I went for a spin the other day in one of the first Nissan Leafs in Canada. It might be the most comfortable urban car of all time. However, the all-electric Leaf is not being marketed that way. No, the Leaf is the world's first mass-produced zero emission car and it's being pitched at the tree-huggers.
All-electric means no explosions in combustion chambers, no clattering valves, no water pump, fan and radiator and, of course, no muffler and exhaust pipe. The absence of such apparatus results in one quiet car. Engine noise is zero; engine vibration is zero. It is the most relaxing car I have ever driven.
The Leaf was designed from the ground up to be a battery-powered car and has no need for the space taken by the gasoline engine and transmission in normal cars. That space goes into the cabin, which is roomy enough for five adults plus a large trunk. The engineers then used every trick in the book to keep that cabin quiet. Engine noise we know is zero; road and wind noise are also reduced to next to nothing. The seats are totally comfortable and the ride is soft and spongy. Even a lunatic couldn't work up a good road rage in an environment so serene.
The Leaf is being promoted on its zero-emission cred, but I think it's going to be a hit with the Cadillac crowd who will discover its comfort and love its snob appeal. The Rosedale matrons will all want to show off their green convictions by buying a Leaf over another Caddy or Merc. Why not? It's even more comfortable. The Leaf's exterior styling, however, is a little nerdy and that won't help, but it is the new, new thing.
The knock against any battery-powered car is the limited range. Nissan says the Leaf will go 160 km on a full charge in ideal conditions with a nearly perfect driver and maybe 100 km with full heat or air and pedal to the metal. Bay Street, spa and golf course, but it won't get you to Muskoka, ON. Nissan does helpfully offer three years of free roadside assistance with every purchase including as many free trips home on the hook as you might care to use; but there goes your green cred.
Another reason I think the Leaf will be a hit at the Granite Club is because that bunch can afford one. These are 40 thousand a copy for a car that can't make Port Carling. However election-bound Dalton McGuinty is offering $8,500 of taxpayers' money to anyone who'd like to have a Leaf to grace their circular driveway.
So far, there are less than 100 Leafs in Canada and only another 600 coming next year. Once rich people realize how comfortable and trendy the Leaf is, I think they'll fly off the shelves. The challenge will come when Dalton's free money (and maybe Dalton) is gone and the Leaf is available in commercial quantities. Nissan ramps up to 150,000 units to be built in 2013 and 250,000 in 2014. Then we'll see if the electric car can truly challenge the petro-burners.
I'll tell you one thing – they can beat the internal combustion cars hands down for comfort. That to me was the biggest surprise and might turn out to be the Leaf's greatest selling feature.