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LEAFy greens

December 17, 2009
Nissan LEAF

Nissan hopes people will think of the LEAF as simply a car (Nissan USA photos)

This electric car thing must be big. Or it’s going to be, anyway. Nissan plans to be the first mainstream carmaker to offer a plug-in battery electric car, the LEAF. The name is cute.

The car is rather nice, actually. Nissan has been touring the country showing off the LEAF (all caps, please, I was told), stopping on this day at OMSI.

As you can see, the LEAF is your basic Euro-styled 5-door hatchback, about the size of a VW Golf. There’s comfortable accommodation for four adults, and the rear seats fold, just like any other hatchback. The pale metallic blue would blend right into traffic. I imagine it will achieve 5-star crash ratings by the time it goes on sale nationwide in 2011. Your only clue that this is not another member of the hatchback herd is the lack of a gaping maw of a grille (e.g. Mazda3), which is not a bad thing at all.

I rather like how the signature trapezoid surrounding the Nissan badge is the door to the recharging connector. The photo shows the fast-charge connection, which will juice the batteries up in less than half an hour.

LEAF quick-charge connection

You can plug the LEAF into any outlet.

The LEAF will come with a recharging gizmo that you install in your garage or carport. The product people didn’t seem to understand when I asked what you’d do if you live in an apartment building and have to park on the street.

Inside, there are no surprises, aside from the kind of readouts you’d expect to find in an electric vehicle. The LEAF’s instruments are bathed in cool blue light. All the telematic gizmos we’ve come to expect are present and accounted for, as is the Trinity (power windows, mirrors and locks). In keeping with the green theme, the upholstery fabric is made of recycled plastic soda bottles.

LEAF interior

LEAF interior is nice. Especially since it's made of recycled soda bottles...

The LEAF at OMSI was inside the building and quite securely roped off, so there was no opportunity for a test drive. However, if you enjoy living on the bleeding edge you might be able to get in on a pre-sale test program beginning in 2010; contact Nissan via the LEAF Web site. Sales to the universe at large begin in 2011, the price residing in Altima territory (most likely a loaded, top o’ the line Altima) before a $7,500 Federal tax credit. Several states offer tax credits for hybrid and electric vehicles, so depending on where you live, a LEAF might ultimately cost about as much as a conventional compact sedan or hatchback.

Yes, the LEAF looks like a nice car, and I could actually see myself having one.

But…

There’s the range thing. Nissan sez the LEAF will go 100 miles on a charge(*ASTERISK!!!). To be fair, you have the same problem with an ICE; range depends on how and where you drive.

But the quick-charge thing still takes half an hour. Otherwise, you’re looking at eight hours from a 220V outlet (your washer and/or dryer plug into this), or as much as 12 hours at 110 volts.

Even Oregon’s most addled gas station attendant could fill up a Versa’s tank in less than five minutes.

And while a charging infrastructure is in the planning stages, today you’re pretty much up Sh*t Creek without a paddle if your batteries go flat in the middle of, say, West Linn. The LEAF’s navigation system will alert you with the locations of nearby charging stations, but if you’re not near one and don’t have enough juice to get to one, well, see the earlier sentence.

Realistically, the LEAF would be most useful as a commuter vehicle. But if your place of employment won’t let you plug in, someone else would have to drive if your work group decided to go to Chili’s for lunch.

No electrical grid on Earth is prepared for large numbers of electric vehicles. Portland is a metro area of about 2 million. Assuming there’s a car or truck for every human, 10% of the vehicle fleet being electric would seem to result in a very large spike in demand, wouldn’t it?

And how would that demand be satisfied? The Oregon Department of Energy says over 50% of the state’s electricity is generated by power plants that burn fossil fuels. Washington is probably close, because hydro and nuclear were maxed out years ago, leaving electric utilities in the Evergreen State no alternative but to buy power on the open market. Fossil-fuel power plants can be built much more quickly than nuclear, and generate more electricity than wind turbines.

Battery technology is advancing, but these advanced batteries require materials known as rare earths. Know what country produces 93% of the world’s rare earths? China. As the article points out, most of the stuff is mined in a way that is anything but “green.”

The stated reason for transitioning to electric vehicles is to get the U.S. out from under dependence on oil imported from the Middle East. But to do that, the U.S. becomes dependent on rare earths from China. At the moment, the U.S. and China play fairly well together. Were that to change (and if the U.S. manages to default on all the T-Bills China’s been buying, it will, trust me), we would be up a different tributary of Sh*t Creek.

I’m inclined to believe a greener way to go would be to have a vehicle fleet with lots more cars like the Mitsubishi i. The i is about 10 feet long and powered by a 660cc turbocharged 3-cylinder engine; think of a stretched smart fortwo. Thoughtful analysis of just how many CO₂ molecules can dance on the head of a pin would probably show the i is competitive with the LEAF. If it doesn’t beat it.

But then, the real motivations of many potential LEAF buyers can be discerned by how many people have asked Nissan if the large “Zero Emissions” graphic will be available on the production version…

UPDATE, March 30, 2010: Nissan has announced pricing for the Leaf: MSRP is $32,780, which can be offset by a Federal tax credit of $7,500, and depending on where you live, additional tax credits of up to $5,000. There’s also a $349/month lease deal. Full details are available at the link. You will need to make a reservation, which will cost $99. Favicon

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