Monday, February 8, 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf Review and Prices

Nissan released preliminary Leaf details at an early-August 2009 press conference that also inaugurated the company's new Yokohama headquarters building, which is designed to be just as green in its way as the new EV. Nissan did not reveal how much it's spent on the Leaf so far. Nor has it disclosed projected U.S. sales or vehicle price, likely because it doesn't have those answers yet. However, the company says Leaf should cost about the same as a conventional gas-engine compact car and have lower monthly running costs. More on those points in the "Notable Feature" section.

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2010 Toyota Prius Pictures

2010 Nissan Versa Pictures
2010 Honda Insight Pictures

The 2011 Nissan Leaf employs a unique architecture designed to accommodate the specifically engineered electric powertrain. Leaf is a bit longer and wider than Nissan's Versa compact car, but looks very similar, which is deliberate. As Nissan design chief Shino Nakamura told Britain's Autocar magazine, "We wanted this car to be distinctive and recognizable as a Nissan, but not too 'out there.' It should look like a normal, familiar [vehicle], even if it won't drive like one."

Nevertheless, the 2011 Nissan Leaf does have sophisticated styling subtleties. The large sweptback headlamps, for example, are raised above the hoodline and shaped so as to channel airflow around the door mirrors. The aim is reduced wind noise and air drag, the latter to help maximize driving range. Yet like the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight, and other gas/electric hybrids, the Leaf has plenty of "green car" visual cues. These include blue-tinted LED headlamps, which have the added advantage of using half the electricity of conventional lights; an aero-functional spoiler above the rear window; "Zero Emissions" logos front, side, and rear; and a pug-like nose with a prominent central flap concealing the electric plug-in port.

In addition, we gather that the 2011 Nissan Leaf will initially come only in "Aqua Globe" blue, an "environmentally friendly" color that carries through inside. (Blue is the new green for planet-friendly cars.) The interior also sports Honda-style bi-level instrumentation, with a digital speedometer above a multi-function graphic display, and a central infotainment screen for an apparently standard navigation system. However, the Leaf's navigation map can also show recharging stations and "distance to empty" within range of a destination so drivers won't be caught with nowhere to plug in.

Speaking of which, the 2011 Nissan Leaf uses advanced lithium-ion batteries, actually a set of 48 modules weighing nearly 600 pounds and mounted beneath the cabin floor. The batteries power an AC motor with a rated 108 horsepower, about the same as the Versa's base 1.6-liter gasoline 4-cylinder engine, and 208 lb-ft of torque that approaches the twist output of 3.0-liter gas engines. Typical of small EVs, drive is to the front wheels through a single-speed reduction gearbox.

2011 Nissan Leaf Features
The 2011 Nissan Leaf was designed to be "distinctive and recognizable as a Nissan," and so resembles the company's Versa compact car. The 2011 Nissan Leaf is claimed to do 0-60 mph in just under 10 seconds and travel about 100 miles between charges. Nissan says that operating range "satisfies the daily driving requirements of 70 percent of the world's consumers who drive cars." Assuming the claimed acceleration proves out, the Leaf should be more than adequate for city-suburban use, especially for those drivers who can plug in at work.

On that subject, the Leaf includes an onboard 50kW DC "quick charger" that allegedly juices the batteries to 80-percent capacity in less than 30 minutes. Charging from a standard 110-volt household plug takes a long 16 hours, but using 200-volt service trims that to a more reasonable eight hours. Nissan believes many owners will "refuel" overnight to take advantage of lower off-peak electricity rates. Like many gas/electric hybrid vehicles, the Leaf also has a regenerative braking function to charge the batteries while driving.

Though chassis details and available features have yet to be released, the 2011 Nissan Leaf should follow conventional compact-car wisdom. That likely means a strut-type front suspension; a simple low-cost, weight-saving twist-beam rear axle; antilock brakes with electrohydraulic booster; and rack-and-pinion steering with full-electric assist. Front and curtain side airbags should be standard. Ditto 15- or 16-inch alloy wheels wearing low-rolling-resistance tires (possibly run-flats, again to save weight). We'd also look for standard electrically operated air conditioning and power windows, locks, and mirrors, as well as the above-mentioned navigation system.

