Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's Just a Car...Isn't It?

But as the first mass-produced-for-sale all-electric car, the Nissan Leaf is a pretty significant car.

It’s important to remember that electric vehicles existed before hydrocarbon-powered vehicles – by decades. Many variants rose and fell, perhaps the most infamous being GM’s EV-1, as highlighted in the film Who Killed the Electric Car?
EVs have been slow to catch on, perhaps because of the many misperceptions and biases that work against them and cars even remotely like them. Even though the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid has been for sale in the US since 2001 (and this year passed one million vehicles sold here), I’m still asked if I have to plug in our 2010 Generation 3 Prius. That option, unfortunately, won’t be available until next year when the plug-in Prius becomes available.
As fuel prices rise and household finances are stretched, the driving community is showing signs of waking up to a new reality that redefines personal transportation.
The Nissan Leaf is positioned as the first EV intended to address this reality. A mid-size car with an MSRP of a little over $32,000 (typically reduced by incentives – your incentive may vary) and fully equipped, the Leaf is not what many envision an EV to be. It’s not a golf cart. It’s not a rolling roadblock limited to the right lane or surface streets. It’s not a flimsy novelty. It’s a real car meant to perform under real world conditions for a vast majority of drivers.
Of course, “real world conditions” require some definition. According to a report of travel trends from the US Department of Transportation, the typical US commuter in 2009 drove solo in a private vehicle for about 12 miles at a speed of under 30mph. Across all trip modes (commuting, family/school, recreational) each US driver averages a little less than 13,000 miles of driving a year, for a daily average of 35 miles. Long-distance recreational travel is a relatively small portion of household driving.
With a single-charge range of between 60 and 130 miles, five-seat capacity and a top speed of 90 mph, the Leaf is perfectly positioned to perform well as a commuter or in-town car, the two modes in which most travel is done. It’s obvious that this car is not suited for households that cannot afford multiple vehicles for various missions, but as almost 70% of households now own multiple vehicles, it is realistic to assume some mission-specificity is possible. The Leaf will never match the shear utility of a minivan but it will do at least most of what a minivan will do on any given trip and do so with no tailpipe emissions.
Note that I wrote tailpipe emissions. As a pure EV, there is no combustion, so there’s no tailpipe at all. The only things this car leaves behind are water condensed from the air conditioner and tire and brake dust, which all cars emit as those parts wear. There is no exhaust, no oil or antifreeze to leak.
But the energy to make it go has to come from somewhere and here in the US, that typically means coal-fired power plants. So even though you’re not producing any pollution locally, it’s being produced somewhere. Unless you’re fortunate enough to get your power from renewables or purchase carbon offsets, you’re still polluting the air by driving your car.
This is countered somewhat in the Leaf by its EPA rating of 99 MPGe (converting kilowatt-hours to the energy equivalent of gasoline), making it a very efficient vehicle indeed, nearly twice that of the 2010-11 Prius.
Based on the above objective measures, the Leaf is a well-considered if somewhat mission-constrained choice. For most households, it’s a perfect work and around-town car, but if one must make one vehicle work for all jobs, it’s most likely not a good choice.

A couple days back, I attended Nissan’s Drive Electric Tour stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a pre-registered test driver. After being checked in, I waited until our group of about ten was escorted through a couple displays explaining the Leaf’s battery and charging system and a walkaround of the car itself.  The exterior styling of the Leaf is unique – a cross between the Versa and Juke – and is intended to evoke aerodynamics and ecological sensibility. Nissan, I’m sure, is hoping the Leaf’s shape to become iconic as has the Prius’s.

Interestingly enough, the Leaf’s 0.29 Cd is only average for contemporary cars and higher than the Chevy Volt’s (0.28) and Prius’s 0.25, still the lowest of any production car. Exterior fit and finish was quite high, though one could quibble about minor details like how the side mirrors attach to the door. A nice touch is the design of the multi-mode antenna, which carries the elliptical curve theme of the rest of the car and is evocative of a plant bud.

We were then divided up, assigned a co-driver and vehicle and took a short drive on the surface streets of Speedway. I was really disappointed that we weren’t taken on the track itself, which would have made for a MUCH more interesting test drive!
As a Prius owner I felt right at home in the Leaf. The controls are very conventional, though the displays are quite different from a gas car, showing energy remaining and power being used and regenerated rather than fuel quantity and engine speed. It’s roughly equal to the Prius’s hybrid system indicator. The touch screen multi-function display can show the status of most of the car’s systems as well as control the audio and navigation system.

The interior of the car is also conventional, using a variety of hard and soft plastics and fabric upholstery. The fabric is made with recycled PET plastic, is soft and grippy – enough to make me wonder about its durability. The seats felt a little small but would be comfortable for any trip within the Leaf’s range. The quality of interior fit and finish is reasonably high – nothing remarkable. The money was obviously spent on the power train.
The rear seat, with its high floor over the batteries – the 600 pound case is suspended under the vehicle - was less comfortable but roomy enough. Leg and headroom would be adequate for most. The cargo area appeared to be able to hold plenty of groceries or one or two suitcases. Golf clubs or a large cooler would necessitate folding down the rear seat backs.

We merged into rush hour traffic, turning west on 16th Street and got a quick dose of electric motor acceleration. It’s important to point out that unlike a gas or diesel engine that develops peak torque only after reaching a certain speed, an electric motor has available peak torque from the beginning. This makes for very brisk acceleration; the lack of noise, with only the wind and tires as cues, makes it very easy to overshoot the intended speed. I found the electric power steering to be too light and numb; the Prius has a similar lack of feedback but is at least nicely weighted. The regenerative braking is very effective though also has a feel unique to regenerative systems; it takes a little getting used to. The Leaf comes with stability control and ABS as standard equipment.
The palm-sized controller in the console allows switching between “power” and “eco” modes which can be done at any time. “Power” mode boosts acceleration (and energy consumption) significantly.
The Leaf’s low center of gravity makes up for its relatively high stance. Cornering and lane changes are handled well. Again, the IMS road course would have been a much better place to explore the Leaf’s performance. I really doubt there will be many Leafs turned into autocross rides, though Nissan has demonstrated a Leaf-derived racer at LeMans.
We returned to IMS where I parked the vehicle and talked with some of the staff. I learned that Nissan is not taking orders at the events and that registration for cars in Indiana won’t commence until early 2012. I was told Nissan’s staged rollout is intended to preclude price gouging and also permit the catching up of charging infrastructure and dealer support, but some in the community are worried that pent-up demand may lead potential buyers elsewhere. Seeing as how Volts are still only trickling onto the market and the plug-in Prius will become available by mid-2012, one must wonder if there will be too many alternatives available by the time Leafs are widely available.
As a Prius owner, I was impressed by the Leaf, but not blown away. It’s what I expected it to be – the next step of automotive evolution and a really good transportation appliance. It’s not a revolutionary vehicle by any means. Even the first Prius wasn’t revolutionary. The Leaf feels and sounds different from internal-combustion engine cars, but not much so. It does what it says it will do and does it with grace and comfort. It is transparent in that the driver can interact with its power train as desired. It will work for most trips for most households.
I wish Nissan and the Leaf well. As resources become increasingly scarce, we will need a more diverse fleet of vehicles to meet our transportation demands.