The Nissan LEAF is Truly Enjoyable to Drive; There's Nothing Half-Baked About it

By · June 23, 2011

Although my history with the Nissan LEAF goes back much longer than most—having been one of the first five Americans to drive the pre-production prototype in Japan last year and taking it on the first public full range test last October, among many other run-ins with Nissan's electric car plans since 2008—there was still one type of experience with the LEAF in my life that was missing.

I had always figured that I would be one of the first to own the LEAF. After all, I thought, I should be walking the walk, right? I went through the whole process: the $99 reservation, the $99 home inspection, the pre-order, an expected delivery date of April 2011. But after a long period of reflection, early in the year my wife and I made the decision to cancel our LEAF order because we pragmatically realized we didn't need a second vehicle.

I work from home and either drive everyone to school/work in the morning or just do without a car for the day. It's no big deal and it's much more environmentally and economically beneficial to continue to own just one vehicle as long as we can. We also live in an area of the country where 4WD is required to get outside and camp/fish/hike/bike/ski in the best places. 4WD is also required to get safely over the mountain passes in the winter. With two kids we also need a people hauler. For all of these reasons our only vehicle is a mid-sized SUV. If we needed a second car you can be sure it would an all-electric car, but we don't need one. Alternatively, the first company to build a plug-in hybrid midsize 4WD wagon/SUV/minivan has my money for my next car (in the running: Ford, Volvo and Mitsubishi).

Even though we lusted after the LEAF we had to make the right decision. It was a hard decision, certainly, but I feel it puts me in a better position to discuss electric cars with a dose of reality. As I always say, if you're a farmer and need a work truck you're not going to buy a Camaro. Electric cars don't fit every lifestyle and that's okay. Nobody's forcing anybody to do anything. It's just another consumer choice—in fact, if you can fit one into your life, then it's the best choice you can make for your next car. If you have a 2+ car household and at least one of those vehicles spends the majority of its time driving less than about 60-70 miles a day (or more if you have reliable charging spots available during the day), then you should seriously be considering an electric car. With gas prices alone, it's lunacy not to.

The one thing missing in my LEAF experience, then, was that I hadn't had the chance to live with the LEAF for an extended period of time yet—but that changed last week when I had one for six days as a press loan. Certainly there are now thousands of LEAF owners out there to learn from—some of them are part of the community—but I was glad to finally have the experience first hand. I took full advantage of the opportunity and lived out of it for those six days. I drove my kids to school in their high-backed booster seats. I did all the grocery shopping—with the kids in tow, I might add. I made several trips to Lowe's and Home Depot, picking up large items and plants for the garden. And I came to a few not insignificant realizations.

Nothing Half-Baked About It

Nissan recieved plenty of criticism early on that the LEAF wasn't well-thought out or executed—especially related to its "primitive" battery technology. Rumors flew that it was hurried out the door so that Nissan could claim the title of "first," and that quality and engineering suffered as a result. Certainly it has its foibles, but I found no more gripes with it than any other new vehicle I've ever driven. In fact, because it runs on electricity It has far fewer foibles than your average car. There is nothing half-baked about the LEAF.

In my week with it I loved driving it. Every minute I was in it was filled with alternating wonder at the zen-like quietness of it all, to feeling pretty smug when I passed a gas station, to enjoying how comfortable the ride is, to thinking how cool it was that my young kids were sitting up so high in the back seat that they could actually see out the windows (you wouldn't believe how much I hate this new gun-slit window trend), to wishing I owned one. I found every excuse I could to get in it and drive and was truly sad when I had to give it back.

Some Not Insignificant Impressions and Realizations:

1 The Car Really Needs an Accurate State of Charge Gauge

I know this one has been beaten to death, but my time in the LEAF really drove it home for me. In general the town I live in is located in a very flat river valley, but my house is on the outskirts of town at the end of a two mile road that's about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. Every day when I came home from driving into town to drop off the family, by the time I got to the top of the hill the LEAF's estimated range remaining gauge always said somewhere between 58-64 miles remaining—even though only two bars of the rudimentary SOC gauge were missing. It does this because its calculations are assuming you will continue to drive uphill forever. I'd plug it in and after a full charge it would tell me I only have 70 miles of range available—because it was still basing all its calculations on the recent uphill drive history. Once I got in and started driving again, by the time I got to the bottom of the hill it said I had around 110 miles of range left because it was thinking I would continue to drive downhill forever.

If nothing else this illustrates the sometimes meaningless nature of having an electric car calculate your range for you. It can't predict what you are going to do or what kind of topography you'll face. Humans are really good at this kind of thing, but without a really accurate SOC meter I can't make that calculation myself and I have to depend on an incredibly flawed calculation that I have no control over.

2 Regenerative Braking is the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it was a bit of an epiphany for me.

When your brakes didn't do anything extra for you, there wasn't much reason to think about how you use them. When they are generating energy for your battery, you think about them all the time. Having regenerative brakes makes the whole process more active. I practiced using them to their fullest potential and, as a result, I was a better driver.

Note: I don't actually buy sliced bread.

Side Note: They put so many preservatives in it to make it last longer because when bread is sliced it dries out quicker. Which is why I buy fresh baked loaves and slice them myself. It's actually not that hard.

3 The iPod/iPhone Software Interface Needs Help

This isn't an issue restricted to the LEAF, but Nissan's iPod/iPhone interface needs help. It is certainly better than most, but it still does weird things that I could never figure out. There's no obvious pause/play/stop/skip forward/skip reverse/fast forward/rewind buttons on the center console and trying to find the controls requires navigation of many menus. The skip forward/reverse button on the steering wheel is a start, but the passenger can't access it and there is still no readily available stop/pause/play fast forward/rewind button.

It felt like the car had a mind of its own and would do random and unpredictable things upon startup with my iPhone connected. Sometimes it would start playing all the songs in my library at random starting with the first song alphabetically, and sometimes it would start where I left off in the same playlist at the same point in the song. Sometimes it would choose to be in shuffle mode and sometimes it would choose to play all songs in the order they are listed. I know this isn't a problem with my iPhone because I have a Ford Fiesta to test right now and the iPhone interface in that car works predictably every time and picks right back up where I left off.

UPDATE: As Christopher pointed out in the comments, there are actually ways to fast forward, rewind and skip tracks on the console, but they are labeled in such a way as to be completely unintuitive and there still is no pause button.

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