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Nissan Leaf (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)
Nissan Leaf (Petrina Gentile for The Globe and Mail)

2012 Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf: Too subtle, too limited Add to ...

Auto makers are all going green as rising fuel costs and global warming drive the change. At the forefront of these new green machines is the Nissan Leaf. It’s a zero-emission, all-electric mid-size car with no gas engine.

The Leaf flies under the radar. During my two-day test drive, I wanted a big, bold all-electric sign plastered on the exterior so other commuters could look in awe at my greener-than-green ride.

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Unfortunately, it’s subtle and subdued in design. In fact, it’s easy to mistake it for a Nissan Versa. But it’s not built on the Versa platform. It actually doesn’t share a platform with any other Nissan or Infiniti nameplate. The Leaf was designed from the ground up as an all-electric car.

It’s powered by a lithium-ion battery that generates 107 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. The battery, which is under warranty for eight years or 160,000 kilometres, is housed in the cabin floor. You can drive about 160 km on a full charge and it takes about seven hours to charge with a 240-volt home charging station or 16 hours using a 110-volt outlet.

Admittedly, the technology is mind-boggling; the vehicle ground-breaking. The front-wheel-drive Leaf accelerates fast and travels easily at 120 km/h on the highway – passing other vehicles without any issues. It feels safe and secure behind the wheel. It’s agile and has a nice, tight turning radius.

It drives and handles like a regular gas-powered car, but it’s eerily quiet – there’s no sound from the exhaust. No exhaust, for that matter. Since it makes no noise, at slow speeds you can hit a button called VSP, which stands for vehicle sound for pedestrians. It makes a faint sound, warning pedestrians of the approaching Leaf. In reverse, it also beeps to warn passersby.

Door to door, my drive to The Globe and Mail’s head office in downtown Toronto is about 35 kilometres each way, which should be fine for the Leaf. Still, I charged it from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to ease any anxiety. When I left for work, the display in the dashboard reads 185 km of battery power. Confidence set in and I cranked up the heat and radio. But after only 10 kilometres on the highway, the battery capacity dropped to 100 km.

Anxiety set in. I turned off the heat and radio for the rest of the drive. I reached work with 85 km remaining – plenty of juice to get home. But the problem is there’s no place to recharge at work. And the battery range varies depending on the driving conditions, speed, weather, and temperature.

So, after a nine-hour work day with the Leaf sitting in the cold, I returned for the drive home. This time, I played it safe from the get-go – no radio, no seat warmers, no heat – only the wipers working intermittently as it rained. Eyes glued to the dash, the numbers dropped steadily. Relieved, I made it home with 23 km to spare. I was in the red zone, which means recharge as soon as possible. I breathed a sigh of relief and plugged it in immediately. Since the battery was almost fully drained, the display indicated that there was an estimated 21 hours to a 100 per cent charge.

Charging the Leaf is a cinch. Just turn the car off, pull the handle under the instrument panel to release the charge port lid on the hood. Then, connect the charge connector, which comes with the car, to the charge port and plug it into an outlet. A beep sounds and lights flash when it is charging.

According to Nissan, a car with a gas engine and an average fuel efficiency of 8.0 litres/100 km will cost about $1,760 in gas a year (assuming a gas price of $1.10/litre and driving 20,000 km a year). To travel the same distance in the Leaf will cost approximately $320 a year (with electricity at $0.11 kWh).

The Leaf seats five. The front seats are manually adjustable – the driver’s seat moves six ways while the passenger seat moves four ways. The 60/40 rear seats fold down for extra flexibility, too.

Inside, it’s funky and futuristic; the cabin and trunk space roomy. There’s a push-button start and a tiny drive selector to change gears. It has five shift positions – park, which is activated by pressing the P button on top of the shift lever; shift over and back to drive, shift over and up to reverse. There’s also neutral and ECO, which consumes less power and helps extend the vehicle range. Digital gauges display the speedometer, battery temperature, capacity level and distance to empty clearly.

The 2012 Nissan Leaf comes in two trims – a base model SV that costs $38,395 and a top SL trim that costs $39,995. Customers in Ontario and Quebec are eligible for a provincial government rebate of $8,500 and $8,000, respectively.

My SL tester is loaded-to-the-nines with a heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, fog lights, a navigation system, a reverse backup camera, power windows, power doors and an intelligent key system that opens the door as soon as you touch the handle. It also has a solar cell panel that provides a supplementary charge to the 12-volt battery, which supplies power to the audio system, windshield wipers, and lights.

Safety features include ABS, brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, vehicle dynamic control, traction control and several airbags including roof-mounted curtain side impact bags.

The Leaf is expensive, but it’s driving change on the automotive and environmental front. It’s an impressive ride, but just stick to quick trips close to home to ease any range anxiety.

pgentile@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Nissan Leaf

Type: Four-door, five-passenger mid-size hatchback

Price: $38,395 (SV); $39,995 (SL)

Engine: 80 kW AC synchronous electric motor plus 24 kWh lithium-ion battery and 3.3 kW onboard charger

Horsepower/torque: 107 hp/207 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Zero

Alternatives: Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Chevrolet Volt, Toyota Prius, Honda CR-Z hybrid, Ford Fusion hybrid

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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