2012 Nissan Leaf SL Road Test

It's not a car, it's a lifestyle decision.

What It Is
The world first -- and most widespread -- mass-market electric car.
Best Thing
It's quiet, refined, and drives like a conventional car.
Worst Thing
Range anxiety is real, scary even.
Snap Judgment
A great second car, but its handicaps limit its usefulness as an only car.


About the time a guy driving behind me in a Range Rover crossed the double yellow line of the carpool lane, sped up, and gave me the one-finger salute while passing -- about 10 miles into my drive -- I knew my weekend with the 2012 Nissan Leaf would give me plenty to report on come Monday morning. "Perhaps America still isn't quite ready for its roads to be filled up with electric cars," I thought to myself, pressing southward on the first leg of my 150-mile weekend trek.

Perhaps.

The Nissan Leaf was the first modern all-electric car to go on sale in all 50 states. It represents an idea that we need no longer be dependent on foreign oil, and we should instead focus on clean energy. Perhaps America isn't quite ready for the idea of an electric car, but Nissan wants to be at the forefront of the Electric Revolution.

Should we be skeptical of the idea of an electric car, though? Most EVs are only being produced out of necessity and with heavy government subsidies because of regulations that undoubtedly are designed primarily to keep politicians happy. There are a few competitors out there like the Ford Focus Electric and Mitsubishi i-MiEV -- both of which are sold in multiple states -- but most EVs are California-exclusive. Then there's the Leaf's biggest rival, the Chevrolet Volt, that's different in that it has a gas engine that acts as an onboard generator, because GM figured its target market wasn't ready to make the leap entirely to electricity. Nissan's a little more optimistic.

As I first traveled the first leg of my trip -- 63 miles from Redondo Beach to San Clemente -- it became my goal to see whether the Nissan Leaf was a viable alternative to a gas-powered car. But I that wouldn't come without a few hiccups.

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What We Drove

The Nissan Leaf comes in two trim levels: base SV and the one we had, the Leaf SL. It adds $2,050 to the Leaf's bottom line but includes a CHAdeMO quick-charge port, fog lights, a backup camera, a small solar panel, and a cargo cover, totaling $38,110, including $850 for destination and handling. The only dealer-installed option was $170 worth of floor mats.

The car's price doesn't account for a $7,500 federal tax rebate customers may be eligible for or an additional $2,500 in write-offs available in California, for instance. That $10,000 discount goes a long way for the Leaf. Other states even greater tax incentives, and some like California give special privileges to EV drivers like the ability to use carpool lanes at all times.

Standard on our Leaf were a six-speaker sound system, navigation with Nissan's CarWings telematics system, satellite radio, automatic climate control, a push-button starter, keyless entry, and LED headlights that save electricity, among a decent-size list of equipment. Additionally, it comes with two LATCH points for child seats in the rear; front passenger airbags for side, head, and frontal restraint; stability and traction control; and a vehicle immobilizer and security system. For your green that gives you a green car, Nissan only offers partially recycled cloth seats with manual adjustments. But, as you know, leather comes from dead cows, and power seats use additional electricity and add weight. Neither feature makes sense in a "green" car like the Leaf.

The Commute

Originally starting with an 80-mile indicated range for my 63-mile trip, I watched that 17-mile buffer dwindle to just six miles while traveling at a consistent 65 mph on the highway. I probably could have made it to my destination on a single charge, but I didn't want to risk it.

Coined not too long ago, the term "range anxiety" came about to explain pandemic of fear experienced by your average electric-car driver. When charging stations are limited and you're far away from your home, suddenly five miles can seem like a much greater distance than originally thought. The obvious solution would be to employ EVs as city cars only. But what's the point of a nearly $40,000 golf cart? That's not going to save the world!

I needed to find a charging station, but when I pressed the "e" button on the Leaf's steering wheel, bringing up a list of electric charging stations, it found nothing nearby. Sans smartphone, I made an emergency stop and called a coworker who lives in the area for directions to the nearest Nissan dealer.

It was my first experience at a Nissan dealership, and I have to give credit where it's due: OC Nissan Irvine pointed me to its three Level 2 charging stations behind its showroom and told me to wait inside until the Leaf gained back some of its range. It took an hour and a half to get an additional 20 miles of range. But who was I to complain? It was Nissan Customer Appreciation weekend, and the dealership had a fresh batch of Otis Spunkmeyer cookies on-hand. That quelled my gripes, except one: Why wasn't this place listed in Nissan's database of charging stations in the first place?

