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.