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Electric and Quiet—Nissan Leaf's Gas-Free Revolution Is Here

The first all-electric model on the national scene just pulled into a local dealership. How it will fare depends on some consumer courage.

Get used to silence. Because if electric cars go mainstream, you're going to hear a whole lot of nothing rolling down the street.

The quietness I'm referring to comes from the 2012 Nissan Leaf SV, the entry-level all-electric hatchback I test drove last week. I met with Cherry Hill Nissan's Internet and Leasing Sales Manager Franklin Smith and put the fresh-from-the-factory four-door through its paces. To sum up the experience, it wasn't much different than my everyday interactions with Kobe (my 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt). And I think Nissan's top brass would be pleased to hear me put it that way.

The Leaf has no internal combustion engine. It runs purely on a 24 kWh pack of lithium-ion batteries, as well as a solar panel to power the air conditioning and internal electronics (for the one-step-up SL model). It's the first mass-produced vehicle of its kind, and to be frank, it's critical that the car is received well by the American public. We have an economy-crippling oil addiction riding on it.

My 6-mile loop that encompassed Cooper Landing Road and Routes 70 and 38 gave me a decent feel of how the vehicle rides. Notably, you experience 100 percent torque when starting from a stopped position. That's a jolt that takes getting used to. This isn't to say the Leaf will flout speeding laws—10 seconds zero-to-60 and 90 MPH max speed reins that concern in. Once at highway speeds, the drive is unexpectedly regular.

Smith kept a bemused eye on my surprised reaction to the vehicle's normalcy. He told me that most drivers anticipate a very different driving experience. "It's a typical car, without your 'typical car' parts."

The interior is what you'd expect of a current model release. The dashboard and center console are mostly digitized, with touch-enabled navigation, but more familiar button-pushing for climate control and radio tuning. The gear shift has been rethought and simplified, with a pivot ball that engages Park, Drive and Reverse. A spacious four-seater, the car's rear hatch opens to sufficient cargo room.

The meat of the issue is charging and range management. Even as stated in Nissan's promo literature, the Leaf isn't for everybody. Then again, it could be for most.

"It's an everyday driving vehicle, you just have to be mindful of planning where you're going," Smith said. That mindfulness is the make-or-break metric for Nissan.

A full charge gets you about 90 miles. That charge takes six to eight hours, but just two hours will get you an eighty percent charge (30 minute fast-chargers are on the West Coast but haven't yet made their way East). We're nowhere near five-minute gas station fueling here, so operating a Leaf entails a bit of forethought. You'll have a charger installed in your home at a cost of about $2,000, and the in-dash nav offers an easy locator for other nearby charging stations—sparsely located at shopping centers and major employment facilities, but many more on the way.

Oh, and for that completely-out-of-luck scenario, there's always the standard 110-volt plug option. Of course, expect delays.

But should your schedule accommodate such a mileage range (and 70 percent of Americans' would), you have serious operational savings coming your way. With gas knocked clean off the budget, your main expense is electricity. Here in NJ, this line item will run you about $600 a year (based on 12,000 miles of driving). That's a 60 percent savings over gasoline.

Also account for the streamlining of vehicle maintenance. Without a dirty engine, transmission or exhaust system, there's no oil changes, no air filter replacements, nor many other routine tasks associated with a combustion engine.

As with any early-stage technology, you'll have to pony up for the privilege. The 2012 Nissan Leaf starts at $35,200. A $7,500 federal tax credit brings it down sizeably. If leasing, Cherry Hill Nissan's current deal is $349 for 39 months with $1999 down (the tax credit is already accounted for). Still, while the upfront cost of the Leaf appears daunting, savvy spenders will appreciate the annual net savings, which over the life of the vehicle, rapidly brings the Leaf into cost-competitiveness.

If contemplating a Leaf, take heed of the adage "your mileage may vary." What's your commute like? Do you have a second vehicle to handle those longer trips? Is your motivation partially to contribute to solving America's energy security problems? We all justify our purchases with different forms of reasoning, and there's a variety to choose from with Nissan's introductory electric. Know yours before investigating this sporty ride, but if you're game, the Leaf is a breath of fresh air.

