Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Driving is believing: 100% electric Nissan Leaf is as revolutionary as advertised

This weekend, Tukwila is hosting the Washington stage of Nissan's Drive Electric tour, which offers would-be customers of the automaker's new 100% electric car, the Leaf, to get behind the wheel for themselves and try it out.

I was one of the folks invited by Nissan to participate in the event, and I'm glad I did, because I had a great time. Part of the reason I went was to actually experience the car, as opposed to reading about it or even looking it over. I had the chance to extensively photograph the Leaf (and sit inside it) a couple of weeks ago, when Governor Gregoire and Mayor McGinn officially opened the new Stadium Nissan dealership in SoDo. But taking pictures and trying out the seats just don't compare to getting behind the wheel.

Nissan knows this. That's why they created the Drive Electric tour... to build energy and excitement ahead of the first deliveries.

The event at Southcenter, which runs through Sunday, is more than just a test drive. Upon arriving and checking in on site, participants are first ushered through a guided tour of the car's design and capabilities, then permitted to get in line to go on a short test drive. The guided tour covers the Leaf's battery technology, range, charge times, and the OnStar-like Carwings communications interface. It concludes with a brief demonstration of how to adjust the Leaf's mirrors and seats.

Participants can then get in line to go on a test drive, or stop by the event lounge and enjoy free snacks, or get their picture taken in front of the car... in any order.

I chose to do the test drive first.

I was pleased to discover that Nissan recruited some very friendly people to supervise the test drives. The person who accompanied me did a great job of giving calm and clear instructions while pointing out the features of the car, which made it all the more enjoyable.

If I had to summarize the Leaf in three words, I'd describe it as quiet but powerful. It was drastically unlike any other car I've ever driven, even the Toyota Prius, which it is similar to in many respects. What sets the Leaf apart from the Prius, the Chevrolet Volt, and pretty much every other fuel-efficient car out on the road today is that it doesn't have a gas or diesel engine inside. Obviously, this limits the car's range, since the only fuel source is batteries. But, it greatly simplifies the design. There are a lot fewer moving parts, which means lower maintenance costs.

Because the Leaf relies exclusively on a electric motor, it also has one hundred percent torque available at zero revolutions per minute (RPM). This means the Leaf, like other electric vehicles, can accelerate rather rapidly. What's even more remarkable, however, is that even when you step on the accelerator (and the car launches forward), it still responds very smoothly.

Nissan has simply done a great job with this car. The handling is magnificent. I felt comfortable driving it in less than a minute.

Nissan advertises the Leaf as being better for the environment in that it doesn't directly emit air pollution. This is true, but the Leaf is also more environmentally friendly in another way: it emits less noise pollution. So much less, in fact, that Nissan's engineers had to re-engineer certain aspects of the car, because they discovered during testing that they could hear annoying noises inside the cabin that would be drowned out by an internal combustion engine.

This is why, for instance, the Leaf's distinctive LED headlights protrude from the hood... they direct airflow over the side mirrors.

The Leaf is programmed to emit a warning noise to warn passersby (particularly disabled individuals) when it is accelerating from low speeds. Drivers can turn this off, although the noise will be re-enabled every time the car is powered back on.

The Leaf's single greatest drawback is, of course, its range. On average, the car can only travel about a hundred miles on a full charge, and it takes about eight hours to fully recharge using a Level-2 charger, which means it isn't particularly suited for road trips. The Leaf can recharge from zero to about eighty percent capacity in less than an hour using a Level-3 DC fast charger, but fast charging stations are currently few and far between.

However, a one hundred mile range is more than adequate for most commuters, who can plug in at night and be at one hundred percent capacity when backing out of the garage in the morning, as long as they have a Level-2 charger installed. (For those not familiar with the terminology, a Level-2 charger is basically a piece of hardware that allows an electric car to draw in electric power at a faster rate. With a Level-2 charger, a Leaf can be recharged in eight hours instead of the eighteen that would be required to charge it using a normal household outlet).

Many people seemingly buy a car under the mistaken assumption that it needs to be able to go everywhere and do everything, just in case.

I've lost count of the number of times I've seen perfectly immaculate Hummers on suburban streets. It's painfully obvious these vehicles have never been off-road. So why were they purchased in the first place?

Maybe they provide an ego boost, but as any emotional health expert knows, hulking SUVs are no cure for feelings of inadequacy.

What's really revolutionary about the Nissan Leaf is that it fits right in, despite being unconventional under the hood. It doesn't stand out in traffic or in the parking lot. It just looks like a typical modern hatchback. For the first time, an automaker is trying to mass produce a completely electric car and make it appealing. Kudos to Nissan for helping people around the world declare their personal independence from the likes of BP, Chevron, Shell, and ConocoPhillips.


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