These days, Nissan's overall marketing strategy is called "Innovation for All," and this applies not just to the company's high-profile Leaf electric vehicle, but to things like the company's direct injection gasoline engines, two-clutch, one-motor hybrid system and more. Still, nothing in the portfolio is as impressive as what's in the Leaf, which was on hand for journalists this week in Nashville, TN. That's where we got to learn a little more – okay, a lot more – about the world's first mass-market EV.
First, a bit of history. Nissan has been considering using lithium-ion batteries in vehicles since they showed up in cell phones in the early 1990s. Nissan's R&D in this field started in 1992 and, in the mid-1990's, Nissan was already testing the Prairie and Altra EVs, followed by the Hyper Mini in 2000. About 100 of those drove around in the U.S. – one even appeared in the movie Sleepover. That car was a stepping stone, because with just 50 miles of range and a top speed of 50 miles per hour, it wasn't ready for prime time. In 2003, Nissan had what Nissan's director of product planning, Mark Perry, called a "battery breakthrough" with the shift from cylinders to prismatic cells. It was at this point that Nissan really got serious about EVs, showing off battery-powered concept vehicles like the Mixim and the EV-02.
This long development lead time means is helping Nissan beat its major OEM competitors to market with a pure EV. Still, the competition is right behind the Leaf. In fact, if all press releases and other announcements are to be believed (we know they can't), we should see 30 plug-in vehicles on the market by 2015. That's a big change from today and, while everyone has their own predictions for how long it will take for plug-in vehicle market to take home, it appears that the technology is here to stay. What's it all about and how does it work in the Leaf? We answer those questions and more after the jump.
Let's start with a few over-the-road impressions. If you're looking for a detailed First Drive review, read this, as this is just a refresher. Actually, 'refreshing' is a good way to describe driving in the Leaf. Cruising through the hills and highways south of Nashville was an entirely pleasant affair. The car – and, just to get this out of the way in case anyone has any lingering doubts, the Leaf is a 'real car' in every sense of the word – will zip between trucks on the highway and provide you with near-silent city driving, all without a drop of gasoline. Just like General Motors can be proud of what the Chevrolet Volt engineering team has done to make that car an entrancing experience, Nissan's Leaf team deserves accolades for making what can only be called the best possible EV available in 2010 that doesn't cost over $100,000.
Nissan doesn't have an official 0-60 mph time, but the impressive low-end torque in the electric motor does provide very impressive 0-40 times. Perry notes that he's happy to let the media run its own 0-60 tests, and early results show this taking around seven seconds.
As AutoblogGreen contributor Chelsea Sexton described so well, the Leaf provides the driver with a ton of information about the battery pack, range and more. Perry said this was totally intentional. "We believe 'range anxiety' is a falsehood, because anxieties only show up when you don't have information," he said. "We're telling you everything that's going on in the car so you shouldn't be surprised." He's not kidding. The dashboard can tell the driver his average distance per kWh (something the Volt can only do through GM's OnStar website) and also has a constantly updated "distance to empty" number, which is a point-in-time reading based on how you're driving right then. This means that when you drive more efficiently, the car takes this into consideration and shows more relative range. If you want to see the number jump up, shift into eco drive mode, which gives you up to 10 percent more range by limiting acceleration and increasing brake regen. A conscious driver should be able to get at least five miles per kWh, but the car's scale goes up to eight miles/kWh.
The central display screen can also display a more detailed range/energy usage screen that shows where the battery's power is going: to the motor, the climate control or other systems. This "hypermiler screen" also tells you how much energy is being regenerated and how many miles you can add by turning off the air conditioner or heater. If all this detail is too much for you, you can just watch the 'trees' grow. On the left of the upper part of the dash is a tree meter and the more efficiently you drive, the more trees you "grow." It takes a little bit of careful driving to make them appear, which is how it should.
Sometimes, though, you'll be maxing out the battery. If you do, the navigation system can tell you where public vehicle chargers are. But how do we know how much energy we're actually using? Nissan has not announced how much of the battery pack's 24 kWh capacity the Leaf will use, but it's almost all of it. It has to be, to offer as much range as it does. The car has a "low fuel" light that comes on at 4 kWh, and Perry said this is not four kWh of the useable capacity, that's four kWh left in the whole pack. A second warning comes on at two kWh, and there's not much more to go below that. This is a much lower level than GM is willing to go with the Volt, but Nissan remains confident in its battery technology and Perry said Nissan is very happy with the Leaf battery's 100,000, eight-year warranty, which matches what the standard Volt will have. Perry also admits that Nissan has no plans to compete with the 150,000, 10-year warranty that the enhAT-PZEV version of the Volt will have in early 2012.
Nissan knows that the Leaf's batteries will degrade over time, which is why the warranty says that, after the eight years, drivers should expect about a 70 percent performance level compared to the original pack. Perry also said that, while unlikely, anyone who fast charges (at 440V) two or three times a day, something the Leaf manual will warn against, will see a quicker degradation.
The warranty is not related to battery capacity. The warranty is related to motor output. So if the battery has degraded to a point where the motor can't get enough power from the battery, then it's a warrantable event. But if someone abuses the battery – parks it outside in 140 degrees and all that - and they have 60 percent capacity after eight years, that's on them. They abused it.
The Leaf – many more small details
Here are a few more tidbits we learned in Tennessee:
- The Leaf's exterior sound operates until the car reaches 18 miles per hour. You can't really hear it from inside the vehicle, and above that speed, pedestrians should be able to hear the car because its tire noise.
- The headlights, maybe the Leaf's most controversial design choice, are designed to split the air flow and send it around the side mirrors to curb wind noise around the A-Pillar and mirror assemblies.
- There are no rare earth metals in the car.
- As some people know, many household electronics that are plugged into the wall draw "phantom power," even if they are not turned on. Perry says the Leaf is smart enough to not draw power once the battery is full. He does admit, however that if a Leaf is stored unplugged for a long time, it will lose one- to two-percent of its charge every 30 days. This also means that if the car is kept plugged in and not driven for this amount of time, a small amount of energy will be drawn from the grid. This isn't the smartest thing to do, though. Perry notes that a Leaf that sits for a long time should be parked at around 80 percent state of charge, as that's best for the battery.
- Nissan says the Leaf can be someone's "primary" car, if you define that as the one you use the most. You can define "primary" as one that can do everything, but the Leaf is not that car.
- There are a lot of recycled materials in the Leaf, some that originate from other cars, some from home appliances. Old plastic bottles are used in the production of the fabric, for example. All told, the Leaf is 99 percent (by weight) recyclable in Japan because of the country's robust recycling infrastructure. In the U.S., only about 94-95 percent of the car is recyclable.
- The electric motor offers 80 kW sustained power (no peak number is quoted).
- Some parts, like suspension components, are shared with Nissan's other B-segment vehicles (e.g. Versa).
- If you order your AeroVironment vehicle charger through Nissan for $2,200 and have a lease for the Leaf, it will add roughly $30-40 a month to the monthly payment.
- Nissan is partnering with an unnamed roadside assistance company (AAA?) that is looking at how to provide roadside recharging to get stranded drivers to a charge point.
- Nissan's marketing team has reached out to insurance companies to see what those costs might be for consumers. The initial response is that they will probably charge about the same rates as a compact car – at least at first. After a year or so, once accident and repair cost data is in, the rates will probably change.
Even with all of this revealed this week, we're sure there's more to come. One slide Nissan showed said that there would be 12,000 public Level 2 chargers in the U.S. by 2012. But that slide, made just five days before the presentation, was already out of date – the new target is 13,000.