After inviting hundreds of people to Japan to check out the production-ready Leaf electric vehicle, Nissan has begun a much smaller effort in launch markets in the U.S., thus far conducting test drives in San Diego and Los Angeles, California. I managed to snag a last-minute slot in the latter, figuring I'd mostly confirm my initial impressions gleaned from tooling around Dodger Stadium's parking lot in a prototype last December. I did and I didn't.
There are plenty of reviews around the Leaf as a car; John O'Dell has a pretty comprehensive one here. And it's just as well, because, while Nissan let me behind the wheel for about half an hour, morning traffic precluded me from going much over 50 miles per hour. That's enough to concur with much of what has been said so far – the car is quiet and peppy, manages hills with little effort and has a nicely balanced suspension that is both smooth and comfortable while being responsive around corners and negotiating traffic. All of this was suggested in my drive of the Versa version, and confirmed in the actual Leaf. Easy to drive and innocuous to look at, it's what you imagine They Might Be Giants had in mind.
I also disagree with a couple of the criticisms floating around, and find them worth clarifying here: the motor is not at all "tinny" sounding; unless that manifests only at high speeds, the Leaf is actually one of the quietest EVs of this generation. While John felt the interior was boring in its minimalism, I thought the relatively monochromatic palette felt light and airy and suited the car. Given the exterior, something sportier would likely seem out of place. It's also through this fact that the Leaf's true point of distinction begins to emerge – any extra attention you might have paid to more dynamic interior features is absorbed by the instrument panel and infotainment center. Put simply, the Leaf has the best user interface I've seen in an electric vehicle (EV) yet. Find out more after the jump.
In fairness, we haven't seen much of what some of the other automakers are working on in this regard, so I won't attempt any comparisons. And frankly, I can't speak much to the "tainment" part, as I spent most of my time checking out the info. What quickly became clear is that the Leaf uses information as a gateway drug – both to lure in new EV drivers by quelling range anxiety and other initial fears, and to enable the geeks and hypermilers with the data they want. All in a package that's pleasant to look at and easy to navigate and understand.
With this in mind, I've picked out a few of the Leaf's most useful features, from my perspective as an experienced EV driver- and noted a few things for the universal wishlist that I'm sure someone is curating. Right?
Recognizing that range is the core concern for new EV drivers, Nissan makes sure to let the driver know in myriad ways exactly how far he can go at any given time. This starts out with a graphic portrayal on a map (my map isn't terribly detailed because half of it is literally in the ocean), with the radius reflecting drivable distance on a charge as well as charging stations in the area. If your destination is outside the circles, you know right away to charge along the way or re-think the trip. Veteran drivers know that after a while this becomes intuitive, but it's helpful nonetheless, particularly for folks just cutting their EV teeth.
Power Use Gauges
This will likely be the favorite screen for most drivers. All EVs have a power use gauge of some sort, on which their drivers focus – initially out of necessity, then, as they become more comfortable with the car's range, out of interest. Ultimately, the gauge is used to maximize range, often in competition with other drivers; the EV crowd was hypermiling long before the word made it into common vernacular. Still, there are always questions about how much energy the HVAC system uses, or radio, or headlights, even though most accessory use won't affect range, and even climate control is a distant second to one's right foot. Threads on EV forums delve into whether it's better to use AC or roll down the windows, and so on. While most drivers never see their battery's "state of charge" gauge hit "empty", the more adventurous among us have all eked out the last few miles to the next stop in a sweltering car on the off chance that a little air conditioning might make the difference between getting there and not.
The Leaf answers this and then some. It has not one power use gauge, but three, covering the propulsion motor, climate control, and everything else. Each measures and displays in kilowatts, which the veteran drivers will love after years of more vague indications. They're each laid out and function like a speedometer – mash the pedal or crank the accessories and the needles rise accordingly. Even better, the same screen displays not only how many miles are remaining on a charge (updating constantly based on power use) but how many miles you'll gain or lose by turning on climate controls. No more guesswork, and no Ph.D. required, either.
