A.I. Drives It: The Nissan LEAF Electric Car

October 18, 2011

Last night I went for a moderately bundled-up walk in my sleepy neighborhood to take-in the crisp and cool Autumn air. Fair to say that (weather pending) it’s an almost nightly ritual of mine as I’m part-cat and part old-fart (yes, I even bring along a walking-stick that doubles as a defense mechanism against those imginary forces of evil…). And as is the norm with this time of year, variously coloured leaves are scattered about and blanketed underneath the trees as the looming Fall approaches…

Hello. I am the Future.

Now, I know what you may be thinking… that this ‘falling leaves’ nod is my cheesy segue/intro to the article itself (and you’d be right) but I’d be lying if I didn’t have a moment of reflection on the morning/afternoon I spent with the new Nissan ‘Zero Emissions’ Electric Leaf and how 99% of the vehicle is recycleable with 95% of it constructed from recycled materials. Very ‘green’… actually, very ‘leaf’… But more on that in a bit…

It’s hard to know where to start with the Nissan Leaf as the sheer amount of tech involved is somewhat overwhelming (especially to this un-tech head) and encapsulates paragraphs of stats and figures and eco-claims to comb through. And I really don’t think you want to read a book-report, do you…? No you don’t. The basic fundamentals of the car have long since made their way through the usual Press channels over the course of this past year, so in order to save this piece from being drowned in endless stats and numbers, I present you with the official Nissan Leaf Press Kit media site link to pore over… You’re very welcome.

That's some eco butt-funk goin' on there...

But chewing on the main bits of fat (can you be a ‘green’ carnivore..?) with this all-electric car, what we have here is a front motor/front wheel drive layout with a single speed gear reducer powered by a high-response 80 kW AC synchronous motor and an air-cooled 24 kWh Lithium-ion laminated battery (that is multi-moduled – can replace individual aging/dying/faulty modules) housed in the rear-centre of the car for ‘optimum vehicle packaging and weight distribution’. There’s also another 3.3 kWh motor onboard. The Leaf develops 107 bhp and 207 lb-ft of torque.

First impressions upon walking up the Leaf are, to be honest, not very inspiring nor exciting. The Leaf is based on the rather staid (yet versatile) Versa platform so the Leaf’s body shape itself looks like a bulkier Versa that’s been making regular visits to the insides of your iPod along with many obvious hours lounging inside the wind-tunnel. The headlights in particular are an area of contention – the sharp, protruding, almost-obtrusive size and scale of them (though an aerodynamic aid in decreasing wind-noise) overwhelm the front-end styling and a quick walk-around reveals similar traits within the sci-fi, enlarged boomerang-like tail-lights. Aside from that (and its rather rotundly shaped arse) it’s all pretty plain-Jane.

Impressive, high-quality interior here

The interior is a pleasant place to be. The ergonomics are decently laid out. The materials look and feel of high-quality – you even get a leather-lite steering wheel. You seem to sit ‘on’ the chair rather than ‘in’ it, but that’s a relatively minor quibble. Starting procedure involves pressing a button, listening to the lovely eco-chime (the only sounds you ever really hear), toggle the very computer mouse-ish feeling gear-selector over to ‘D’ (or ‘R’), let your foot off the brake and over to the accelerator and away you go… in complete silence. So far, a breeze to get accustomed to and settle into comfort.

My test-drive route was unfortunately all-too brief and rather short (I think we travelled 6 km’s…?) so I was trying to document as much hands-on/visceral information as possible throughout my limited time behind the wheel. Initial impressions were of the near-deafening  and somewhat spooky silence within the cabin. The Leaf impressively soaks up the landscape and road-noise with an eerie aplomb as you’d hope within an electric vehicle. The steering was a bit too light and completely devoid of any feel/feedback but I’m more than guessing that was intentional … After all, the Leaf has been extensively engineered to remove and filter-out all of those vibrations and sounds we usually hear and feel within a conventional car – again though, very strange in a glassy, floaty way… Kind of like driving a posh Float… away from the parade… but no one notices.

The least-sporting rear diffuser on the market...? It helps direct the air - that's it.

Despite the slight oddness of the driving experience itself, one aspect of the Leaf that I noticed was how it forces the driver to focus on his/her driving habits. Because every run is essentially an economy run where you’ll be pre-planning (especially on longer drives) your range vs. your route, the amount of on/off throttle-action and the speeds you carry will largely determine how you fare come journeys end. Maybe I’m a bit naive to assume that most Leaf/electric car owners will notice the re-tuning of their on-road driving habits but I applaud something new within the daily-driven vehicular sector that will (possibly) deter people from their usual scatterbrained, lead-foot/dangerous driving habits.

