First Drive: Test-driving the new Nissan LEAF EV… sort of

First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV... sort of

As some of you may remember, at the Dodgers Stadium here in Los Angeles last April I test drove a Nissan Cube fitted with what was to eventually be the powertrain of the new 2011 Nissan Leaf. What seemed to be an exercise in futurism, now looking back, was more close to reality that we, in the media, could have expected.

Flash forward to now. Back to the Dodger Stadium, and actually back to the same exact parking lot in the Dodger Stadium, things have changed. I was once again behind the wheel of a Leaf mock-up, but this time, it was 100% accurate to production in terms of powertrain chassis, just fitted with a Versa-based body. Much like the last time, the VersaLeaf (Yes, I just made that up) had a smooth rush of torque off the line, and nice acceleration up to the around-town types of speeds I was able to achieve through the autocross inspired closed course. The expectedly linear rush, of course, was accompanied by only the lear-jet-taxi’ing electric motor hum emanating from the powertrian. The big surprise this time was the nice handling. The steering was nicely weighted and the suspensioned reacted quite well to dynamic transitions. One key factor is that the formidably heavy batteries are packaged under the floorpan and thus, the car’s center of gravity was quite low. A 0-60 time of ‘under 10s’ was thrown around, and I believe it’s probably a conservative number. People looking to drive this car in day-to-day activities will not have any problems with the performance of this car. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see some Leafs pop up in SCCA autocross once the car hits the mainstream.

First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV… sort of:

First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV... sort of First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV... sort of First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV... sort of First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV... sort of

Back to the event itself: no longer is this a small casual event, it is a full-blown media event. No surprise, as Nissan President & CEO Carlos Ghosn was there himself to talk about the Leaf. Along with him was a panel panel including moderator Tyler Suiters, Chief Correspondent for Clean Skies News, David Crane, President & CEO of NRG Energy, Patricia Monahan, Deputy Director, Clean Vehicles Program, Director of the California Office, Union of Concerned Scientists and Mary Nichols, Chairman of California Air Resources Board. There was a lot of frank discussion back and forth, but let”s start with what you”re likely to be interested in: automotive product.

While we didn’t get to drive the actual production LEAF we did get a chance to take a spin in a Nissan Versa that carries the same powertrain. Power comes from a 107-hp electric-motor that runs on power supplied by lithium ion cells. On a full-charge, the Nissan LEAF allows for a driving range of 100 miles with a top speed of 87 mph. A full charge takes up to 8 hours on a standard 200V outlet. Buyers can opt for the DC 50kW quick-charger, which recharges the battery up to 80 percent in under 30 minutes. One tasty tidbit of information that Carlos threw out there was an upcoming Infiniti 4-passenger compact luxury car that would also utilize the same or similar powertrain along with a light commercial vehicle (we imagine badged as a Renault) and two other yet unnamed vehicles. The Leaf will be built in Nissan”s Smyrna, Tennessee plant along with its batteries. The interesting thing about how the vehicle will be sold is that the car will be available for purchase, but the batteries will be leased to the consumer. This does 2 things: 1) makes price of the Leaf more competitive with gas-engined equivalent cars and 2) structures the variable cost portion (battery lease + electricity) to be competitive with fuel costs at a projected 12,000-15,000 miles a year. As gas will only be getting more expensive, while battery technology would make batteries cheaper, this disparity will only increase. Carlos added that this leasing scheme would also future-proof the consumer from new battery technologies as they can simply trade-up to new batteries rather than being stuck with outdated technology. When asked about third party battery providers, Carlos mentioned that since Nissan would be producing its own batteries, it would not have to work to convince a 3rd provider that there is a market for the batteries in order to get them to commit to building capacity. This speeds up the process, however Nissan is open to 3rd party providers as long as those batteries meet the requirements needed.

Carlos Ghosn

The key to making the vehicle successful, according to Carlos, is being able to build the car in mass-scale. Per unit, he said, electric cars are not by nature more expensive and actually have much less components and thus less complication. However, they are dwarfed by the scale of internal combustion cars and thus cannot, at the current sales levels, compete on price. Economies of scale are paramount and thus the impetus for getting some initial critical mass for the Leaf. He envisions volumes of 500,000 cars a year worldwide once all markets are on-line. He quoted a volume level of over 10% of worldwide sales moving forward. Being that Nissan-Renault sold around 6 million some odd vehicles last year, this doesn”t seem too unreasonable and actually might be conservative.

Infrastructure is also a key need that needs to be satisfied, though David Crane was quick to point out that this should not be a chicken/egg issue where one is waiting on the other. The infrastructure and cars able to utilize that infrastructure must build together, not sequentially. To that, Patricia Monahan added that government can help build this critical mass through its use of tax incentives, etc.

From an environmental standpoint, an acceleration in volume of non-oil powered cars would be required to hit required greenhouse gas reduction targets. Especially as tailpipe emissions are still 25% worse than even coal produced electricity. What”s different now than the so-called “˜false start” we had in the early 90″s (they didn”t mention them by name, but they were of course referring to the EV1, RAV4 EV, etc.), is that the private sector (including automakers themselves) is on-board, not just being “˜forced” into it by regulation. Furthermore, and probably more importantly, there is now public support for electric cars. It is now, as they said, just forward thinkers such as academics, scientists, etc. as was the case a decade or two ago.

First Drive: Nissan Leaf EV… sort of:

– By: Kap Shah

All Photos Copyright © 2009 Jack Rosenfeld ““ egmCarTech.