Test Driving the Nissan LEAFTM Electric Car
December 4-5, 2010

Mark D Larsen



When Nissan announced that they would be hosting a “Drive Electric Tour” of the LEAF in the initial rollout states of WA, OR, CA, AZ, and TN, I immediately submitted my name to schedule a test drive when the tour came to Phoenix, AZ. When the reservations opened up in early November, I reserved my slot for the weekend of December 4-5, 2010.

Getting to Phoenix, however, would require a major trip, in two different senses: a trip involving miles and time behind the wheel, but also... a guilt trip. You see, I ended up driving a total of over 14 hours at highway speeds, thus eschewing at least 600 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, simply to spend no more than 20 minutes in the driver’s seat of a zero-emissions vehicle. My one justification —and solace— is that my Saskuatch-size carbon footprint that weekend was a necessary evil to someday drive a car with no tailpipe whatsoever.


Free Wheeling
(click to watch the MP4 video)
Nissan could not have picked a better time and place for the LEAF test drive in the area. They had arranged to host it during the annual Festival of the Arts in downtown Tempe, right next door to the City Hall and the Arizona State University campus. There was ample parking in the area, in both open lots and covered garages, all offering a special event discount price of $10 for the entire day. As I approached the venue, I was thrilled to see several LEAFs, in a variety of colors, navigating their way around the same streets I was driving. Every driver I saw in them was grinning from ear to ear —which only whet my appetite to share the same experience.

I arrived to find the main streets blocked off for long rows of innumerable booths selling arts, crafts, and a variety of foods. Myriads of people were milling about, taking advantage of the festival to do some Christmas shopping. I parked in one of the covered garages, and was delighted to find that Nissan had set up its “Drive Electric Tour” on the opposite side of the street from the garage exit, probably no more than 50 yards from where I parked. Those who happened to be strolling past one side of a row of booths had a panoramic view of the parking lot where the LEAFs were departing and returning for test drives on the surrounding streets, as you can watch in the video to the right. You’ll undoubtedly note how incredibly quiet the test LEAFs are: you can only hear their tires on the asphalt. You’ll also note that they did not have their Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians (VSP) working. Thank goodness! Can you imagine the cacophony when a half-dozen EVs are emitting “warning” whines at the same intersection? I sincerely hope that someday our illustrious lawmakers suffer just such a scenario: they might finally get a clue that the consequences of their decision to pass such a regulation are intolerable —and consequently repeal it. After all, the data summary I posted several months ago clearly shows that VSP is a solution to a problem that doesn't even exist.

I was frankly amazed to see the effort —and expense— that Nissan had put into the tour. They had erected several glass buildings and shaded canopies, as shown below in the photo to the left. The buildings housed several LCD monitors, explanatory displays, and other show-and-tell demonstrations. Drivers were lined up for their turn to get behind the wheel under one of the canopies, and there was a post-drive area where participants could have their photo taken with a LEAF and also record a video of their impressions. The exit building boasted a refreshment area where one could pick up brochures and souvenirs. There were also counters where potential customers could talk to both AeroVironment and Ecotality reps about their EVSEs to charge the LEAF.


Terminal Area

The Power Behind the Scenes

Having arrived early for my test drive, I had ample time to stroll around the festival. I rounded the corner onto a side street, where I could see the green AeroVironment quick-charger that Nissan was using to recharge the cars’ battery packs when needed, as shown above in the photo to the right. I later learned that the huge box with the blue labeling to the left of the quick-charger was actually a diesel generator. Apparently it proved too problematic for Nissan to arrange with different utility companies to install 480V power lines wherever the tour would take place in various cities, so AeroVironment ironically provided a huge fossil-fuel generator instead. I guess that I was not the only one feeling a bit of guilt over my carbon footprint that weekend!