Like most modern-day battery-powered personal appliances and various online realms (mp3 players, iPpods, Facebook, cell-phones, etc.), the Leaf also invites you into its (eco) world. It’s a very personalised environment with loads of gadgets and apps and gimmicky online sharing/eco-driving comparisons (with other Leaf owners) to choose from within the onboard motherboard (ie: CARWINGS telematics system)… if that’s your thing. Get this – each time you set-out on a journey in the Leaf, you’re tasked with the digital ‘construction’ of an ‘eco tree’ that gradually builds itself up on the dashboard if you maintain eco-driving habits – the more trees you grow, the more ‘green’ you are seen to be within the online network of Leaf owners. That’s kinda weird… yet probably a potentially huge selling feature for the socialites of the New World.

Decently sized rear load-in area... check.

The Leaf can be charged up to 80% of its full capacity in approx 26 minutes when equipped with a quick charge port utilising a DC ‘fast charger’. Charging from your home through a 240V outlet is estimated to take approximately 7 hours…. 11 hours through a conventional socket. The Lithium-ion battery pack carries a warranty of 8 years or 160,000 kilometres – not too shabby. A quick glance at the onboard computer currently shows only a few quick-charge areas within this particular region with Nissan Dealers being the obvious places for a quick (and free) top-up, but that network is expected to grow as sales/demand grows. Already, there are private companies gearing up to strategically place recharging stations throughout this sprawling region of ours.

Prices start at $38,395 for the SV base model and extend to $39,995 for the SL model which adds Auto On/Off Headlights, Rearview monitor, Fog lights, Rear Spoiler with Solar Panel Charger, Homelink transceiver (for garage door openers) and a Cargo cover An available option on the SL model is the Quick Charge Port ($900) and from what I’ve gathered, will be an essential ‘just in case’ proposition. So for the proper all-in Leaf ownership experience, the total will amount to $40,895 before taxes. Rebates..? Well, if you live in the Province of Ontario or Quebec the Government will reward your eco-wallet with an $8000 one… That’s substantial. Given time, I’m sure other Provinces/States will offer up similar eco-rebates.

Kinda cute how they gave the genrerator a ribbed valve cover... And yes, that's a regular car battery you see there

It’s tempting to go on and on about the Leaf’s (claimed) eco-credentials and it’s zero-emissions fanfare in this (rather sillily) Co2-obsessed world of-the-moment, but it would be wrong of me to exclude the one rather glaring elephant-in-the-corner question that, surprisingly, befuddled the responses from the assorted Leaf Eco Crew – When you plug-in your Leaf, you’re plugging into a socket… that derives its energy from a Co2-spewing source… So, how then, can the Leaf be rightly claimed as a Co2-saving, zero-emission vehicle… ? ?

I was given the answer – “Nissan has done their part, now its up to the Governments and Power Supply Companies within the various private-sectors to follow suit..” Hmm..

What we have here is a vastly impressive technological/automotive exercise that has obviously been well-thought out (it had better been, what with 2-Billion dollars invested), is user-friendly, well-made, a bit pig ugly and dull/boring to look at, drives like a posh, Premium Class parade float, will induce an all-new and inflated version of range-anxiety (your Leaf’s range drops by nearly 10 km’s if you simply turn on the climate-control..!), forces you to pay attention (a good thing) and is, at the moment, a bit pricey (yet prices are sure to come down when/if your local Gov pitches in with a special rebate incentive).

Obviously not these, but it would be kinda cool if Nissan offered a variety of old-school sticker-decal packages as options... yes?

Locally speaking, it makes loads of sense… what with the hill-laden landscape out here (supremely adequate for the regenerative-braking/re-charging attributes of the Leaf) that is unendingly adorned with a yawn-inducing, grid-patterned road-network splayed out upon it (we don’t have very many exciting/fun roads… we have straight-lines and 90-degree turns).

And so I’ll end this off with where I started; on my beautiful Autumnal walk last night… As I stared out at all of the leaves that have started to fall to the ground, I was reminded of how the plants and trees recycle themselves back into the earth… And then I thought about the Nissan Leaf itself, and how 99% of it will be recycled… But then I reminded myself of the sobering fact that we live in a world where cars (and almost all modern gadgetry) are increasingly being viewed upon as disposable ‘appliances’… and (usually) funded and built accordingly.

The face only a mother (board) could love...

Right now, electric cars are in the spotlight and induce a quirkily exotic and intriguingly curious response from the public. They are being properly built to showcase the developing technologies within our eco (and ego)-laden landscape in the hopes of selling this ‘Big Picture’ idea to the salivating public… But when/if electric cars become viable on a larger scale with a broader range of variants to choose from, it will be interesting to notice the inevitable decline in quality… though, like 90%+ of the consumer-based public nowadays, people won’t even notice nor care. Sad, that.

-Blake J.

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