A Boring Conversation about the Nissan Leaf

Like a bloodless revolution, the transition to the new era of electric cars might be uneventful.

This morning, we got some time behind the wheel of a modified Nissan Versa outfitted with the Nissan Leaf’s electric drivetrain. The two-minute spin around the parking lot of the Sonoma County Water Agency, in Santa Rosa, Calif., was not much different than our ride last April, when the electric system was placed in a Nissan Cube. The latest Nissan Leaf “mule” feels more solid and refined with features more similar to the production vehicle— like the pop-back gear shifter (not unlike the Prius shifter), and an electrically controlled parking brake. There’s little doubt that the Leaf will be quick off the line, like most electric cars, but there’s not much else to report.

We spoke with Owen Thunes, senior project engineer for electric and fuel cell vehicles at Nissan’s Sacramento-based technical center, to learn what’s different about the new Nissan Leaf “mule” on national tour. Thunes studied engineering at UC Davis with Andy Frank, considered the godfather of the plug-in hybrid, and worked on the Nissan Altima Hybrid.

What’s different about this vehicle compared to the Cube mule from earlier this year?

This car has the correct proportions. We stretched the Versa to be the correct length of the Leaf. So, the footprint is the same. The drive components are almost identical to what the production vehicle is going to be. The size, feel and shape are a lot closer.

What does the new mule show you?

You get a much better sense of acceleration, performance, handling, and the general feel of the car. [At our Sacramento technical center], we drive the car everyday. We try to replicate what a consumer might do, freeway, traffic jams, cities, suburbs. We’re not kind to it. We leave it outside parked in the sun. We leave it parked outside in the cold. We drive it just like a normal car.

What are you discovering?

We’re discovering how real of a car it is. What’s kind of amusing, and not expected, is how quick it is. When you feel like you’re just driving normally, you look behind you, and everyone is still at the stoplight. You suddenly realize that you’re going much too fast, because the characteristic of the motor is maximum torque at zero rpm. So, you just take off. It feels very normal, but you’re accelerating quite quickly.

Is that a product of it being an electric vehicle, or is there something specific that Nissan’s doing about how it’s calibrated?

A little bit of both. It’s meant to drive like a real car. It’s a very linear direct feeling, which is courtesy of the electric motor. But it’s also powerful, with quite a large motor-battery pack combination. The power-weight ratio is good so you accelerate quickly.

And how about the platform, the car design itself?

In the architecture of the car, the batteries are situated low in the chassis, below the floor board of the car. So, the center of gravity of the car is very low. The handling is very stable. It nips around quite quickly. Directional changes are quick.

What else should consumers know?

It’s a regular car. What’s amazing about it is that there’s no asterisk. I mean, there’s limited range compared to a gasoline vehicle, but most people’s everyday activities fall well within that capacity. What’s remarkable about the Leaf is that it’s unremarkable. It’s just a normal car that drives normally, and does everything you expect it to do. It goes on the freeway. It goes up hills. It goes down mountains.

It doesn’t really look like a normal car?

Well, you have to be a little bit distinguished. Some of it is aerodynamics and some of it is styling, making a statement. Certainly, the interior of the Leaf is elegant.

What have you learned about charging from having one of the mules in Sacramento?

We just charge it at night. We plug in at night and go home.

This is one of the most boring conversations ever.

I’m sorry. But that’s how we expect customers to use it, so that’s how we use it.

You’re creating a boring car that happens to have a completely different fueling structure.

There will be more public charging stations in the future, but the principle way is to go home at night, plug it in, go make dinner, and go about your business. And let the car take care of itself. In that respect, it’s kind of boring.

But if you look at it from the other side, it’s quite exciting. It’s a very different way of approaching what you think a car is supposed to do. We’re so ingrained to think, okay go to the gas station and put gas in. You usually don’t think of a car that you can charge at home.


