than two bucks, even if you aren't at the always-free Charge Point locations.
Once you have the lay of the charging land and trust the onboard trickle charger (which lets you plug into any 110-volt outlet), you'll ease into EV zen and enjoy the ride. The electric driving experience is extremely pleasant. Electric motors provide more low-end torque than petrol, and it's instant. And the absence of a transmission (a single-gear electric motor does all the adjusting itself means power is quick to arrive, smooth, and continuous. Unlike hybrids, EVs have no computer-mediated on/off dancing back and forth between power sources. So you'll beat every other vehicle off the line at stoplights — a super-charge of guilt-free fun.
Other than the futuristic sound it makes while accelerating, the Leaf is essentially silent. Its exterior beeps when backing up and a rearview camera lets you see what you're about to smoosh in time to change course. At slow forward speeds, a noisemaker in front lets pedestrians know you're approaching even if their heads are turned away.
Did I mention the acceleration? The surging power of electrons is perhaps the best thing about all this. Rocketing up Seattle hills in the Leaf is like a grown-up amusement park ride. Think Wild Mouse, sped way up. Look, there’s the Space Needle! Isn’t the future great?
Back on earth, some second thoughts intrude. Guilt-free driving is a fine ideal, but consider the upstream power source. In Seattle, where hydro power is abundant, EVs are an easier sell. But in much of the world, electric cars are essentially coal-powered cars. Folks there may have to wait for solar-powered jetpacks.
Then there is the LEAF's styling. Must it look so weird? The LEAF is quirky/cute but, like the hybrids, will probably undergo some welcome restyling in the second and third generations. Ford's new all-electric Focus will look essentially the same as the internal-combustion model, mainstreaming the aesthetic. Would someone please pay Apple’s Jonathan Ive a zillion dollars to sketch what an iCar should look like?
On that note, however, the LEAF's smartphone Bluetooth integration is seamless and superb. It has an effective navigation and voice-command system and an iPhone app that lets you control charging and air conditioning remotely, so you can charge it up and cool it down while you’re off doing other things.
For an automotive enthusiast, the EV experience is surprisingly fun. Everyday city drivers will be glad to know that this electric car is a real car, and it works just fine. The LEAF's amenities make the eco-transition more appealing than, say, the spartan asceticism of the Smart Car. When the time came to turn in the LEAF and resume driving our gas-powered behemoths, we felt a little ... belchy, like party guests who'd outstayed their welcome.
The LEAF is in the vanguard of a wave of new industry offerings. The electric sportscar maker Tesla plans an electric luxury sedan that will seat up to 7. Chevrolet VOLTs (with a gasoline engine to recharge the on-board battery) are now available, and Ford's all-electric Focus will ship in March 2012.
To gain a mass market, however, electric cars must keep evolving, as must the family. The one member who never did adjust to the arrival of the electric car was our dog, who couldn't hear it driving up the street and was shocked to see us every time we walked in the front door. But he may soon have to get used to being surprised.Other than the futuristic sound it makes while accelerating, the car is essentially silent. There is an exterior reverse beeper for backing up and a rearview camera so you can see what you're about to smoosh in time to make a course correction. At slow forward speeds, a noisemaker in front lets pedestrians know you're approach even if their heads are turned away.