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August 17, 2013

2013 Nissan Leaf SL

by Mark Savage

All-electric Nissan Leaf fun, functional and easy to recharge

I’ve driven my first all-electric car, Nissan’s latest Leaf, and I can assure you that if electric cars are to be our future, driving enthusiasts will still have fun behind the wheel.

A metallic slate Leaf, like I tested this summer.

A metallic slate Leaf, like I tested this summer.

Contrary to many perceptions the car isn’t slow, it isn’t cumbersome in any way and topping off the battery pack is as easy as plugging in your sweeper at home. In fact, the Leaf was enjoyable, earning praise from everyone who rode in it, even the driver.

First, put hybrids out of your mind when you think of the Leaf. This is 100% electric with an 80kw AC synchronous motor that generates 107 hp. Sure, that sounds flimsy, but it’s not. Electric motors generate monster torque from the get-go. Press the accelerator and the Leaf leaps to life, unless you put it in ECO mode. Don’t unless you need to extend your range a few miles in an emergency.

Linked up with what Nissan calls a 1-speed automatic transmission, basically a CVT as in so many other Nissan models these days, the power is delivered in one smooooth shot that keeps the mid-size Leaf (it rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase similar to a Mazda CX-5 sport-ute like I drove last week, or a Chevy Cruze if you’re looking for something more mass market) moving relatively quickly.

This is not some Dinky or Tootsie toy car that feels like it’ll break if you hit a big pothole. It feels like a solid mid-size hatchback that’ll go the distance with its occupants cloaked in quiet comfort. Now that distance IS limited because Leaf, being Only electric, has a limited range. Driving it mid-summer (cold weather will further limit its lithium ion battery’s ability to hold a charge) I saw a 103-mile range after a full charge twice. Other days I had 98, 93 and 88 miles of range.

The Leaf looks better in bright blue.

The Leaf looks better in bright blue.

This is a city car, a second car if you will, that easily hauls you and some friends to work, downtown, to the lakefront, and back to the suburbs, with range to spare. Need to run to Madison or Chicago? Well, you may be close to running out of juice, but there are more charging stations out there than you may think. Nissan has an ap for your smart phone to help you find them.I found 19 stations within 20 miles of my house, including Nissan dealerships (naturally), plus two Kohl’s stores, MATC and a variety of other firms, such as Johnson Controls, which makes batteries by the way.

OK, so you aren’t far from a charging station, but how long does a full charge take?

Well, according to my experience, and that shown on a dash readout, a charge on a 110-volt normal household line, is about 5 hours and a 240-volt heavy-duty line (as used by dryers and electric stoves) is about 2 hours. Overnight gives you a full charge on a 110-volt line for sure. One day I plugged in at home for 2 hours and gained about 12 miles of range before my next outing. I never let the battery become completely depleted.

auto reviews, nissan leaf, nissan, electric carsMy short take here is that I NEVER was concerned with having a charge driving around Milwaukee for a full week, and I put more than 300 miles on the Leaf. Oh, and naturally I never had to stop at a gas station!

Driving at 70 mph on the highway was no problem. I ran from Milwaukee’s north side to the south side on the freeway and back and still had 30+ miles of range on the dash gauge. Officially Nissan says Leaf has 75-80 miles of range from a 4-hour charge at 240 volts.

Plugging the Leaf into a wall outlet is simple, plus no more standing out in the rain or snow to power up your car.

Plugging the Leaf into a wall outlet is simple, plus no more standing out in the rain or snow to power up your car.

I’ve already addressed power, but what surprised me most was how solid and fun Leaf was to drive. At 3,340 lbs. it’s about 200 lbs. lighter than last week’s Mazda CX-5, a fine mid-size sport-utility. Wind doesn’t blow the Leaf around on the freeway as the battery pack is mounted low amid ship. That gives the car a well balanced feel and improves handling.

This isn’t a sports car, but steering is responsive and fun and cornering is solid, little to no lean. My only complaint, as with most cars, is that Leaf’s ride became a bit chattery on area cement streets with all their cracks and expansion joints. This was not a problem on the highway, where the seams are more spread out.Braking is good too with four-wheel vented discs, plus traction and stability control.Inside, the Leaf’s cockpit is well appointed with leather seats with both front and rear seats being heated, plus the steering wheel … ummm, electric heat!I liked the overall comfort level and the fact that the car didn’t hit you over the head with it being electric, or special in some way, unlike most hybrids. Many hybrids feature a plethora of gauges and electronic bar charts and arrows and diagrams all aimed at persuading you that you’re being fuel efficient. I just want to drive and the Leaf’s gauges facilitate that. They were minimal, especially those dealing with its electric power.

