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The Promise of the Nissan Leaf – and a Test Drive

November 16, 2009, by - Also by this author

On Friday, Nov. 13 in Los Angeles, Nissan embarked on the first stop of its 22-city dog-and-pony show for the Nissan Leaf, with Nissan-Renault President and CEO Carlos Ghosn as its Electric Horseman.  

Ghosn flew in from Paris to introduce the all-electric Leaf, take it for a test spin and expound on the promise and challenges of an electric vehicle future.

Nissan has big plans for the Leaf and electric vehicles in general. Unlike Toyota's hybrids or GM's plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt, Nissan says it is poised to downshift past these "bridge" technologies straight to pure electric vehicles. 

In addition to the Leaf, Nissan's electric vehicle portfolio includes a compact four-seat Infiniti version, an unspecified concept vehicle and a LCV (light commercial vehicle) based on the NV200 commercial vehicle.

Fleets will have a "very important role" to play in the rollout of these vehicles, Ghosn said. Nissan has partnerships with more than 30 cities, municipalities and power companies to promote electric-vehicle infrastructure and testing. 

Initial rollout of the Leaf starts at the end of 2010 with limited sales in the U.S., Japan and Europe and ramps up to mass market sales by 2012. Initial production will begin in Japan with 50,000 units a year capacity. By 2012 Nissan expects to have its Smyrna, Tenn. plant producing as many as 150,000 electric vehicles, including the battery as well.

At full run, Nissan anticipates enough capacity in North America, Europe and Japan to produce 500,000 electric cars. 

The Market - Are We Ready?

Ghosn sat in on a panel discussion of electric vehicles' future, consisting of representatives from California Air Resources Board (CARB), the Union of Concerned Scientists and NRG Energy, one of the largest electricity generators in the U.S. 

The panel uniformly agreed that for electric vehicles to gain traction, a close partnership between government and automakers is essential. David Crane, president and CEO of NRG Energy, said the present electricity grid can handle the initial rollout of electric vehicles, though the system will have to be upgraded extensively to handle Obama's goal of 1 million electric cars (including plug-in hybrids) on American roads by 2015. He warned against a chicken-and-egg scenario, in which either electricity providers or automakers lagged behind the other. 

The need for public charging stations is one key, though reducing charging time is even more crucial. A conventional 110-volt socket will take 14 to 16 hours to recharge the battery; a 220-volt socket will cut that to less than eight hours. A 440-volt "quick charge" station will get you to an 80 percent charge in less than 30 minutes. 

For Obama's electric dream to be realized, Crane envisions e-car sales to be concentrated in "foothold" markets that are supported with the proper electricity infrastructure and government incentives.

Ghosn is bullish on Obama's pledge. "We hope to have much more than 1 million cars on the road before then," he said.

What has changed to make this possible? "The public has abandoned the idea of cheap oil," said Ghosn. "Ten to 15 years ago, environmental concerns were driven by academics and a select few. Today, everyone is expecting the government and automakers to lead the charge. And we are." 

Will it Be Cost Effective?

"We're not simply saying we're launching electric cars, we're launching affordable electric cars," Ghosn said. "There will be no premium on electrification." That means the Leaf will be sold at a price point within 1 to 2 percent of a gas-powered car of a similar size and amenities.

That eye-popping statement has some considerable caveats. First: this assumes the present government incentive of $7,500 per vehicle is still in effect. It also does not include the cost of the battery. The battery will be leased, which will allow the carmaker to swap it for newer technology when the time comes. Nissan is not providing a dollar figure, but Ghosn said the monthly lease, plus the cost of electricity, will be less than the cost of gas for a month for drivers that average 12,000-15,000 miles a year. Add that to an initial sticker price of $25,000-$30,000.

But How Does it Drive?

Leaf's range is 100 miles. (Nissan surveys showed that 90 percent of the American public drives less than 100 miles daily.) Top speed is between 80-90 mph.

With no established frame of reference, power specs for pure electric vehicles don't mean much-yet-to the lay person. The Leaf's laminated lithium-ion battery kicks out 80 kW of power with a max torque of 280nM, or 206-foot pounds. (As a point of reference, the 2010 Nissan Versa ICE produces 111 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600 rpm.)

Our Leaf tester was actually a Nissan Versa-based prototype with "nearly final battery and platform performance characteristics." The drive was through a short cone course in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, so performance at highway speeds would have to wait another day.

Without an internal combustion engine-and with a battery pack that runs through the middle of the car-this e-car had a low center of gravity that kept the car grounded through the corners.

Befitting of electrification, the car is dead quiet. There are no transmission shifts. Torque is instantaneous. We're told the Leaf does 0-60 in better than 10 seconds. Instantaneous torque is one of the thrills of electric vehicles, and Ghosn made sure to point that out. "This is no golf cart," he said on more than occasion. Combine that with zero emissions technology and you have a winner, Ghosn says. "The guilt of carbon emissions will be completely disassociated from the fun of driving," he remarked.



  1. 1. Canada Guy [ November 17, 2009 @ 07:49AM ]

    Electric cars are useful in small doses, and can be beneficial for the environment. However, they cannot, and should not, be used to replace cars on the mass scale. We need more efficient long distance transportation systems for cargo and passengers, such as electrified rail.

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  2. 2. David Ruggles [ March 01, 2010 @ 06:48AM ]

    I have been fortunate to connect with one of the Leaf engineers. The more I hear, the more impressed I am. However, it remains to be seen if consumers, beyond the green early adopters, will embrace the idea of a second vehicle just for commuting, especially in the face of stable fuel prices.

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Chris Brown

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Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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