On paper at least, the 2011 Nissan Leaf looks to be a thoughtfully designed, thoroughly engineered family EV that should be easy on the wallet, kind to Mother Earth, and as practical as any conventional compact car, at least for routine errand-running and shorter trips. Add in the near-term introduction, and Nissan could well be the new leader in the green-car sweepstakes.

A Notable Feature of the 2011 Nissan Leaf

The 2011 Nissan Leaf shares a nifty convenience with a much-costlier upcoming EV, the $50,000 premium midsize 2012 Tesla Model S sedan. It's a charging-system timer that allows owners to pre-program charging sessions and to turn on the climate system before driving so the interior is just the right temperature. What's more, the Leaf system includes a link that allows remote programming from your cell phone and sends e-mail alerts when recharging is complete. It can even keep tabs on your monthly electric bill. Talk about being connected.

But here's the truly unique aspect of the 2011 Nissan Leaf. This will be the only retail-market EV we know of where buyers will lease the battery pack instead of paying for it up front. As a company spokesperson explained to Autocar, "We believe that's the right strategy, because that way Nissan remains responsible for the longevity and recycling of the batteries, not the customer. Building the battery in with the car would also add at least [$7,200] to the [purchase] price; the battery lease should cost less than [$120] a month," which Nissan reckons will be less than a month's worth of gasoline for most owners. Moreover, the Leaf battery pack is less expensive to begin with, or so Nissan claims, thanks to positive electrodes made of manganese instead of cobalt or nickel. This proprietary chemistry is the result of corporate battery research that's been going on since 1992.

2011 Nissan Leaf Buying Advice

The 2011 Nissan Leaf has gauges mounted in a two-tier dashboard setup just ahead of the steering wheel. Most automakers are putting their green-car bets on gasoline/electric hybrids of one type or another. That includes General Motors with its 2011 Chevrolet Volt, which is designed to run mostly on battery power but carries a gasoline engine as an onboard generator to extend driving range (up to 620 miles, GM says). By contrast, the 2011 Nissan Leaf runs solely on battery power and is thus a true zero-emissions vehicle--not counting greenhouse gases or other pollution produced by power companies. We mention this distinction because it undoubtedly matters to some buyers.

Like most other EVs, the 2011 Nissan Leaf has fewer components than a fossil-fuel car, which implies relatively lower maintenance costs, higher reliability, and perhaps greater durability. In addition, the Leaf is expected to qualify for the $7,500 federal tax credit on new EV purchases, thus making the car even more affordable.

The 2011 Nissan Leaf won't have much direct competition, as only a handful of "pure" EVs are due in showrooms over the next few years. Chrysler has promised an electric of some kind in 2011-12. Ford plans to sell an electric version of its new Transit Connect compact van in 2010, followed by a battery-powered Focus compact car. The one other mainstream-priced electric on the horizon is the 2011 Coda EV, but that Sino-American midsize sedan is expected to run $37,500 with the tax credit applied and will be sold only in California at first. So, although the Leaf may not be the first consumer EV on the market, it may well have the biggest impact in terms of affordability and thus sales.

Incidentally, the Leaf and its batteries will be initially sourced from Japan, but Nissan says it is planning "additional capacity" for its U.S. plant in Smyrna, Tennessee. And in fact, the company recently received a $1.6 billion low-interest federal loan precisely for that purpose. Nissan also plans to build Leaf in several other countries. As always, localized production makes good sense in the auto business, because it helps get around unfavorable changes in currency values, which can adversely affect pricing, and it tends to shorten delivery times to dealers and customers, both vital factors in a highly competitive global economy.

2011 Nissan Leaf Release Date: As noted, the Leaf will start U.S. sale toward the end of calendar 2010 as a 2011 addition to the Nissan lineup.

2011 Nissan Leaf First Test Drive: The above timing suggests U.S. media previews could be held in the summer or early fall of 2010.

2011 Nissan Leaf Prices: There's nothing official yet, but a company press release says the 2011 Nissan Leaf will "be competitively priced in the range of a well-equipped C-segment vehicle." That means compact cars including Nissan's own Versa and Sentra, the new Chevrolet Cruze and redesigned Ford Focus due for 2011, plus Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, and Toyota Corolla. But with the likely steep cost of Leaf's electric drive, it's no surprise that one source is estimating a base price at around $30,000, which is pretty rich for a compact car. Will enough buyers look past that so the Leaf turns a profit? For Nissan, of course, that is a multibillion-dollar question.