Kate Answering Questions
About an hour before my scheduled test drive, I went in the entrance to check in at the registration desk, where they looked up my reservation on the computer and asked to see my drivers license. I then examined the displays and watched the videos until the next tour began. I had previously seen the LEAF in person when it came to Las Vegas nearly a year previously, and was pleased to see that two of the guides I had met on that occasion, Abe and Kate, were still working for Nissan to help with this tour. Most of the other workers, however, were temporary local employees, hired only to help with this stop on the tour. Evidently Nissan had arrived prior to the event to interview, select, and train these helpers, most of whom were probably ASU undergraduates, although there were a few older gentlemen who were guiding the test drivers in and out of the parking lot.

My tour group was called after about 10 minutes, and I was glad to see that Abe would be our guide. Like in Las Vegas, he did an exceptional job of explaining the technology behind the LEAF, its development, and its performance in the real world. He demonstrated the vehicle’s cell phone interface, answered everyone’s questions, and used good-natured humor in his comments and observations. I was particularly intrigued by the graphic illustration of the amount of CO2 produced by different makes of automobiles, for I had not seen it before.

As an avid EV aficionado, I already knew most of the information that Abe conveyed, but I was frankly appalled to discover that nobody else in my group seemed to know anything about electric vehicles —let alone the LEAF. Had they merely signed up for a test drive upon seeing the tour while shopping at the festival? Had they not paid attention to the news for the last several years? Hadn’t anybody seen Who Killed the Electric Car? If the LEAF was news to them, had they likewise never heard of the Tesla Roadster, the Chevrolet Volt, the Mitsubishi “i” (MiEV)? These were the thoughts that occurred to me when I realized that I was the only one who knew what a standard J-1772 plug was: nobody else had a clue.

The questions that these novices asked were predictably among the most common about EVs. How far can it go on a charge? Where do you recharge it? How long does it take? How much does a full charge cost? How long do the batteries last? What if —gasp!— you run out of electricity while on the road? I was bemused by such naïvete, and had to hand it to Abe for his patience in cheerfully answering these questions for what must have been the umpteenth time without batting an eye.

While Abe was explaining about Level 2 charging at home, I couldn’t help but notice that the AeroVironment EVSE on display was significantly different from the one I had seen in Las Vegas. At that time Nissan’s Western communications manager, Tim Gallagher, told me that this unit was the first EVSE anyone had seen from AeroVironment, as it had just been delivered to their team that very morning. You can see that original EVSE below in the photo to the left. The new design, shown in the photo to the right, was much smaller, and boasted a tapered shape which would allow one to wind the cable around the EVSE itself rather than on a separate hose hook like the one below it.


AV’s Original EVSE in Las Vegas

AV’s Latest EVSE in Phoenix

I much prefer the new unit, as it is less obtrusive, with a cleaner appearance, and improved functionality. Nonetheless, the fact that AeroVironment went back to the drawing board during this past year to redesign their EVSE yet again makes me wonder just how prepared they really are to meet the demand burgeoning on the horizon. Designing, prototyping, testing, and finally manufacturing equipment like this must take time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if their supply lines are currently suffering a bottleneck that is thwarting the assembly, delivery, and installation of these EVSEs to the first wave of LEAF owners.

I was impressed with the number of LEAFs that Nissan had sent on the tour. There was one parked at the fast-charging station, filling its battery pack. Another was next to the waiting line for test drives so that participants could check out its many features inside and out. A third was by the exit building for the photos and videos. Finally, I counted seven LEAFs for the test drives themselves. With that many vehicles pulling in and out of the parking lot, it didn’t take long to move up to the front of the line: my chance to test drive a LEAF had finally arrived.


By the Seat of my Pants
The first feature I had to explore —by necessity— was how to adjust the driver’s seat. The person who had driven before me must have had very short arms and even shorter legs, as I bumped my knees on the steering column to squeeze in. To slide the seat back, I found a small lever on the front of the seat toward the right side, and pulled up on it to release the catch. The seat slid back and forth smoothly and easily. I also had to change the angle of the seatback, as it was nearly straight up and I prefer to drive slightly reclined. Reaching down the left side of the seat, I found the usual lever to adjust the angle. I also noticed that there was a dial on that side of the seat, which I tried turning to see what affect it had on the seat position. Others have stated that said dial raises and lowers the seat, but my impression was that it merely tipped the seat bottom to give the driver more or less thigh support. You can see both that dial and the lever for reclining in the photo to the right.

