2011 Nissan Leaf car review: Be Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

2011 Nissan Leaf

About the 2011 Nissan Leaf: It’s not a university engineering class project,  a true believer’s backyard scheme or some undercapitalized and overwhelmed wanna-be re-embodiment  of Henry Ford. It’s a real car.

The Nissan Leaf is a wholly finished and fully fleshed out modern automobile that just happens not to be powered by internal combustion by battery-electric. Only its all-but-stone-cold-silence and the unusual instrumentation reveals to the casual driver it’s anything but an electric car. That and the fact that if Cinderella doesn’t get her pumpkin to an electrical socket within 100 miles, more or less, she’ll be walking her glass slippers home.

But despite the ordinary operation, the powertrain is, at least for the moment, different than any mass-produced automobile available on the U.S. market. The 2011 Nissan Leaf is pure battery electric vehicle. Unlike the “extended-range electric vehicle” Chevy Volt with its on-board recharger or the variety of hybrids with variations on gas engine and electric motor applications (including Nissan’s own Altima Hybrid), the 2011 Nissan Leaf is simple. There’s a motor and a lithium-ion battery pack. Plus a way to plug it into three different voltages.

A small hatch on the front of the 2011 Nissan Leaf provides access to charging plugs.

A small hatch on the front of the 2011 Nissan Leaf provides access to charging plugs.

The key, of course, is currently and mass produced. A full-electric 100-mile range Ford Focus will arrive in 2011 with an expected volume of 10,000 per year. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV is on sale now in Japan but won’t arrive in the U.S. until late 2011. And the Mini-E, although currently leased, is still experimental and very limited volume.

So for now, the 2011 Nissan Leaf owns the market with a “zero emission” 5-door 5-passenger compact hatchback. It’s a top speed is 90 mph and according to Nissan, the Leaf hits 60 mph in about ten seconds. Nissan could have made 0-to-60 mph quicker, but in deference to range, motor output was limited to produce performance equal to the typical compact hatchbacks. The motor’s power is rated at 90kW, equivalent to about 108 horsepower.

With four cells per module and 48 modules, the Nissan Leaf’s battery pack consists of a total of 192 cells with a laminated cell structure. Nissan claims that the battery design doubles the power and doubles the energy of previous techniques, with the battery array completely mounted beneath the passenger compartment. This lowers the center of gravity, says Nissan, with the battery assembly weighing about 600 lbs at about ankle level. Placing the batteries between the wheels also keeps the battery pack safe in a collision, undamaged in a 40 mph frontal off-set crash test. The batteries have an 8-year/100,000 mile warranty and are accessed from under the car.

The electric motor that powers the Nissan Leaf is quiet, a seeming boon, but for designers and engineers it was a problem. It made other noises more evident, so Nissan put the Leaf on a noise diet, using a sound insulating windshield, using dual isolated motor-mounting and reducing windshield wiper noise, and optimizing the location of sound deadening material.  To reduce wind noise, Nissan gave the headlight assembly a secondary task. Raised knife-like above the fenders, the light package splits the airflow around the side mirrors. Voila, wind noise reduced.

Share this article

John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.