REDMOND, Wash. — Accelerating from a dead stop in a Nissan Leaf is a beautiful experience. The car surges forward with the kind of thrust you can only get from an electric motor: smooth, linear, almost silent. If I didn’t have a digital display in front of me showing me just how much I was depleting the batteries with each 0-70 run, I’d do it all day long – it’s very addictive.
I didn’t have all day, though. I had about two hours to photograph and test-drive the car that Nissan lent to msnbc.com this week.
It’s a good-looking car: The Leaf's shape and size is similar to that of Nissan's Versa, but they paid much more attention to aerodynamics with this one. This is most obvious when looking at the headlights, which protrude from the sleek lines of the front fenders and hood. The headlights are designed this way to punch a hole in the air, so the side-view mirrors can slip through with less resistance.
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More aerodynamic cues can be seen if you get on the ground and look at the car from the rear. Small bumps known as diffusers are placed along the bottom of the bumper. The entire underside of the car is covered with plastic panels that make the air flow easily underneath the car. That would be difficult to do with a conventional car because the exhaust system would melt the panels. But the Nissan Leaf has no exhaust, because it's purely electric.
These aerodynamic features let the car slip through the air more efficiently, but there are other benefits as well. It makes for a quieter ride. There’s almost no wind noise below 60 mph. Less wind noise means the side windows can be thinner — as thin as any car window I’ve ever seen. That reduces weight, and the decreased weight adds efficiency. But they don’t sacrifice safety. Nissan told me the windows are “as strong as they need to be.”
I had no trouble finding a comfortable driving position with the six-way adjustable driver’s seat, even though the car doesn’t have a telescopic steering wheel. I found the lumbar support to be good enough for all-day driving. (But with a maximum range of 100 miles, does that really matter?)
The Leaf is a five-seater, but you’d be hard-pressed getting three average-sized adults in the back seat. It’s more suited to two adults and a small child in the center.
From the driver’s seat, a push of a button on the dash brings the car to life with a chime accompanied by an array of digital displays. One key read-out tells you the battery pack's current state of charge, expressed as the distance the car estimates you can drive until you’re out of power.
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The gear selector, located between the two front seats, closely represents BMW’s iDrive interface, but is a much simpler device. Pull it left and down and you’re in drive. Step on the accelerator and you’re suddenly moving forward with the stealthy silence of a Toyota Prius or a Chevy Volt (before their gasoline engines kick in). The Leaf is so quiet, in fact, that Nissan added an electronic tone that comes from beneath the hood at speeds under 20 mph, to warn pedestrians of the vehicles presence. The quiet tone isn’t the least bit offensive, but I found a button on the dash that let me to disable it.
At slow speeds, the steering felt a bit sluggish, but this went away once I was up to speed. The car was an absolute pleasure to drive both on twisting two-lane roads and on the highway. For me, engine noise has always been a way to keep my speed in check subconsciously — so the Leaf's lack of engine noise forced me to keep a close eye on the digital speedometer. Other than being wonderfully smooth and quiet, it felt like a completely “normal” car.
Feeling the heat
As we drove through the town of Carnation, back to msnbc.com's headquarters in Redmond, the Leaf indicated it was 48 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I turned on the heat, which impacts the car’s range.
Unlike a car with a combustion engine, which produces heat as a byproduct of its normal engine operation, the Leaf’s electric motor produces almost no heat. The climate control system uses a different method: a resistance heater, which draws power from the batteries. One thing I noticed about this was that the heat wasn’t as instant as it is in my gasoline-burning Mazda. The heat came on slowly, taking a minute or two before truly warm air was coming out of the vents on the dash.
To turn the temperature down, it was the same experience, but in reverse, slowly cooling down to the temperature I set on the climate control system.
Getting closer to work, our indicated range slowly shrunk from 60 miles, to 55 miles, and so on. Every time I cranked the heat or floored it from a stop sign, I could sense the discomfort felt by my colleague at msnbc.com, Alan Boyle, who was beginning to suffer his first case of range anxiety. That’s the anxiety you get driving an electric vehicle when you don’t know if you’ll have enough power to get to the next electric outlet.
To relieve his stress, I switched from normal mode to Eco mode using the gear selector. This dials back the car’s power so much that when accelerating from a stop, the car almost feels broken. For a 10 percent gain in range, the previously pleasant, smooth thrust of acceleration is replaced by a painfully slow creep up to speed. It’s hard to use the word “thrust” when describing Eco mode.
If my vehicle needs were restricted to going back and forth to work and running errands that kept me within a 50-mile radius of my home, the Nissan Leaf would be a perfect car for me. It seats five, is fun to drive and is pretty economical to own. But if I wanted to throw the family in the car and drive to Ellensburg, 110 miles southeast of Seattle, I couldn’t do it with this car unless there was a plug or a charging station along the way. And even then, it would involve stopping for a considerably longer time than it would take to fill a conventional car with gasoline or diesel.
Of course, you can’t have it all … or can you? There’s always the Chevy Volt.
Jim Seida is senior multimedia producer at msnbc.com — and he loves to drive cars. Check out his review of the Chevy Volt, and review the full coverage of the "Electric Road Trips" that Seida and Boyle took this fall in a Leaf and a Volt.