Since I did not bring any passengers with me, I was the sole person from our tour group in the vehicle. I must say that the young worker who chaperoned me was dishearteningly reticent. He barely said anything other than “yeah,” “no,” “turn left here," "turn right there," etc. Had he been hoping for tips when he took the job? If so, he certainly didn’t deserve one for my test drive. The LEAF was already running when I got in, so I didn”t get to hear one of its three startup sounds. I knew from others’ reports that I first needed to put my foot on the brake before I could shift into drive by pulling the gearshift “mouse” over toward me and down. I pushed on the accelerator and we were off, navigating the twists and turns in the parking lot.

I fully expected the LEAF to be quiet, but nothing can prepare you for how truly silent it is until you’ve driven it. Little does one realize just how much ambient noise an ICE car produces. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a car’s tires rolling over the pavement before, but that was the loudest sound I heard while steering through the cones. Others had commented that they thought the steering was too soft, but I didn’t get that impression. True, the wheel turned effortlessly, but I would simply classify the sensation as “luxurious,” the kind of feeling one gets when steering a car like my in-laws’ Lexus RX 350. I did notice that the brakes seemed to “grab” rather quickly, but this was likely because I am conditioned to more play in our own cars’ brake pedals. After a few stops, I had learned to tred more lightly when slowing down.

With excitement growing, I left the parking lot and turned right on the street. After only half a block, the young man instructed me to turn left at the light. He then told me to turn right onto a narrow street after another half a block. There were several pedestrians using the crosswalk, on their way to the festival, so I had to wait for them to reach the curb. I remember noticing at the time that the “A” pillars of the LEAF are quite thick and solid. My guess is that Nissan purposely put a small triangular window in this area because otherwise it would be difficult to look past those pillars and see pedestrians around a corner.


At the End of my First Test Drive
One block later, the young man told me to turn right again. This seemed strange to me, because we were now moving in the opposite direction of the streets where I had seen the LEAFs earlier in the day. And then he told me to turn right yet again! We were heading back on the same street as the parking lot, and when we reached the lot he told me to enter it.

That was it! My test drive consisted of no more than half a mile and a parking lot, never exceeding 25 mph, with most of the time spent waiting at stop lights and crosswalks. I was, as you can well imagine, extremely disappointed. I loved the car, but the test drive had been pitiful. I resolved then and there to return the next day as a “walk-in” to try and get another chance in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, I let the photographers take my picture by the display LEAF, shown on the left, since by coincidence it was the same “glacier pearl” color than I had chosen when I put down my deposit.

I picked up some brochures and souvenirs, had some refreshments, and stopped to chat with the Ecotality and AeroVironment reps. The latter company had put my name on a waiting list of customers willing to waive the installation procedure and purchase their units directly. The contact person had e-mailed me that they expected to start selling those units around November 15. I never heard another word, so I thought that I might as well ask about it. The rep at the tour could give me no definitive answer —which is pretty much what I expected.

The next day, I showed up shortly after the tour had reopened. I was fortunate that they did not have a plethora of time slots already reserved that morning, so they were able to shoehorn me in for a second test drive without any problem. They offered to let me join the line outside, but I opted to go through the tour again: there was a method to my madness, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The tour guide confessed up front that he was ill and losing his voice, and thus his explanations were rather short and to the point in comparison with the more thorough presentation that Abe had given the day before. Still, he took much longer demonstrating how to use an iPhone to communicate with the LEAF’s various functions, something that Abe had not covered with so much detail. Meanwhile, I was observing the other members of this second group, which was the reason I decided to take the tour again. I hoped to try and befriend one or two other drivers, so that we could all share our drives together. I approached a couple that wore yellow wrist bands, indicating that they were both going to take a test drive, and introduced myself. Their names were Dan and Li (pronounced “Lee”). I asked if I could be a back seat passenger while they drove, and offered to take a movie of Li with her camera while she drove, if she would do the same with my camera when it was my turn. They readily agreed and we quickly moved to the front of the line.

