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2011 Nissan Leaf: Fear and charging in Boston

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  May 6, 2011 03:53 PM

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

No fancy 240-volt charging station here, just a dusty 120-volt cord which charges the Leaf in about 25 hours.

First, a big bow to the 2011 Nissan Leaf, the newest all-electric car from a mainstream automaker in 11 years. Other than a few late-'90s debuts, most affordable electric cars have been glorified golf carts or hacked piecemeal from China.

Next, a gulp of aspirin for my pounding headache and shot nerves, courtesy of our creamy white electric test car. I hate to use GM's trademarked phrase, but I just came down with the worst case of "range anxiety."

Nissan wants its car back on a frigid April Fool's morning, and the Leaf's digital instrument panel is showing 16 miles left. So I divert my nine-mile commute to the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, which has the metro area's only public charging station. At 240 volts, the Leaf would fill up in about seven hours, leaving fleet manager Mike Brooks a full 100-mile range.

When I exit the highway, the range meter blanks out, there's a single bar on the charge gauge, and a barrage of warning lights, chimes, and voices politely tell me I'm going to be stranded. It's chilly and raining, and in a frantic energy-saving blitz, I switch off everything: headlamps, heater, LCD display — even the wipers. Then I switch the whole car off and panic. Am I going to be the guy who threw the first Leaf onto a wrecker?

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(Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

Finally, I flick the hockey puck shifter into "Eco" mode for extra-slow acceleration, and weave through Southie back to the Globe's only electrical outlet. Regenerative braking helps recharge the lithium-ion batteries, but the 35-degree cold is no doubt sapping their capacity. I figure the fewer stops I accelerate from, the better, and in the last profanity-laced half-mile I'm running red lights at hyper-slow speeds, hazard lights flashing like O.J. Simpson.

In some kind of hyper-miling miracle, I make it with four miles left (the car won't tell me this, but Nissan's smartphone app does). The burnt-out Leaf needs all of today and half of tomorrow to fully charge.

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Some fantastic cars have shortened my breath — the $109,000 electric Tesla Roadster included — but none in such a choking way as the Nissan Leaf. All because I couldn't follow the rules.

EV protocol requires you rewire your home — and brain — to accept limited mileage and a nonexistent network of fast chargers (the Leaf is prewired for a 440-volt charge, which theoretically juices the batteries to 80 percent capacity in just half an hour). Install a Nissan-branded 240-volt charger in your garage and plug in every single night, and you'll cruise comfortably without breaking a sweat.

My Boston condo has no external outlets in the parking lot, and because the neighbors thought my charging station wasn't SAE-compliant — a 50-foot extension cord dangling three stories down — I had no choice but to leave the Leaf unplugged at night. It never got a full charge, because I never had the capacity (a measly 120 volts plugged in at the Globe) or the time (at my charge level, about 14 hours a day to top off).

Waiting for an electric car to recharge is just as obnoxiously cliché as watching paint dry, except you literally must sit and wait. Batteries have barely improved from the late 1990s, when similar EVs from GM, Toyota, Honda, and Ford were sold in scant numbers. The batteries are still extraordinarily heavy, suffer in extreme cold and heat, and offer a fraction of the 300-500 mile range of today's most efficient gasoline cars. When engineers get electric cars to recharge in five minutes, the choice will be easy. But when's the last time a laptop or iPad did that?

Still, the Leaf is impressive. It's incredibly smooth and silent, seats five, and is a genuine, tire-spinning hoot to drive. This fall it'll be on sale in Massachusetts, and the price, after a $7,500 federal tax credit arrives, is a reasonable $26,100 with destination. In today's dollars, that's at least $10,000 less than the 1999 GM EV1, a major achievement.

With that price, the Leaf's going to put the little EV manufacturers out of business. Against a major automaker's budget and sales network, obscure EVs like Wheego and Coda have no chance. Nissan's leading the charge, and other big brands are scrambling to follow.

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(Nissan). Click photo for larger version.

For a compact hatch, the Leaf's ride is supple, and while you're not going to win an autocross competition, the steering and suspension can take a hard corner without fuss. Headroom is great, but seat height can't be adjusted since the batteries are fitted underneath the carpet. Standard LED headlamps are piercingly bright, as are the rear LED tail lamps. Brake feel is superb, and not at all loose like some regenerative systems.

But the Leaf is no moonshot. When the last GM EV1s were ripped from customer hands and crushed, they had a nearly 140-mile range, zipped to 60 miles per hour in under 8 seconds, and took about 15 hours to recharge on a 120-volt outlet. Despite the Leaf's four-door practicality and superior lithium-ion batteries, Nissan can't top GM's range. Acceleration and a limited 90-mph top speed are about the same as the EV1. The charging time is worse. What about keyless start, a climate control timer, and pedestrian warning sounds? GM did all that, although rather crudely, more than a decade ago.

GM's latest electric car, the plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt, is remarkably handsome despite its short length. The Leaf has a toad face (the bulbous headlamp clusters are supposed to reduce drag) and the rear bumper could use some underwear.

The gizmos are great. The navigation system can download custom routes from Google Maps, darkens parts of the map where the Leaf can't travel on its current charge, and automatically saves every spot you've plugged in. The energy display is a particularly nice nanny. She'll reward you with more miles, but only if you turn down the climate control, defroster, and other accessories first.

The smartphone app communicates with the car in seconds, lets you check on the charging status, and even lets you pre-warm (or cool) the cabin. For the obsessed, Nissan has a world competition for the most "miles per kilowatt-hour," where your driving habits are recorded and compared against other Leaf drivers. Some Japanese guy is really killing it.

But in reality, most car buyers aren't willing to go on a tether, even if it means filling up for three or four bucks a night. The constant downtime, never mind the inability to find a plug at every stop, is too frustrating. Sure, this'll change. Sadly, right now, the best way to lower my blood pressure while driving is to keep paying $4 per gallon.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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