  • mls21

    It would be nice to hear what kind of range they are seeing in these test cars. I think that’s the question most people are interested in hearing when considering the Leaf as an option. Was that question off limits in this interview?

    I live in Houston, so I’m not sure what “I mean, there’s limited range compared to a gasoline vehicle, but most people’s everyday activities fall well within that capacity” really means to me? Could I drive across town and feel safe driving back home without having to re-charge it first? The initial claims were a range of 100 miles, but does that have any safety factor associated with it, or is it a standard, optimistic marketing claim?

  • jonak

    I’d like to see range extension options – extra battery modules can be added on either as an aftermarket upgrade or spec’d by customer at time of (new) purchase. I’m lookng for a 150 – 200 mile range.

    Otherwise, looks great.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Boring would be great. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could end our dependence on oil by just buying a new car and going about our business?
    EVs can do this.

  • flybri

    Great, but what price?
    What range?
    When to the market?
    ?!

  • Mr.Bear

    Talk right now:

    low $30,000
    100 miles-ish
    late 2010 to 2011ish

    and don’t forget the $150 per month battey lease for the life of the car.

  • 9691

    150 a month to lease a battery? That’s way, way too much to have as a payment for years.

  • Chad

    This car looks fantastic! I love the idea of having a car that is ready to go every morning with no surprise trips to the gas station needed when you’re running late.

    I wish I knew more about what the expected maintenance on this car would be like. That could be another big selling point in my mind. What are the life expectancies of the components? Brushless motors should last a LONG time. Is there a transmission? Some electric cars don’t need them… does the leaf? I imagine no oil filters or air filters or timing chain. What’s left? Tires?

    Is it my imagination or is the trunk space really deep? Is that because there’s no gas tank?

    Even with $150 per month for batteries, this car sounds like a wonderful luxury compared to oil cars. Consider this – $150 per month is equivalent to about $10,000 paid off in 7 years at just under 6% interest… So in 7 years your car looses about $10,000 worth of value in batteries. But I imagine the base value of the car itself won’t lose much at all compared to an oil car.

    Until we know more, we have no idea what this luxury will cost us… it may work out to be cheaper to own than an oil car even with $150 per month for batteries.

    One other question? Can you program the Leaf to warm up or cool off in the morning while it’s still connected to shore power? =) That would be nice.

    Even without these questions answered… I want one!

  • FamilyGuy

    Looks like a nice commuting car, but unfortunately, that’s all. It wouldn’t have done well on my near 1000 mile round trip Thanksgiving driving marathon.

    I want to like it, I really do. But, I’d have a hard time shelling out $30k and still paying $150/month for the batteries. I don’t pay $150/month in gas now. I’m all for the planet and getting off of imported oil, but (again), I need to run my own life a like a business to a certain degree. Like Nissan is using the Versa as the “mule’, you could buy a Versa for half the price and still spend less on gas then the battery lease.

    I could get a Leaf for $30k or on the other hand, I could get a Versa for $15k and put that other $15k in my kids college funds. I am only a Family Guy and not rolling in that much money.

    As a stay at home Dad, I’ll have to start to log my daily miles. I wonder how often I go near or over 100 miles. Also, I wonder about the recharge time. The article talks about over night. Is that 8 hours? 10 hours? 12 hours? What about partial charges during the day? Run some errands in the morning, come home, charge the car during lunch and afternoon nap time for the kids and go out again in the afternoon. Does a 3 hour charge get me 30 miles?

    This is an exciting step in getting off of imported oil and opening the door to more EV production. I hope that there are enough people out there who can use this car and purchase it. From a price standpoint, it’s just not where it need to be for me. Also, the 100 mile range really only means daily use; not weekend trips to visit family and friends, not vacations, nothing really more then an hour on the highway to ensure a safe return home.

  • Eric

    Perfect car for my lifestyle. Bring it Nissan! Tired of waiting!

    As for price, is the $30,000 before the government $7,500 rebate?