Our chaperone was a young lady named Alex, who was infinitely more communicative and friendly than her counterpart had been the previous day. I could already tell that this was going to be a great test drive for all of us. Li drove first, and I was pleased to see that Alex took us on a much longer and more varied route so that we returned to the parking lot via the streets I had seen the test LEAFs on when I first arrived. Like practically most drivers unfamiliar with EVs, Li was amazed at how “normal” the LEAF seemed: were it not so incredibly quiet, one would never guess is was electric. Dan echoed that sentiment when he got behind the wheel.

I was having a wonderful time in the back seat. It was far roomier than in the rear of our Subaru Outback, and the seats were a bit higher than in most hatchbacks, undoubtedly because of the battery pack underneath. This actually proved a desirable feature: it gave us rear seat passengers a better view all around, and without cramping our knees at a higher, tighter angle. I could have comfortably spent all day back there without complaint. Moreover, being a passenger for two other test drives allowed me to pay closer attention to the display on the dash, the suspension when crossing speed bumps and driveways, and the stability of the car when cornering with a full load of adults. There was no doubt: this was a superb automobile, with as fine a ride as any hatchback on the market.


Fasten Your Seatbelts
(click to watch the MP4 video)
It was now my turn to get behind the wheel again, and Li filmed the entire test drive, which you can watch by clicking on the image to the right. You’ll hear that we covered various topics during my drive:

Why the LEAF does not have motors for adjusting the seats. I don’t mind that it lacks this feature, except for one disadvantage: when people are different sizes, such as in our household, it really helps to be able to “set” the seat to each person’s desired position, and recall that automatic setting with the push of a button.

The difference between the LEAF and the Volt. As EV advocates know, the Volt is a serial hybrid. Its electric drivetrain can only travel an average of 40 miles instead of 100 in the LEAF, but then a gasoline engine fires up to extend its range.

How the climate control affects the LEAF’s range. I asked Alex to bring up the display with the “wheel” showing both energy used when driving and regenerated when braking, as well as the miles lost when using the climate control. The display showed that our estimated range was 75 more miles, but after I turned the climate control off, it jumped up to 94 miles. Alex evidently had previously set the temperature fairly low, even though it was a pleasant 70° that day.

Where are the public charging stations. Alex also brought up the screen showing the charging stations in the area. So far, there were only two in the Phoenix area: the third one displayed at the top of the list was the AeroVironment quick-charger than Nissan brought on the tour!

The windows in the “A” pillars improve visibility. Dan also noticed those windows, and I commented on their necessity to be able to see pedestrians around a corner.

The LEAF is incredibly quiet. Dan commented that the stereo sounded better than ever, with “no distortion, no buzz,” thanks to the silent drivetrain.

Toyota is experimenting with a second gen RAV4-EV. You’ll note that I remain somewhat skeptical of that Toyota-Tesla agreement, but I hope I am wrong.

Instantaneous torque. I punched it while on a four-lane street, almost reaching 60 mph and risking getting a speeding ticket. The acceleration was smooth, effortless, and downright thrilling. I predict that, after EVs become more commonplace, shifting gears will seem primitive and backward to many drivers.


Wind Tunnel Sculpture
Wind noise? At the fastest speed I drove, I could hear a slight whistling sound and assumed it might be the wind moving over the mirrors, despite the bulbous headlights purposely designed to eliminate that problem. Alex clarified that she had cracked her window slightly, and when she rolled it up, the sound disappeared completely. Sounds like the headlights really do work as intended.

Using the Eco Mode. I shifted into the Eco Mode to feel its affect. I noticed that there was more regenerative braking when lifting my foot off the accelerator, somewhat similar to shifting to a lower gear with a manual transmission. I also noticed that I had to push lower on the pedal to accelerate as quickly as when not in Eco Mode. I will have to play around more with both modes someday to determine which I prefer. The instantaneous torque of the Drive Mode is addictive, but I liked how Eco Mode slowed the car when approaching an intersection without having to push on the brakes.

Noticeable turn signals. Due to the LEAF’s extreme quietness, the turn signals sound like they are (as Alex commented) “the loudest thing in the car.”

