Without a doubt, the Nissan Leaf is one of the most influential vehicles to come to market in recent years. It’s Nissan’s first-ever zero-emissions, fully electric car, and we recently had the chance to drive one.
Many consumers imagine an electric car to be a little, well, different, and to some degree they’d be right; inside and out, everything on the Leaf is slightly futuristic. Even turning the car on is something special. Nissan’s engineers found that many hybrid owners wanted a more obvious notification than a ‘Ready’ light on the dash to alert them that the car was on, so pressing the start button generates a wave of pleasant chimes that echo through the cabin as the colorful digital dash fires up, much like booting up a computer.
Putting the car into drive presents another learning experience, with the ‘gear’ selector being a donut-sized knob on the center console with a P button for park in the center. Sliding it left and up puts the car into reverse and moving it straight across puts it in neutral. Sliding it left and down shifts the Leaf into drive and if you do it a second time the car goes into Eco mode, which allows the car to conserve electricity by reducing the amount of power expended when accelerating and increasing the influence of the regenerative brakes. It’s not a particularly fun mode, but it’s easy to see how can conserve juice when stuck in traffic. The Leaf will pop back into normal drive mode temporarily should you need more passing power.
Nissan was adamant that the Leaf should drive like a normal five-seat sedan – despite its complete lack of engine noise and futuristic styling cues – and it seems to do exactly that. Acceleration isn’t blisteringly fast with the 80 kW motor and 24 kWh lithium-ion battery propelling the car steadily up to speed, but stepping on the accelerator pedal generates a good amount of thrust, convincing us of the claimed 90 mph top speed. Speed-sensitive steering is similar to all cars with electric power assist steering in that it feels slightly disconnected, but it’s still responsive and well weighted, and the regenerative braking system that returns power to the battery as the car slows still lacks the smooth brake pedal travel; it feels odd and a bit too firm at times, similar to others on the market.
What is most striking about the drive is the Leaf’s sound level, or lack thereof. Stripped of a mechanical engine, the car is eerily quiet. So quiet in fact, that Nissan took extra steps in reducing noise from the tires by adding low rolling resistance rubber and muffling the windshield wiper motor because their sounds were unexpectedly conspicuous. The Leaf does emit a high-frequency noise from an exterior speaker up to 18 mph for the benefit of the sight-impaired, though it’s ...