For the wishlist: less related to the power use gauge as actual power use, but most EVs (and some drivers) focus too much on regenerative braking. Successful long-range drivers know that the most efficient braking is that which you never have to do. In many cases, letting regen slow the car instead of "freewheeling" only means you'll end up using more power to speed it back up again. The Leaf has what I think is a nice, but not overly strong level of native regen – about the same as the EVs of the 1990s. However, both the EV1 and RAV4 EV had a button on the shifter through which it could be disengaged completely to enable coasting on the freeway, etc. Drivers loved it and automakers would be well-served to deploy such a feature in their new EVs.
It's a rather obvious feature, but a new convenience for this generation of cars. With a tap on the screen, the Leaf displays all of the nearby public charging stations. Even better, you can customize the list with your own locations that might be available to you but not considered "public," say a workplace or friend's house.
For the wishlist: all of the centralized charger data to date has been curated by EV drivers who, among other things, send in "condition reports" when they find a charger that is inoperable, vandalized, etc. Given the telematics on these vehicles, that could be done right from the charger list, alerting both the site owner and the rest of the driving community.
Running on Empty
Ok, so not quite a feature (and no pic as I didn't drive it down that far), but drivers will appreciate the vehicle's sequence as the battery gets close to being depleted. EVs have all had various warnings and limp modes, but they've been largely akin to figuring out what a gas car really means when it hits "E." In the Leaf, it's downright predictable: when 4kWh remain in the battery, the car chimes and the "nearby charger" screen automatically comes up. At 2kWh, the car will automatically shut off climate control and any other unnecessary accessories, and limit top speed. Finally, it will enter a "reduced power" mode as your final suggestion to pull over. And, in a last effort not to leave anyone stranded, drivers can even eke out another mile or so through a reserve tapped by shutting the car off and on again, in case of an "I can see the charger but just can't quite make it" moment.
Time to Charge/Driving Efficiency
Probably most useful for new drivers, both the infotainment screen and the instrument panel behind the steering wheel have modes that display the actual charging time required to fill the vehicle on both 120v and 240v. This bit can also be switched to display driving efficiency in miles/kWh, a nice supplement to the power use data, and extremely handy should you need to know how far those last 2 kWh will take you.
For the wishlist: two items here. To start with, 6.6 kW charging (basically, a standard 240v/40 amp circuit – what's in most houses and public charging stations today). Every freeway-capable EV of the last generation charged at this level, but for reasons I've yet to hear, every EV of this one charges at 3.3 kW, basically rendering all those circuits half as fast. Less of an issue for the PHEV/EREVs, but will likely impact the consumer experience on the pure BEVs. Luckily, Nissan is already talking about upgrading the Leaf for Gen II, but we're awaiting confirmation and whether or not Gen I will be retrofittable.
Secondly, a "time to charge" feature is mostly useful at public chargers. At home, the vehicle is typically sitting overnight anyway. But often, drivers don't need to publicly charge until they're full. When they're not just topping off for the convenience of it, the real question they have is "how long do I need to charge to get to my next stop?" A fantastic option would be to program a destination into the navigation system and be told how long to charge to get there, taking general terrain and traffic into consideration.
Of course, these features and nuggets merely scratch the surface of all that is possible in the Leaf and other upcoming EVs, but what I've seen so far is exciting. The best part about it is that none if it seems imposing. The system provides information all sorts of information, but ultimately leaves the consumer to decide how he wants to drive and use the vehicle. If, as we've seen with the Prius, more data leads to efficient drivers who also love their cars, then let there be no rehab for this particular addiction.
Chelsea began working in the auto industry before she was old enough to vote; her work on General Motors' EV1 program was featured in the Sony Pictures Classics film, Who Killed the Electric Car? She led the creation of the Automotive X PRIZE, co-founded Plug In America, and currently runs the Lightning Rod Foundation, through which she conspires with various stakeholders to get plug-in cars back on the road and educate consumers about them. Chelsea is also a consulting producer on Chris Paine's next film, Revenge of the Electric Car.