Smooth ride. You’ll see in the video that, toward the end, I drove over raised sections of the pavement at two crossroads, and the LEAF handled them with aplomb.

Arizona drivers? A car coming from the opposite direction pulled into the meridian to do a U-turn right when I was trying to enter it to return to the parking lot. When I think about it, it is hard to believe that, with thousands of people taking test drives, it is wondrous that nobody has yet to have a fender-bender in one of these LEAFs.

We all had a wonderful time! Even Alex seemed to enjoy herself, despite doing this all day for three days in a row. I was very glad to have met Dan and Li, and only regret not getting their contact information so that I could share this review with them. Elbowing my way in for a second test drive had proven well worth sticking around for another day.

I was completely sold on the LEAF, and spent quite a while after the test drive checking out other features of the vehicle. For example, because Nissan has decided to forego providing a spare tire in the LEAF, the rear cargo area is cavernous, as you can see below in the photo to the left. However, I purport that they should provide a false floor over that area so that, when folding the rear seats forward as shown below on the right, you would have a flat area to lay cargo instead of a gaping hole.


Open Wide

The Hole Truth

They could use the compartment under the false floor to stow out of sight the 120V cordset for “opportunity charging” that you can see clipped to the side of the cargo area in a black bag in the photo on the left below. The right photo shows the bag open, with the cordset inside.


Zipped

Unzipped

Speaking of charging, below on the left is a photo of the open charge port on the nose of the car, with the cordset’s J-1772 plugged into the dual 120V/240V receptacle. The other receptacle to the side is for quick-charging to 80% in under 30 minutes with the CHAdeMO plug currently in use in Japan, but not yet approved as the standard worldwide. That receptacle is only available on the SL model for an additional price. Whatever standard emerges, I intend to order one with my LEAF, even though I doubt there will be quick-chargers in my area for years to come. I am convinced that, sooner or later, those chargers will start to dot our freeways and rest stops, making it possible to drive a LEAF 2 or 3 times its normal 100 mile range in a single day.


Under the Charge Port

Under the Hood

The photo above on the right shows what is under the LEAF’s hood. Although it does not have an oil dipstick, there are reservoirs for brake, windshield wiper, coolant fluids. I had to chuckle to see that the top of the power controller resembled an ICE manifold cover. That is going a bit overboard merely to convince consumers that the LEAF is just like a “normal” car.

You will also find under the hood a 12V battery used to power components like the wipers, headlights, and stereo. The SL model comes with a small solar panel on the rear spoiler to trickle charge that battery when parked in the sun. I wish that it were a bit larger to also vent hot air from inside the vehicle, thus reducing the need to crank up the air conditioning to cool the car when the driver returns. At least it is possible to pre-heat or pre-cool the LEAF when it is plugged in for charging.

The tires on the test drive cars were Bridgestone Ecopia EP422, mounted on 16-inch wheels, as shown on the left below. These tires are expressly designed to maximize the vehicle’s range by providing low rolling-resistance with a recommended inflation of 44 psi.


Wheel of Fortune

Honey, I Shrunk the Glovebox

I have to confess that one of my pet peeves with cars nowadays is that they appear to boast large glove boxes on the outside, but when you open them, you find that the useable space is minuscule. You can see in the photo above on the right that the LEAF is no exception. The large, obtrusive hinges are set far to the inside, and the actual glovebox is only about half the size of its outside lid. No vehicle is perfect, it seems.

During the tour, one of the group had asked if the battery pack could explode in an accident. I am always amused by this question, since right now we are driving around with tanks full of a highly flammable fuel, one gallon of which when vaporized is equivalent to about 8 sticks of dynamite. This does not mean that we should ignore the potential risk posed by high voltages of electricity, however. Like with all vehicles, EVs also need to have safety features to protect not only consumers, but especially service technicians and emergency personnel. In point of fact, the LEAF has a safety disconnect under the carpeted lid in the rear seat tunnel, shown on the left below. Underneath that lid is a metal plate, shown on the right, which covers the main breaker to disconnect the entire battery pack in case of an emergency. I was not about to remove the metal plate; I am inquisitive, but not that thick!


Unless an emergency...

