"This is a real car." That's the first thing that struck me when I sat down in the all-electric Nissan LEAF, the most hyped harbinger of new vehicle technology-along with the Chevy Volt-since the introduction of hybrids. "A real car" may seem like small praise, but it's a step up from some golf-cart like experiences I've had with other (allegedly highway capable) electric vehicles. This is good news for companies looking to rent them.
The closest vehicle in size and looks in Nissan's lineup would be the Versa, though the LEAF is distinct enough to satisfy those looking to make a green statement.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car wouldn't let us behind the wheel of their promo LEAF model, as it was the only one yet in their fleet.
(I have driven the LEAF. The car handled as well as any compact car. The absence of transmission shifts and instantaneous torque contributed to the thrill of driving an electric vehicle.)
So we slid into the passenger seats and found room for four, comfortably. And, unlike those other golf carts, the LEAF has a trunk! That's more good news for renters. The doors close with a satisfying "thunk"-no rattle trap is this.
Besides the now-ubiquitous keyless, push-button start, the first thing you notice in the cockpit is the joystick-operated gear selector in the center console, which seemed aimed at the videogame generation. Another nod to gamers is the display on the console that rewards battery conservation by growing a digital tree.
This model LEAF had a back-up camera, satellite radio, factory navigation, a USB port and Bluetooth. For the range anxious, the telematics-enabled touch screen has the ability to locate and even reserve a charging station on the fly.
On the road, the 80-kilowatt electric motor got us off the line smoothly and with immediate pickup. Acceleration at low speeds was accompanied by a slight high-pitched hum, the artificial pedestrian warning added by Nissan.
Our trek was about 15 miles roundtrip, with half of that on the freeway. NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) inside the cabin was minimal-akin to, or better than, a well-made subcompact. We cruised comfortably at freeway speeds.
Electric vehicle batteries are experiencing less range in the real world than in testing. Owing to diminished expectations, we were expecting a range letdown with the LEAF as well.
Greg Tabak, our Enterprise representative, arrived at our office with a stated range of 88 miles left to depletion. During our 7.3-mile ride back to the Enterprise office we fiddled with the air conditioning, which immediately recalculated our expected range downward by a few miles. However, our journey did not deplete the range by much. Some range was returned through regenerative braking.
At the Enterprise office we stopped to charge up at the installed Coulomb Level II charging station for about 15 minutes. A full charge on this station would take four to six hours-a long time to get a vehicle back to the rental ready line. A nice feature of the Coulomb station is that it sends users a text that alerts them to the status of the vehicle's charge.
Renters can utilize the LEAF's onboard charger, which plugs into a standard 110v outlet at home, though a full charge takes about 12 hours. Level 3 charging stations will charge a BEV in only 20 minutes. This brings a host of possibilities in mobility and partnerships with vendors ("get a free charge with a Costco receipt," for instance).
Our quick charge added a few miles and we ended up back at our offices with essentially the same range as when we had left.
Up to Standards and Passing Them
Other BEVs I've tested have felt more like a smart car, and so far, Daimler's go cart has failed to win over American hearts and minds.
Our brief experience in the Nissan LEAF did not disappoint. The fit and finish and drive characteristics will exceed American renters' standards. This is all the more surprising when understanding that more than half of the expense of the car is in the battery. The LEAF is the present standard bearer by which other makers of electric passenger vehicles are measuring themselves.