  • ChicagoPaul

    There is a really good faq page that answer nearly all your questions.

    http://www.nissanusa.com/leaf-electric-car/#/car/index

    For example:
    Q:Is it true that the LEAF get rid of all fluids such as coolant, transmission, steering wheel, brake…?

    A:Most of these funcs are electronic, without fluids or motor oil. It will have brake fluid and washer fluid, tho.

  • Scott Z

    I am fairly certain the $150 is an option. I could be wrong. It seems some people are still under the impression that the batteries could just up and fail leaving you with the need to shell out 8k to replace them. If you don’t have a concern there you can just buy them with the car. It is up to you. My Prius has been perfectly fine for over 5 years now so I have no worries.

    The range is estimated at 100 miles but you should all know there is no way to give this a solid number. Driver 1 could drive like he is on a race track and get 40 miles from one charge while driver 2 could be closer to average and get 80 while driver 3 is a “MPG” nut and gets 110 miles. Just like a gas car mileage varies. The difference here is there is no easy way to stop and refuel.

    Right now I average about 46 MPG with my Prius. When the world around me makes me angry I can drag it down to 43. When I am in my MPG nut moment I have pulled 52. These are all averages from a tank of fuel.

    This car is designed to be a commuter car. Most Americas drive less than 32 miles to get to work. This will get you there and back. You will not be delivering pizzas with it. You will not visit the in-laws three states away with it. We are not there yet.

  • scolas

    Boring is fine with me. In fact, to lessen the anxiety of running out of power before getting home, I would like to see a reserve type function similar to my dirt bike where the driver can push a button and get another 10 miles or so after it initially shows fully discharged.

    Does anyone know if this will be incorporated in the system?

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Another boring piece :-) about the other EV that will be on the market soon:

    http://chevroletvoltage.com/

    I had the chance to drive a Mitsubishi MIEV EV prototype recently. It will likely be going on sale in Japan very soon and in Europe and the US within the next couple of years. Again, a boring experience. It just drives like one expects a car to, just quieter, smoother, and with a great turn radius. While lacking a bit in aesthetics from my perspective, it would be a very practical car. It fit my 6’4″ frame great and my short wife loved the driver visibility.

  • Mikey

    Electric for the city and pop by Hertz or whoever to rent a gasser for the trip to Florida…how simple and economical.

  • bob92

    Why does this web site feel like it has a negative attitude towards alternative fuel vehicles? Why for example, headlines like “boring” conversation and “predicament” for the volt? What’s boring about the first mass produced electric car in a century coming out? I don’t get it.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Bob,
    “Boring” is clearly tongue-in-cheek. This web site is one of the most pro-alternative energy websites on the entire web.
    “Boring” is used affectionately here because, as electric vehicle are becoming reality, they are proving that they work just as well as the old gassers, except that they don’t pollute, run smoother, are a bit quicker off the line, can be refuelled at home, and don’t require any petroleum products to run.
    I, personally think that Volt’s “predicament” may be true if people have a daily drive of 40 highway miles and don’t expect to use any gasoline at all since I suspect that the Volt won’t actually go 40 miles without the gasoline kicking in unless you drive below 55 mph in a relatively sedate manner. For most people, however, the Volt will be awesome as their gasoline consumption will decrease dramatically, perhaps completely for their daily routine.

  • Kristian Bjørnard

    Well how often do you make +1000 mi trips? Probably not often.

    The point is that the average trip people in America make is less than 100mi round trip, so the car services 90% of peoples needs. Those that need longer range all the time buy something else. If you make longer trips only occasionally then renting a car or having a second vehicle (most american families have at least 2 cars anyway) that can make the longer distances is the option (perhaps a plug-in hybrid?)

    Also, looking into the future a few years Nissan + Renault (as part of the battery lease program) plan on having battery changing stations located frequently enough in larger city areas that you would be able to make longer trips by exchanging your battery part way.