...do not open!

The computer display on the dashboard boasts more features than I had time to explore, but I did want to see how easily I could connect my iPod and cell phone to the LEAF. In both instances, the steps were user-friendly and intuitive. Below the dash, on the sides of the central console, are two connection ports for MP3 players. The one on the left accommodates USB plugs, and I had luckily brought my cord with me. I plugged in my iPod through this port and —voilà!— my iPod started playing. The most amazing thing is that the iPod’s display now simply read “Nissan” and its menu interface was now accessible via the touch-screen. Click below on the left to watch a video as I used the touch-screen to scroll through my playlist and change songs.


Name that Tune
(click to watch the MP4 video)

EV Call Home
(click to watch the MP4 video)

Connecting my cell phone was a bit more complicated, in that I had to pair its bluetooth signal with the LEAF. The display guided me through the necessary steps, and I was bemused to find a long list of other “paired” phones. Apparently other test drivers had experimented with this function previously, but had not deleted their cell phones from the list. Once my phone was recognized as a legimate bluetooth device, I could use the LEAF’s voice recognition software to dial home, as you can watch in the video on the right above. It worked like a charm! And yes: I deleted my cell phone from the list before exiting the car.


At the End of my Second Test Drive
In hindsight, I now wish that I’d taken a closer look at other features. For example, I should have engaged the cruise control during my test drive, and observed how shifting into Eco Mode would affect it. I also never tried the wipers, and am now curious to know if the rear wiper has variable intermittent settings —something that I wish our Subaru had. Come to think of it, I have never even noticed the LEAF’s rear window defogger. I also regret not asking about the promised “cold-weather package” slated to be an option when sales expand to the northern states. That package is supposed to also come with heated seats and a heated steering wheel. I would love to try out the latter, as I have never heard of this convenience in a vehicle before.

The photographers took my photo again, shown on the left. How I would have loved to take that white LEAF home with me! Other participants recorded 30-second videos for Nissan’s “Why I Deserve a Nissan LEAF” contest, but I declined. In the first place, the very idea of asserting that one “deserves” something in life is embarrassing, as though claiming to be “entitled” to it. Uh... no thanks!

Moreover, I understand that the contest will not be decided according to what participants actually say in their videos, but rather on the number of votes they can elicit from family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, bloggers, and anyone else they care to contact. Consequently, this amounts to little more than a “popularity” contest —with the added bonus of free advertising for Nissan.

Now, if the winner were decided by the actual message conveyed, and if the contest focused on “Why I Want a Nissan LEAF,” or better yet, “How I Have Prepared to Own a Nissan LEAF,” I would have gladly participated.

How have I prepared, you ask? Well, when building a new home last year, I had the electrician install a multi-outlet Milbank RV panel in my garage, with a dedicated 240V line for an EVSE, as shown on the left below. The wiring is inside the wall plate, ready to be connected as soon as an EVSE manufacturer will sell me one of their units.


Money in the Milbank

Panel Discussion

As shown on the right above, I have also installed an 8,280 watt solar array on my roof, connected to a Sunny Boy 7000 inverter in the garage, so that I can drive my LEAF on sunshine. And the good news is that my area enjoys an average of over 300 days of sunshine per year.


A Line Drawn in the Sand
In other words, I am more than ready to take delivery of my LEAF, but... that’s probably not going to happen any time in the near future.

You see, although Arizona reservation holders are included in the initial rollout, and are even now starting to take delivery of their LEAFs, I live... ten minutes across the state line on the northern border, as you can see in the map to the right.

Consequently, Nissan has bumped me to the very bottom of its list, and will not let me even order my LEAF until “late fall 2011/early winter 2012.” And since it now looks like even the first deliveries will be delayed a few months, you can bet that my order date will be pushed back even further. In fact, truth be told, it wouldn’t surprise me if my reservation ended up passed along to the new LEAF factory in Smyrna, Tennessee, scheduled to go on line towards the end of 2012 at the earliest.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Ah, well... I have waited thirty years to finally own an EV. I guess I can wait a couple more.

Thank you, Nissan, for a wonderful test drive!