Test Drive: Nissan’s Leaf, The Electric Car’s First Shot at the Mainstream

Nissan is going to manufacture the Leaf in the thousands (maybe the hundreds of thousands). We took the first publicly drivable model for a spin

The Nissan Leaf

Seth Fletcher

Even as hype and excitement has built around what seems like a 21st century green-car revolution, pure electric cars—as in, totally zero-emission vehicles with no gas engine, no tailpipe—have been very, very far from going mainstream. And the impressive but small-batch class of current contenders won't change that.

Keep this in mind when you consider what Nissan unveiled Sunday morning at the opening ceremony for its new headquarters in Yokohama, Japan. The Leaf--a cute, slightly odd hatchback--looks poised to become the first truly mass-market electric car.

There is definitely an opening: The Tesla's sexy, but it's a boutique product. The Mini E is purely a test-fleet vehicle. The Mitsubishi iMiev is pricey, a little too strange for the American market, and available only in Japan. The Chevy Volt is a promising mass-market player, but it's not a purely electric vehicle; after 40 miles an onboard gas engine kicks in. A few hundred electric cars do not an EV renaissance make.

Nissan hopes to capitalize, with plans to launch it in the U.S. and Japan next year and move to mass production in 2012. (They won't give exact numbers, but the impression we get is they're talking hundreds of thousands of vehicles). Pricing won't be announced until late next year, but the company has repeatedly promised—and CEO Carlos Ghosn reiterated in the press conference Sunday morning—that the car will be priced competitively against comparable gas-powered vehicles. Think hatchbacks under $30,000.

After getting a first-hand look at the Leaf, we can say with certainty that it is no golf cart, no three-wheel oddity, no "neighborhood" vehicle limited to 25 mph and banned from major roads. For a small car, it's roomy, with seating for four adults and a surprisingly deep cargo space under the hatch. It's highway worthy.

In a spin around the test track at Nissan's research facility in Oppama, Japan, the Leaf mule accelerated rapidly enough that within seconds of punching the accelerator my handler was asking me to slow down, onegai shimasu. I ran out of track before I could confirm this statistic, but Nissan says the Leaf's top speed is around 90 mph. The interior is attractive and subtly high-tech, with digital gauges and touch-screen navigation. It does look a little strange, and I haven't quite decided what to make of its combination of plain-Jane hatchback styling and odd design flourishes (the huge bubble headlamps, the oddly concave back end). But it's definitely a real car—this is not a prototype.

Range limitations, of course, are the curse of all electric vehicles, the Leaf included. At 100 miles per charge, it is no road-tripper. The Leaf does come with a cool GPS system that tracks your state of charge, communicates with a central data center, and displays your range at all times on the navigation screen as a highlighted radius around your current location. Still, in America, it's most likely to be an urbanite's or suburbanite's second car.

It gets that 100 miles of range thanks to lithium-ion batteries—specifically, lithium manganese spinel batteries, the same chemistry that GM is putting in the Chevy Volt. Nissan/NEC is manufacturing the batteries at the Zama plant in Tokyo under the aegis of Automotive Energy Supply Corporation. Presumably building the batteries (and the electric motor and the inverter) in house gives the company a solid price advantage, but the batteries are still expensive—in the range of $10,000, according to executives. In fact, it's likely that Nissan will opt for some variation of selling the car and leasing the batteries. Those details are still in the works.

With any electric-car project, the most important question is: Are they serious about this? Based on what we've seen we'd say yes, they're definitely serious. The company has been working for months now with various countries and municipalities to get the zoning changes necessary for building charging stations and goading electrical utilities into building them. They recognize that there's no way this will work unless the infrastructure is there to support the cars. With electric cars, you can't just sell the car—you've got to construct an entire operating environment that makes the vehicles practical.

Clearly Nissan is betting that the Leaf project will give them a leg up on any environmental regulations that could come down the pike. And sure, they're definitely looking for a green halo. It's an image builder for sure. But not simply an image builder. They're laying a hell of a lot more chips on the table than they'd need to put together a new green ad campaign.

Essentially, someone has to stick their neck out and go first. And Nissan appears to be doing just that.