Over the tilt-only steering wheel is a crescent shaped readout on the dash and it simply shows your speed, the time and temperature. Off to the left is a small bar showing you a charge graph, but it’s blue and not overly bright. In fact, there are blue accents inside and out to drive home the electric theme, but they are not garish or overblown. A Zero Emission label on each side of the car is as in your face as Leaf gets.

The main dash display is clean and simple.

The main dash display is clean and simple.

Leaf’s main gauge in front of the wheel is simple too and can be adjusted to show a variety of trip information. I set it to show me the % of charge I had left, plus the miles of charge. Coincidentally, those are nearly identical, as in 90% usually translates to 88 to 90 miles of range.
Because Leaf is so quiet running on electric power, the car chimes a bit when you press the start button and again when you press it off. That’s helpful as you could forget the car is running and step out before turning it off. It CAN happen. Leaf also beeps audibly outside when you put it in reverse, an aid to passersby, letting them know you are in motion.The interior shifter is short, about 1-inch tall, with a blue ring around it. Some thought it looked as if it were constantly lit up. I liked it. You slide it to the left and forward for reverse and then backward for drive. I think those motions should be reversed, but you get used to the pattern after a week.

I also like that Leaf’s broad A-pillar has a vent window of sorts to increase side visibility. More cars need this. I also like Leaf’s tall crossover style seats and sun visors with extenders.

The well laid out dash avoids unnecessary gauges that dwell on its electric power.

The well laid out dash avoids unnecessary gauges that dwell on its electric power.

Other unique features include a button on the dash’s left panel to open the charging port door in the car’s nose. That’s where you plug in the pistol grip charger that comes with the car. It’s easy to use and comes with a bag in the trunk for carrying it on a longer trip. While the range is limited with Leaf, you could take a lot of gear with you as the trunk is a large 24.0 cubic feet under the hatch. Plus the rear seats split and fold flat for even more cargo space.
The test car added just a cargo mat and floor mats for $170 and a premium package with Bose 7-speaker sound system and Nissan’s Around View monitor for $1,050. The car comes with a rear-view camera standard. A six-way power driver’s seat also is standard on this, the top level SL model.Now the shocking news (sorry!), the price.At its base S level the Leaf is just $28,800, while the tested SL lists at $34,840. The test car hit $36,910 after the options and an $850 delivery charge. There is still a government tax credit for buying this, and Chevrolet’s Volt, which runs solely on electric power, but has a small gas engine to charge its batteries and extend its range, a plus that Leaf doesn’t offer.

All told, despite its buggy tall stretched headlights, the Leaf is a superb city or second car that delivers on all its promises of good range and easy no-emission power. It’s a step toward more realistic electric cars that real people can use daily. Will these replace hybrids? Time will tell.

Note to Milwaukee area readers: Mark Savage will be on WUWM’s (89.7 FM) Lake Effect show on Monday, Aug. 19th talking about the Leaf with Dan Harmon. Savage appears on Lake Effect monthly, usually the third Monday of each month.

There's a big hatch in back, tall taillights and Leaf's rear seats fold flat for monster cargo space.

There’s a big hatch in back, tall taillights and Leaf’s rear seats fold flat for monster cargo space.

FAST Stats: 2013 Nissan Leaf SLHits: Great MPE with full charge 103-mile range, comfortable hatchback that seats 4 adults, both front and rear seats heated, as is steering wheel. Well-balanced good handling car with high torque acceleration and quiet, refined interior and unique exterior styling. Has an A-pillar window, simple non-gadgety dash, tall crossover style seating and visors feature extenders.

Misses: No gas backup system to extend driving range, a tilt-only steering wheel and odd front-end styling with tall strange looking headlights.

Made in: Smyrna, Tenn.

Engine: 80 kw AC synchronous motor, 107 hp

Transmission: 1-speed automatic

Weight: 3,340 lbs.

Wheelbase: 106.3 in.

Cargo: 24.0 cu.ft.

MPG: 130/102

Base Price: $34,840

Dealer’s Price: $32,635

Major Options:

Floor/cargo mats, $170

Premium package (Around View monitor, Bose 7-speaker audio system), $1,050

Delivery: $850

Test vehicle: $36,910

Sources: Nissan, www.autos.yahoo.com

Photos: Courtesy of Nissan

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