Say “cheesy”
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Another Test Drive in the Leaf

November 6, 2011

Mark D Larsen

It has been nearly a year since I took my first test drive in a Nissan Leaf. Since then, Nissan made the decision to alter its rollout plan, and allow brand new customers in the initial launch markets to purchase their Leafs before fulfilling the orders of reservation holders in outlying areas like my own. I can understand the business sense behind that change of plan, but I must say that I was very discouraged that Nissan did not at least offer a sympathetic word of explanation, let alone an apology, to those of us who put down deposits the very first day, April 20, 2010 —well over a year and a half ago. In this case, silence is not golden, but discourteous and uncaring to the very customers who are most supportive of the EV movement.

At any rate, my best guess at this point is that I will not be able to finally take delivery of my Leaf until the new plant in Smyra, TN, is up-and-running, probably in 2013.

To keep up my spirits in the interim, I decided to sign up for another test drive when the second round of tours came through Las Vegas. I am glad that I again took advantage of the opportunity, but will admit that I was also more disappointed with this event for several reasons. I will address those concerns first.

The bad news

Is Anybody Home?
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I was frankly shocked at how few visitors there were at the tour. Did Nissan and/or its Las Vegas dealers not get the word out to potential customers? The weather was rather cold, and perhaps that also discouraged attendees. Yet another factor might have been the particular venue. Nissan had set up the tour in a corner parking lot of the Town Square shopping plaza, yet the particular way its shops are laid out along small, meandering streets inside its outer buildings gave little exposure to the event on the outside. I seriously doubt that the vast majority of shoppers at that mall even saw the tour. In the photo to the right you can see that the parking lot was practically empty when I arrived, with my BMW Z3 on the far right.

After entering the tour area, I got in the Leaf parked near the displays to refresh my memory of its interior and features. I had brought with me two USB flash drives to test out with the stereo system, as I understood it is possible to listen to music stored on such devices rather than an iPod or dedicated MP3 player. I had purposely formatted one of the memory sticks for Mac, and the other one for MS-DOS (FAT32). I suspected that the Mac flash drive would not work, but I was surprised to discover that the system could not read the FAT32 stick either, since this is supposed to be the “standard” format according to Leaf blogs and forums. I will have to look into the incompatibility further, but perhaps my flash drive is simply too old, and thus unrecognizable by newer USB ports.

I also wanted to measure the inside dimensions of the cargo area when the rear seats are folded down. My purpose was to determine if there was enough room to accommodate a camping air mattress for use with a hatchback tent. Call me crazy, but I figured that, if I ever took my Leaf on a longer trip, and wanted to charge it at an RV Park using its supplied cable with a 240V upgrade, I might as well camp in it overnight. Unfortunately, the dimensions turned out to be 5'L x 4'W —a foot too short for the mattress. I haven’t abandoned the idea entirely, however: perhaps it would be possible to slide the front seats as far forward as possible, and then invent some sort of extended platform that would mount in the holes for the rear seat headrests.

Because there were so few visitors, I was unable to team up with others on a test drive, let alone ask them to take a video of my experience behind the wheel with my camera. The route itself merely circled the perimeter on the north side of the shopping complex and returned to the parking lot, so I was unable to drive faster than about 40 mph, although I did make a point of leaning heavily on both the accelerator and the brakes between stop signs. It was all over much too quickly, with hardly enough time to feel comfortable and confident behind the wheel.

The biggest disappointment of all, however, was what awaited me upon exiting the test drive area. A tour guide ushered visitors over to an adjacent area to learn about... the Nissan Versa. Yes, you read that correctly: they were using the “Drive Electric Tour” to also promote a gasoline vehicle! I was appalled, and asked why they would even consider doing that, and the reply was that many visitors were so wary of the Leaf’s 100-mile range that they wanted to show them an alternative for longer distances. I was, as you can imagine, dumbfounded. I didn’t do so, but was sorely tempted to lead the tour guide back over to the Leaf displays on “The New Vroom,” “The New Torque,” or “The New Exhaust” and ask exactly where the Versa’s comparisons were in those animated illustrations. Oops!

Consequently, my one piece of advice to Nissan as feedback from this test drive is to drop the Versa promotion! It contradicts and undermines the very message the Leaf tour is supposed to convey.

The good news

I was pleased to see that both Abe and Kate were still with the tour, as I had met them two times previously, when I first test drove the Leaf in Phoenix, and when I saw a prototype in Las Vegas. Indeed, at the latter event I was present to hear Kate describe its features for the first time. They had many stories to tell of the various places they have been on tour, and the kinds of reactions and interest they had witnessed among the thousands of visitors. I was flattered that they remembered me, and expressed surprise and sympathy for the fact that I still cannot order my Leaf. They even seemed a bit embarrassed that such was the case, but of course it is in no way their fault that Nissan has put me at the very bottom of its priority list.

Veteran Tour Guides Abe and Kate: Repeat Performances
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The best part of all, of course, was to simply recall what a great vehicle the Leaf is. My test drive was too short, but still sweet. I had forgotten how incredibly quiet the car is. Its smooth, effortless acceleration is truly marvelous, something I could quickly become addicted to. Its handling is solid, responsive, almost nonchalant when navigating rough roads and corners. Although relatively small on the outside, the interior is surprisingly spacious and comfortable.

Because it was so cold that day, the tour guide had the climate control set for maximum heat in the cabin. Out of curiosity, I tried turning it off to see what affect it would have on the vehicle's range. It was significant: when off, the range was estimated at 89 miles; when on, it dropped to merely 70 miles. That is quite a difference, but understandable, since electric coils require a lot of power to generate heat. Regardless, even with the heat at full blast, the reduced range is more than ample for my daily driving needs.

I purposely shifted into ECO mode about half way through my turn around the parking lots, and could immediately notice the difference. I concluded that, if I had my way, I would equip the Leaf with a third drive mode in between the two, i.e., retaining the immediate power of the default D mode, yet engaging the stronger regenerative braking of ECO. That combination, in my opinion, would provide the best driving experience of all.

In summary, despite the disappointments identified above, it was worth the time and effort —and (alas!) gasoline— to travel to Las Vegas for another test drive. It reminded me that patience is a virtue, and that the reward for my prolonged wait will eventually prove better than I ever imagined.