Monday, July 25, 2011

Test Driving the 100% Electric Nissan Leaf

On Saturday I had the opportunity to test drive the Leaf, the 100% electric car manufactured by Nissan. It's no secret I've had a mini-love affair with the Leaf marketing team ever since I first saw their commercials a while ago (see posts here, here and most recently here). When I noticed on Twitter a few weeks ago that they were launching a Drive Electric Tour and that they were stopping in nearby Hartford, I knew I had to take advantage of the chance to get in the driver's seat myself and see what all the hype was about.

The event itself was awesome. It was a brutally hot day and they had cornered off a large section of the parking lot at the West Farms Mall for the driving course. There were also tents with information about the Leaf and refreshments. I was a part of the 1:30 tour group -- There were about 20 of us in all. Most of them were families with kids and I was probably the youngest person who drove himself to the event. Go figure. It didn't matter that I'm not planning on actually buying a Leaf, or any car for that matter anytime soon (I'm hoping to live in a place where it's not necessary to drive everywhere). That said, if and when I come to a point in my life where I want to buy a car, this is definitely towards the top of my wish list.

I was just along for the ride and to get a glimpse of the technology of the future. And that's really what it felt like. It made me think of what it must have been like to visit a world's fair and see the technologies of the coming era. Okay, maybe that's a stretch -- it's only a new car. Then again, the Leaf has no mufflers. I digress...

One of the Nissan Tour staff members ushered us through the first tent and told us about the car. Because it has roughly a 100-mile charge, he was honest that the Leaf is not a road trip vehicle. He was quick to point out that over 90 percent of us never travel 100 miles in a day, so the Leaf is perfect for the commute to school or work, or for running errands around town. He also explained that since the Leaf can recharge its battery while braking or coasting, some drivers can achieve distances of up to 130 miles. The navigation system built into the Leaf can locate nearby charging stations as well as show the driver all possible destinations, one-way and round-trip, within the current battery life. He pointed out the many other features of the Leaf, including the solar panel on the roof that powers the radio, headlights, AC, etc. The model underneath the tent had been running all day, yet all the components under the hood were cool to the touch. The seats themselves are made out of recycled plastic water bottles. The headlights were designed to direct airflow around the sideview mirrors to reduce drag. The list went on and on. Needless to say I was very impressed by the care Nissan had taken to create the Leaf.

Before long it was time to head out on the course. I was accompanied by Nissan staff to a car waiting in the lot. I climbed into the drivers seat and pushed the power button. The only sound was that of the air conditioning turning on. Soon it was my turn to take off, and I slid out of the starting area. One of the coolest things about driving the Leaf was the way it calculated the remaining range in the vehicle on the dashboard. It even told you by how many miles you could increase the range by turning of the AC or radio, or by putting the car into eco-mode (effectively the equivalent of a lower gear in any normal car, i.e. slower pickup).

Unfortunately we weren't allowed to push more than 15-20 mph through the course, so it was a little difficult for me to tell how it would fare on the open road. It did handle really well weaving through the cones they had set up and from what I could tell it was very similar to driving other small to midsized cars. When I asked one of the tent staffers what his favorite thing was about the Leaf he said it was the torque. He agreed that the course was limiting and didn't do the car justice, but that it had to be that way for liability reasons. Next time I'd really like to get one of these out on the open road and just cruise around for a little while. Due to hit the open market this fall, I may get that chance soon.

Overall the event was so much fun and I feel like I now have a better understanding of the Leaf and a greater appreciation for Nissan in doing what it has to promote electric vehicles. If you are interested in test driving one yourself, check out the Drive Electric Tour and see if the Leaf will be coming to a city near you soon. The national tour just started, so chances are you'll have an opportunity to participate. I highly recommend it!

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