Sometimes history in the making is easy to recognize. Like Neil Armstrong's first human toe stub into the moon's crust in 1969. Or the Wright Brothers' 852-foot powered flight in 1903, as fellow "flying machine" inventors crashed themselves into the dirt, sometimes permanently.
Karl Benz's internal combustion-powered tricycle was not quite as obvious a game-changer way back in 1885. It took years for him to become the recognized father of the modern automobile, after he added a fourth wheel to his bicycle-based design nearly 10 years later.
Around this time, electric vehicles were among the most promising of automotive designs, lauded for their quiet operation, ease of use - no filling up with smelly fuels - and overall cleanliness. And as the fully electric Nissan Leaf shows, despite more than 100 years of internal combustion vehicle advancements, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Unlike GM's teardrop-shaped EV1 two-seater that starred in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?, Nissan was careful to give the Leaf a shape that holds mainstream appeal. So the Leaf seats five in a body built on a stretched Nissan Versa platform, giving it a roomy interior, with what Nissan says is the highest proportion of recycled materials in the business making up the seats and dash.
The cabin's controls look futuristic but not confusingly so, the double-tiered speedometer and driver info arrangement familiar to any modern Civic owner. The most sci-fi feature is the computer mouse-like shift knob, though even that now seems like a common addition to many luxury cars, usually controlling the stereo, phone and navi functions. But the shifter helps give the Leaf an air of ultra-modern luxury, as does the standard navigation system, heated seats and heated steering wheel on all Canadian models.
Where the Leaf's electric-only party tricks come to the fore is with a little blue "Zero Emissions" button. Push this, and the large seven-inch screen fills up with EV-only choices, including how much of your 160 km or so of driving range you have left, as shown on the map as a circular safe zone, and a shadier "So you wanna push it?" outer range circle, which involves a silent prayer to the hydro wires above.
Other unique EV capabilities include the ability to adjust the time of your charges even after you plug it in, no doubt to less expensive electricity, with off peak charging in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec promising not just zero tailpipe emissions - no tailpipe at all on the Leaf - but largely true zero emissions as well. The air conditioning and heater can also be programmed to come on any time it's plugged in, heating and cooling it with grid power versus battery juice.
Should you forget to set this handy feature, your computer or Internet-enabled smartphone can connect with its Carwings telematics system, no matter how far you are from your plugged-in Leaf. Think of it as an emissions-free remote starter, but one you can actually use safely when it's parked in the garage.
Getting under way by tugging the blue-accented mouse left and down into D, the Leaf amazes with its silence: we're talking decibel levels that would make 100-grand German luxo-brutes jealous.
The Leaf's official 11.9-second 0-96 km/h run is decidedly slow even by modern family car standards, but more than reasonable for everyday use, as is its 140 km/h top speed. There's an electron-sipping Eco mode, but it makes the Leaf painfully slow: painful as in "you're-going-to-get creamed" if you try moving into quickly moving traffic. Don't expect sport sedan handling in any mode either. But its comfort-oriented suspension settings combined with its library-like demeanour makes it feel like a small luxury car without the leather.
No pricing for the Leaf in Canada has been confirmed, and likely won't for months, as it won't arrive here until the fall of 2011 as a 2012 model. Nissan's U.S. starting price of $32,780 suggests its MSRP here should come in around $35,000, and that's before subtracting the $8,500 tax rebate in Ontario, and $8,000 tax credit in Quebec. It has fewer parts (no transmission, oil changes, spark plugs, or radiator needed), so it should cost less to maintain. Plus charging it up for 20,000 km will cost roughly $180, estimates Nissan, or about a tenth of what a similar size four-cylinder car would cost in fuel.
There are negatives, of course. That 160-km range estimate plunges to about 100 km in minus-10 degree weather, says Nissan, and even that may be optimistic. The cost of the car even after the generous tax incentives is higher than similarly sized vehicles, and doesn't include the cost of the highly recommended 240-volt garage charger.
And Nissan concedes that despite the eight-year/160,000-km battery warranty, some degradation of the battery - and therefore range - will occur, to the tune of about 80 per cent of battery life after five years. And even this amount is not guaranteed, according to the Leaf's U.S. site, though Nissan execs say they assume a 10-year battery life.
The Nissan Leaf then is unquestionably an ambitious if risky milestone towards sustainable mobility in the form of a somewhat pricey but futuristically luxurious electric hatchback. Like Karl Benz's 1885 patent on his horseless carriage, what will mark the Nissan Leaf's success is not only its own sales, but how - and how much - it will influence the world that follows it.
2011 Nissan Leaf
Type: Mid-size, battery electric, five-seat hatchback
Base price: (estimated) $35,000
Engine: 80 kW electric motor with 24 kWh lithium-ion battery
Horsepower/torque: 107 hp/207 lb-ft
Transmission: Single-speed direct drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Approximately $180 of electricity to travel 20,000 km, at an average $0.06 per kWh; no gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Volt, Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, (upcoming) Ford Focus EV, Mitsubishi iMiEV