Andrew O'Donnell December 08, 2011 at 07:06 PM
I would like to ask you to please read my comment again. I said that if you are lookin to save the envirnt gas vs elec , that battery does worse damage. ELEC and hybrids, have a life expectancy of 10 yrs on slow charge, and 5-7 on rapid charge, as per the manufacturer. The prius are recommend changing at 150-175. I know, my fam is on our second and it's great! But when that old tech nickel battery gets recycled, it's affects on the envnmnt are worse than any gas vehicle. Modern tech has not come up with an environmentally friendly way to dispose, and thats unfortunate. Junkyards and waste is regulated by the DEP (I believe) if you have a problem with thier productivity on waste fluid, I recommend you write to them. And that's true about the big Suv comment. But, if you literally get a golf cart for thousands less, and use that instead of a 37000 electric vehicle, it would be worth your money and save the environment via battery recycling. I am no tree hugger at all, I have an Suv because of my job 24/7/365 all weather. This is coming from the perspective of a hybrid user (1st and 2nd gen Prius) and knowing the affects of battery only cars. The technology hasn't allowed them to meet mass society needs, H+ will be the way to go. Otherwise, get a golf cart.I would like to know the source for 400 billion a year? According to the US Department of Commerce 188.8 billion a year on oil is imported "middle eastern" countries make 36 billion out of that figure.
lacey native December 08, 2011 at 10:43 PM
simply google it and you will find many sources saying $350 billion plus a year. i ,ll give you a random source politico for one. t . boone pickens also gave that number when he tried to convince presidents on his natural gas plan. to convert all tractor trailers, buses and city fleets to natural gas it would save us $400 billion a year on imported oil. secondly you somehow are claiming suvs etc are somehow not harmful to the enviorment. just walk thru the parking lot of any supermarket, walmart etc and count the puddles of oil, anti freeze , power steering fluid, windshield washer fluid that goes into the ground water and into the waterways. and unless people are taking these batteries out themselves and dumping them every 8 yrs i cant see how it could be compared to all a gas engine does enviormentwise. many people especially seniors etc dont go that far. they bounce around town maybe go to the next town to a mall and since i dont know of many homes that are one car families. buzz around town in the electric car (and i think they,ll be a little warmer than a golf cart in january) then if it snows or a longer trip is involved or suitcases or whatever you can use the suv. as far as the $2000 conversion they said there is a 110 volt option. i dont know the specs on why a conversion to a 220 volt outlet would cost $2000 i could see an electrician (since i am one) running a 220 volt line in a garage very easily for 2 or 300 bucks.the other option is your plan.
lacey native December 08, 2011 at 10:49 PM
and your plan involves just keep on keeping on giving $400 billion or $185 billion a year to countries who hate our way of life. so if its only $185 billion maybe less money maybe only a few billion gets funnelled to terrorists. i like the outlet in the garage plan better. we have a new phone or droid or whatever device coming out every day but we cant figure this out? in the 50s and 60s we were a driven country. driven to put a man on the moon. nowadays we are complacent willing to just accept things the way they are and say we cant do it. thats why china is running rings around us because we,re more content to sit on the couch with a blue tooth in our ear and a starbucks latte in our hand and say "its too hard we cant do it" . its a sad day but it looks like its the america of today especially reading the comments on here.
lacey native December 08, 2011 at 10:55 PM
and dont look to our gravity challenged gov to help the enviorment. he just condemned barnagat bay and many nj waterways by calling for yet another 5 yr study instead of action. he is currently vowed to veto 4 bills that call for electric charging stations to be built on major nj highways and apt complexes and malls etc. go to the mall or a movie for 2 hrs come out and your car is charged . plus it wouldnt have cost nj money the fed funds are already in place . but no this slob instead just allowed big lumber companies to begin deforesting nj state parks. almost as good as when bush added mining to the national parks charter. you know you go hiking, camping, fishing and jackhammering. makes sense.
Dan Reynolds December 11, 2011 at 04:04 AM
For the record, the least environmental impact comes from a Toyota Yaris, its also the cheapest car to own. Its basically a Prius, without the battery, so it gets good MPGs, without the second drivetrain tugged along on the highway. Hybrid batteries can be recycled (safely), as they are.. The problem of the impact comes in manufacturing them - its not efficient. LiOn batteries have the lowest power density around. Bur remember that phone everyone laughed at in 1983? That high brick phone? It got a 30 min talk time, and 8 hours standby. We all laughed, its price was $4,000. Now, we all have uber efficient smart phones that we can buy at the corner store.. The current generation of electric cars are *that brick phone from 1983*, they are the start of a bridge folks - not the end. Please give them a chance. After all someone has to take the first step and be "that guy" who says "HEY LOOK AT ME IM ON A CELL PHONE". (Teaches this stuff for a living..)

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