Friday, December 3, 2010

Test Driving a Leaf

Today was the day I had signed up to test drive the Nissan Leaf.  Every year around this time, the city of Tempe has a street fair with artists and artisans displaying their wares for Christmas shoppers.  Nissan set their tents up in and advantageous spot adjacent to the fair, sure to get a lot of traffic.

Once I arrived and was checked in, I had to wait about 15 minutes before the next group of people were taken on the tour.  I, and all the others were walked through three different tents each designed to educate you on a specific aspect of the Leaf.

First was the technology tent.  They explained the Leaf has a 24 kWh pack that weighs 600 lbs, and a lot of other information that is readily available on the web.  What I did learn was that the engineers at Nissan have designed the software to allow you to draw down to a 95% depth of discharge (vs. the Volt's 50%).  That's pretty gutsy and must mean they are very confident in the battery pack.  The pack is composed of 48 Lithium Ion manganese cells.  Apparently it's the manganese that tames these cells and prevents them from spontaneously combusting like standard lap top batteries can do.  I was also surprised to learn that the battery pack is cooled only by the natural flow of air through the compartment.  No fans, no liquid, just wind generated by moving forward, directed into the pack.  They said they'd tested it in Tucson during the summer and the batteries were fine.  Not unlike what I've found with my LiFePo4 cells.

The second tent was more about sales and painting customer expectations.  They touted the cost advantages of driving the car, specifically of electric vs. gas, and they showed off the iPhone app that you can use to keep track of the car.  The app is pretty slick.  It will tell you all the current status, and even alert you if someone unplugs your car.  You can also start the AC system from anywhere; a feature people in Arizona and other hot states will find particularly appealing.  While they didn't mention it, I'm sure the same applies to the heating system for colder climates.

The last tent was simply to talk about range and deal with range anxiety.  The Leaf comes with Sat-Nav standard and it will paint on the screen circles radiating from your position, that indicate how far you can go.  Nifty.

Then it was out to look at the car and drive it.  They had the hood open on one and I saw what looked like a valve cover with the Nissan logo.  It was actually the top of the inverter, but they said the designed it to look like a valve cover so people would feel more familiar with it.

I met my Nissan co-driver, a pretty young girl named Alex.  This was her first day and she knew nothing about the car.  Easy enough, it meant I could save my questions for later.  I got to drive the Leaf for a grand total of... .3 miles.  That's right, around the block.  It was slow traffic, but I did get to experience it.  I was surprised that when I took my foot off the brake, the car started creeping forward, just like an automatic.  Again, Nissan trying to mimic what you're used to and make you comfortable.  I never got the car over 25, so I have no idea how it handled at speed.  Hell, I never took a corner faster than 5 MPH.  I did gun it from a stop at one corner and I was impressed.  Just what you'd expect, plenty quick.  A tad faster than the Z3.

The brakes took some getting used to.  A little pressure and you were slowing down, a little more and you jerked to a stop.  I don't quite know how they have the regenerative braking set up, but the scale of pressure applied to the pedal to the amount of regen was not as linear as I would have thought.  Over all, the car was remarkable in just how ordinary it was.  It's clear that's what Nissan is shooting for.  All the benefits of a fully electric car, without scaring people with anything unfamiliar. 

Had I not went ahead and built my own, I'd be very tempted to buy a Leaf.  For people who want an EV but don't want to build their own, then I'd say go for it.  It's just too bad that while the engineers were so hard at work designing the car to be so good and feel "normal" that they couldn't have designed out some of the ugly.


Michael said...

Nice article about the real Life EV Leaf.
Actually I'm reading about this car in a germanys greatest automobile club magazine (ADAC Motorwelt).
35.000 € will be the price in germany/europe.
This is about 10.000 € too much for such an ugly car, in my opinion :) and 15.000 € more than a compareable VW Golf. The Leaf will get a hard start.

Tim Catellier said...

Wow, I think you're right Michael. Nissan is going to price themselves right out of the market at that price. Surely they realize what they face in terms of competition. I'd really like to see the car sell well, but I'm not sure it will if the follow that plan. At least not in Europe.