During the weekend, I didn't use the air conditioning, and I kept the car in Eco mode at all times, allowing me to get the most out of the car's range. Having driven other electric cars since then, I can't help but think that some newer models like the Toyota RAV4 EV are far more forgiving when it comes to how to drive them without severely affecting range. When you drive the Leaf in normal mode, 10 minutes of keeping up with quick-paced traffic costs some much-needed miles. In other newer EV designs, the effects are minimal at best.

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The Grocery Run

In most electric cars, batteries take up the vast majority of space underneath the sheetmetal. And automakers are still struggling to find the best way to package them. Some cars, like the Chevrolet Volt, take out a seat in the middle to make room for batteries. The Nissan Leaf doesn't compromise any seating space, intact with five seatbelts and enough room to use all of them for shorter trips.

It's based on the same architecture as the Nissan Versa sedan, which is classified by the EPA as a midsize car. But that's only because of the car's fantastic packaging. For all intents, it's a compact, falling slightly below the Toyota Prius in usable space.

The Leaf only reveals its electric-car packaging in the cargo area, which is deeply recessed but quite narrow, large enough for only a few grocery bags before having to stack them. Add to that Nissan's 120-volt wall-plug charger strapped to the side of the cargo hold in a canvas bag, and it makes hauling anything too large a bit of a challenge.

The Weekend Fun

Upon reaching San Clemente without a Level 2 charger available, I plugged the car's 120-volt Level 1 trickle charger into the nearest wall socket I could find, taking some 17 hours to recharge the car -- roughly three times longer than it would have taken with a Level 2 charger. The following day, I ventured back north.

Instead taking the 405, I opted for California's Pacific Coast Highway, mostly stop-and-go traffic all the way through Orange County back to Los Angeles. Still trudging through Eco mode, the Leaf didn't need as much energy to keep up in stoplight traffic with other cars as it did going 65 mph on the highway. And with downhills and stopping, the regenerative brakes kept the car going much farther. In fact, after retracing its steps back to Redondo Beach, the Leaf could have gone about 15 miles farther than it did, a testament to the car's energy recapturing technology.

Out of Eco mode, the Leaf ran out of juice at a much quicker rate, or perhaps I just wasn't used to how the car's torquey electric motor sapped electricity under heavy acceleration. While its 108 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque -- the force that gets you moving -- feel likely plenty, they're neutered in Eco mode. But, then, so is your range if you're not driving the Leaf especially conservatively. You have one or the other, but not both.

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Summary

Here's my honest recommendation: If your commute is long and your employer doesn't feel the need to install a Level 2 charger at work, don't buy a Leaf. And if you're looking at owning only one car, by all means opt for something a little less compromised for long distances, like a Chevrolet Volt.

The Leaf is a car that's meant complement a particular lifestyle, not ask its owners to compromise to conform to its limitations. We found the Nissan Leaf's range too widely varying between city and highway use. And we surmise that had we drove it more without Eco mode, with the air conditioning on, or maybe even with the stereo louder, it may have adversely affected mileage even further.

Does that make the Leaf a bad car? Hardly. Is the electric car destined for failure? Nope.

The Leaf is Nissan's first step to electrify the world. But it's only a first step, coming more than 100 years after electric cars lost their market supremacy to their longer-range dinosaur-burning contemporaries. There's going to be some catch up involved, and there looks to be plenty of infrastructure coming to support the EV's continued progress.

If you live in the middle of the country, it may not yet make sense to buy a Leaf, or an EV in general. But give it a decade for the technology to advance, and we might have a tough time trying to dissuade you from what is likely to be the first serious player in a thoroughly reinvented game.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $38,270
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 106 mpg equivalent
EPA Highway: 92 mpg equivalent
EPA Combined: 99 mpg equivalent
EPA Estimated Range: 73 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes

"I think of the Leaf--and some of its contemporaries--in the same way that I think of the original Prius. No, not the mid-'00s hatchback, but the funny looking little sedan that preceded it. It, too, was derided as inelegant, its execution clumsy, and its cost/benefit ratio was way off. Today, the Prius is synonymous with green transportation, and Toyota can't make them fast enough. The moral: Beware, EV detractors. They're coming, and this first Leaf is much better than that first Prius." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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