If you had asked me in July 2006 — less than five years ago — if I could envision myself driving an all-electric vehicle in the foreseeable future, you would have been treated to a jaded snicker and disgusted eye roll of the sort only a dedicated conspiracy theorist can deliver. I'd just watched Ed Begley Jr. deliver a eulogy at a mock funeral for the General Motors all-electric EV1 in Chris Paine's documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? The EV1 program was quashed, nearly all of the EV1s were crushed to pieces despite still being fully operational, and depending on whom you believe, it was the fault of either Big Oil, the California Air Resources Board, the Dubya adminstration or consumers themselves. Celebrity EV1 proponents such as Tom Hanks, Peter Horton and even Mel Gibson, that progressive-cause poster boy, lamented the car's demise and hinted at the nefarious forces plotting to keep us hooked on fossil fuel.
So several weeks ago, when I learned I would have an opportunity to spend a week driving a LEAF — Nissan's all-electric, zero-emissions vehicle — I was ecstatic.
I picked up the LEAF at Nissan's U.S. headquarters in Franklin on a warm Wednesday morning in March. In a matter of minutes, I was headed north on I-65, reveling in my newly acquired (and temporary) moral superiority as I zipped past gas-guzzling SUVs and CO2-spewing pickups.
I didn't know what to expect from the LEAF, and I was pleasantly surprised, particularly by the acceleration. We're not talking tire-squealing Corvette-style blastoff, but from 0 to 60 mph, it would likely leave my Honda CR-V in the dust. With an electric motor and no gears, the LEAF is immediately at 100 percent torque, so acceleration is instantaneous, and it's a strange sensation, heightened by the fact that there's no engine noise at all — just the sound of the wind blowing by. Nissan claims a top speed of 90 mph, and I got it to 85 before fear of another eight hours in traffic school got the better of me. Handling and braking are also extremely responsive.
If you're under the assumption that an electric car must have a tiny, spartan interior, think again. On a couple of occasions, I transported myself and three passengers, and even the backseat riders were comfortable. There's a surprising amount of space for a compact, and since it's a four-door (five including the back hatch), entry is easy. My LEAF was equipped with a GPS and a camera monitor when in reverse, as well as the CARWINGS telematics system, which allows you to control certain functions — for example, vehicle charging, heat and air conditioning — remotely from your iPhone, not to mention a multitude of other bells and whistles. (You can even see how you rank among other LEAF owners in terms of eco-friendly driving habits.)
In fact, the entire driving experience was quite satisfying, particularly since I had figured the tradeoff for zero-emissions driving would be cramped legroom, no frills and lackluster performance. The LEAF is no glorified golf cart — it's a blast to drive.
That's not to say there are no trade-offs. The LEAF is all electric, so your maximum range on a single charge is 70 to 100 miles, depending on how and where you drive. (The EPA rates the range at 73 miles based on average driving circumstances, and estimates fuel economy at the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon of gas.) Instead of a gas-tank gauge, the LEAF displays the approximate number of miles left on your current charge. The number is constantly recalibrating according to your driving habits, heat and air, etc. — for instance, if the dashboard shows that you have 72 miles remaining, and you turn on the heat, your projected range immediately drops by several miles.
Since I only drove the LEAF for a week, I charged it by plugging it into a standard 110-volt outlet, which takes roughly 16 hours to fully charge a completely empty battery. LEAF owners typically have a 240-volt "Level 2" charging station installed at their homes, which can do a full charge in seven to eight hours. (For $700, your LEAF can be equipped with a 480-volt "Level 3" charging receptacle, though 480-volt charging stations, which can boost the battery from empty to 80 percent in 30 minutes, are currently few and far between.) Public Level 2 charging stations are available at several locations around town, including NOGAS Electric Vehicles (2612 Winford Ave.), which also features a line of electric scooters (see story below). For a list of stations in the area, visit www.leafstations.com.
The LEAF sells for $32,780. With a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, the adjusted price can be as low as $25,280, depending on how much federal tax you owe. In Tennessee, the Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment incentive will cover most or all of the approximately $2,000 cost to install a charging station at your home. (Another perk: You can drive in the HOV lanes anytime, regardless of the number of passengers.) According to the national average electricity cost, Nissan estimates it will run you $2.75 to charge a LEAF from empty to full.
So should you buy a LEAF? If you have one car and take frequent long trips, or you rent a home or apartment and can't install a charging station — or, like one of our test passengers, you can barely remember to keep your cell phone charged — the LEAF may not be for you. (And if range is an issue, you might want to check out the Chevrolet Volt. Though the Volt has an all-electric range of only 40 miles and costs about $8,000 more than a LEAF, it has a gas-powered generator that will extend the range to 300 miles.) But if you own a home where you can install a charging station, and you don't need to drive long distances (or your family owns a second car for such trips), the LEAF is a terrific option.
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