Back in November, Mike and I had a chance to drive a Chevy Volt from New York City to Detroit. Spending two days and seven hundred miles behind the wheel of a car tells you a lot about it, especially when your rear seat passenger is one of the engineers who designed the car. Surprisingly, I haven’t had a chance to drive the battery-only Nissan Leaf, so when Nissan announced a Leaf tour stop in Jacksonville, I signed up for the first available time. Unfortunately, a parking lot course and a few miles of on-road driving don’t give you a lot of feel for a vehicle, but that’s what Nissan was offering and anything was better than nothing at all.
In their defense, this was a public-oriented event, and not an over-the-top media extravaganza with planned routes along scenic roads. I’m happy to say that the Leaf drives well in shopping mall parking lots and on secondary roads, and acceleration to modest speeds is brisk. Handling felt better than adequate, although a wet parking lot course wasn’t really the place to test my autocross skills. The regenerative brakes felt more “natural” than those on the Volt, but the Leaf’s smaller size and lighter weight may have helped in that area as well. My overall impression was “nicer than the average compact car”.
Leg and head room for both front and rear passengers is quite good. If you’re taller than five foot ten, you’ll need to duck climbing into or out of the back seat; once there, you’ll be plenty comfortable. Though technically a five seater, the Leaf works best with up to four adults, although you can squeeze in a fifth for a quick lunch run. The Leaf’s rear hatch makes cargo loading a breeze, and the car has a deep rear tub to hold luggage or groceries. The rear seats fold, but the tub doesn’t come with a cover; that’s not a problem for hauling cargo, but dog owners may have a few complaints about the layout.
Behind the wheel, the Leaf drives like an ordinary compact car, but that’s a compliment. Sit down, put your foot on the brake and punch the start button, and the Leaf’s instrument panel comes to life. Select “Drive” or “Reverse” from the controller, and you’re off. If you want maximum range (at the expense of performance), selecting “Drive” twice will put you in Eco mode, which gives you approximately a 10% boost in range. Like the Chevy Volt, the utter silence when the car is stopped is eerie at first, but you soon get used to it.
I hope I get a chance to spend more time with the Leaf, since it seems like a nice enough car. I don’t have the need for a limited range commuter, but I certainly understand the car’s appeal if you do. Deliveries have begun in selected markets, so I’m sure we’ll get feedback from the early adopters in the near future.