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Nissan playing it safe with the all-electric Leaf

You only have one chance to make a first impression.

You only have one chance to make a first impression.


Show up for a job interview, for a coveted position in the poultry industry, with untrimmed nose hair and a “Meat is Murder” T-shirt, and well, your goose will be cooked, so to speak.


The ramifications of an unsatisfactory first impression weren’t lost on the brain trust at Nissan.
That first drive, that first ownership experience with the all-electric Nissan Leaf has to be completely satisfactory, or the chances of moving electric vehicles to the mainstream will be stopped in its tracks, says Ian Forsythe, a product specialist at Nissan Canada.


So we have an all-electric vehicle that aims to look and drive pretty close to how consumers would expect a five-passenger, front-drive family sedan to look and drive (with one major exception, which we’ll get to shortly).


I had a chance to check if Nissan managed its objective, via a brief fling in a Leaf prototype in a parking lot in Vancouver. Yes, a pylon course. I took two laps, for a combined seat time of about one minute and 37 seconds. Not quite like a lap around the famed Nurburgring, but enough to confirm that Leaf is fun to drive and will not unnerve anybody. It handles very much like every other front-drive sedan — agile, but with just the right amount of dialed-in understeer to make the vehicle predictable and safe.


It’s even hard to detect its regenerative braking system. Other electric vehicles and hybrids have more aggressive regenerative systems, which means they essentially “brake” the vehicle anytime you’re off the “gas,” to convert every little bit of kinetic energy to electricity. The Leaf coasts more like a conventional car.


The prototype we drove had Versa bodywork over its Leaf electric platform. A full-blown Leaf was available for viewing, and you can see that, while it is different, it’s not scary different. It doesn’t need a front radiator grille or a tailpipe, so it has neither. The plug-in “socket” is behind a flap on its front hood, which is short and low for aerodynamic purposes.


The one electric motor is fitted up front, but very low in the body, as are the batteries. Other EVs and hybrids use cylinder-shaped batteries, but the lithium-ion battery pack in the Leaf is formed in thin, laminated sheets. This keeps the batteries cool, which is so necessary for longevity and reliability.


But back to our parking lot run… the one defining characteristic of all electric vehicles is "instantaneous" torque. Depress the “gas” pedal, or whatever you want to call it, and the Leaf shoots forward like it was suddenly hitched to a moving transport truck. And Nissan even dialed a bit off the experience, to make it less surprising, and more like something we’re used to.


So maybe you want one? Well you can’t have one. At least not until the early fall of 2011.
Why the wait? It’s back to that first impression thing. Nissan and other EV makers need infrastructure to develop in some Canadian cities, so owners actually have places to recharge their vehicles, other than at their homes. Any other way, and EVs will blow their first, good shot at stardom and it’s back to dinner theatre.

 
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