The car looks suspiciously like a Versa/Rogue combination, but Nissan assured me the Leaf is built on its own platform. In fact, Nissan is very proud that the Leaf is built from the ground up, since most electric cars on the market are built on an existing platform of a gasoline-powered car. Why is this important? When you build an electric car on an existing platform like that, the car it’s based on was designed around an emissions and exhaust system and other components thatelectric cars don’t need. This produces an inherent inefficiency in design, since now the electric car has excess unused parts and dimensions.
The car spent a lot time in the wind tunnel to reduce aerodynamic drag. The bulbous headlights are designed to stream air around the side mirrors, for example, so that the mirrors don’t produce as much resistance. Techniques that are not uncommon in today’s cars, but these new propulsion technologies require a bit more attention to detail than your typical car.
Since batteries are the heaviest part of any electric-powered car, Nissan made every effort to lower the center of gravity in the Leaf by placing them below the seats. This helps keep the driving dynamics sporty and responsive.
Since the Nissan Leaf on display at the tour is a multi-million dollar prototype, Nissan didn’t allow it to be driven for the test drive. Instead, they fitted a Versa with the Leaf’s drivetrain and put it on an indoor track in the convention center. Hardly an ideal environment, but that’s all that was available. As you can see in the pictures, the small track was outlined in cones, and each driver got a lap or two around it at low speeds with a Nissan engineer sitting shotgun. During my drive, I was impressed with how linear and quick the acceleration was. Electric cars may not be hotrods yet, but 100% of their torque (about 210 lb-ft in the Leaf) is available from a stop. I decided to test it on the small straightaway and ended up getting yelled at by my passenger for going too fast. The handling seemed responsive and smooth with a low center of gravity to keep it from feeling top-heavy.
Unfortunately, the tiny indoor track didn’t give us enough chance to properly evaluate the car, so that’s all I can really say about it until Nissan comes around with another tour, which I was told would happen before they’re officially launched. Prospective customers in all 50 states will be able to preorder the Leaf in April for delivery later this year. Pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but expect the car to be somewhere around $28,000 to $35,000. The battery pack, which is the most expensive part, might end up being leased on a monthly basis instead of purchased, which Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan-Renault said “The monthly cost of the battery, plus the electric charge, will be less than the cost of gasoline,” if that’s the way they go.
Other than price, Nissan’s biggest hurdle right now is figuring out the charging process. Plugging your car into a typical wall outlet to charge it from 0 to 100% would take an unacceptable 16 to 18 hours. On 220V power you could charge it in 8 hours, which is more reasonable (plug it in overnight,) but still a concern. Nissan is considering a sort of quick-charge platform which would charge the battery from 0 to 80% in only 20 minutes; perfect for a gas station stop if you were on a longer than 100 mile trip. And that’s the hurdle makers of electric cars are facing – there is no existing infrastructure for electric charging yet, and developing one is extraordinarily expensive.