2011 Nissan Leaf

The Leaf's styling recalls the more dedicated hybrids of today, mainly because its goal is the same: wind-cheating aerodynamics. The 'Zero Emission' decals aren't mandatory. (Joe Wiesenfelder/Cars.com photo)

The Nissan Leaf isn't for everybody. I could say the same of any car I review, yet for some reason it seems necessary to remind consumers of this fact when detailing electric cars like the Leaf and Chevrolet Volt.

Reactions to the nascent EV (electric vehicle) movement range from evangelists speaking of getting off oil in our lifetimes, to people who fear they'll be forced at the end of a cattle prod to give up their muscle car and buy electric instead.

Both are wrong. EVs are simply another alternative to gasoline and diesel that will join hybrids, biofuels and natural gas to diversify our options. The Leaf is the first mass-market, full-use battery-electric car intended for the whole country — and, as such, the whole world.

There are many legitimate questions about the EV phenomenon as a business, a social movement and a recipient of substantial government subsidy. Concentrate on the Nissan Leaf itself, though, and you'll find it's a compellingly real, refined and satisfying car. If Nissan has rushed it to market, you wouldn't know it.

100 Miles ... ish

Equipped with a 340-volt battery pack and a 107-horsepower electric drive motor, the five-seat Leaf hatchback has an estimated range of 100 miles, though this will vary with weather, terrain, driving style and how much you carry in passengers and cargo. This is true of gas-powered cars, too, but it's more noticeable — and critical — in a car with limited range and no quick means of refueling. In a country where people own pickup trucks just so they can go to the home-improvement store twice a year, the annual interstate trip to Grandma's is enough to turn off many Leaf shoppers. For city dwellers or those looking for a second car, the Leaf makes a lot more sense.

This illuminates the main advantage boasted by the current market's only other high-profile electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, which can serve as a family's only car. An onboard gas engine and generator keep the Volt going for a few hundred miles once its 40-mile electric range is exhausted. When the Leaf's battery is empty, the car is simply done until it's recharged.

The Leaf's consolation is a lower price: $32,780 for the base SV trim level and $33,720 for the SL, compared with the Volt's $40,280 base price. You can subtract a $7,500 federal tax credit, or apply it to a three-year lease that runs $349 per month after a $1,999 down payment. Some regions and states, including California, offer additional incentives up to $5,000, and some employers are also getting into the game. California-based Sony Pictures Entertainment offers its employees $5,000 more. (How long before you can move to California and get an EV for free?)

The Leaf requires a 240-volt charging station, which costs $700, plus installation. Installation could cost anything from a couple hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on whether you have power where you park and, if so, how much. According to Nissan, more than half of the installations assessed so far are no more than $2,000 for the whole shebang. The average, they say, is $2,500, including the unit, shipping, permitting, fees and installation. Depending on when and where you read this, the charger and/or installation might be eligible for deals from local, state or federal governments, or from your electric utility.

Unfortunately, there are limitations beyond the power requirement. First, like the Volt, the Leaf will roll out slowly, starting with Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington in December 2010. Hawaii and Texas will get theirs in January. Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C., will follow in spring. The rest of the country will have to wait until late 2011. Second — or maybe this should be first — the 2011 model year's allotment has already been reserved. Nissan hopes to build as many as 150,000 Leafs in Smyrna, Tenn., in 2012, but for 2011 the U.S. gets just 20,000 cars, built in Japan.

Why Electric? In brief, the goal in buying an electric car is to drive on electric power, period. The underlying motivation varies from buyer to buyer and usually involves one or more of these objectives: diminishing the demand for foreign oil, potentially releasing less pollution and carbon, saving money on cost per mile, driving solo in carpool lanes and/or irritating friends and strangers with an air of superiority. (If you think hybrid drivers are zealots, you ain't seen nothing yet.)

A Real Car

The overarching impression our editors get from the Leaf is that it's a "real car." Forgive our surprise, but with the exception of Tesla's high-priced Roadster, our expectations since the GM EV-1 left the market have been set by dinky so-called neighborhood cars, or even the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which is based on a lesser car than we usually encounter here in the States.

Exterior & Styling

When you see a Leaf, you know it; its front and rear are both distinctive enough to distinguish it from similarly shaped hybrids. It's not an electrified version of a gas car, it's a model all its own — not unlike the Prius. The conventional wisdom is that the Prius' odd looks are partly responsible for its 50 percent ownership of the hybrid market, and that "people who drive hybrids want everyone to know it."

I don't buy it. For every person who wants to make a statement, there's another who would happily stay incognito. The Prius dominates because it was the most efficient gas-powered car on the market for years, one of the cheapest hybrids around, and a free ticket to carpool lanes in some of the most congested commuter cities in the country. I submit that for every Prius owner who appreciates its looks, there's another who bought one in spite of them.

The Leaf will follow suit. The appeal of electric motoring is far stronger among likely buyers than are concerns about styling.

One of the most interesting features is a small solar panel atop the SL trim level's liftgate spoiler. Don't be misled; this little thing doesn't add range — it just trickle-charges the regular 12-volt battery. I'd be willing to bet the high-voltage battery pack loses more energy when sitting parked than the solar panel collects.

Going & Stopping

Due to the nature of electric motors, the Leaf has robust torque from a standing start — enough to spin the tires before the traction control intervenes, especially when turning after a traffic signal turns green. With a zero-to-60 mph time of roughly 7 seconds, off-the-line acceleration is sprightly up to around 45 mph, and then you see the rate begin to decrease — to a degree that you must be patient if you plan to pass at highway speeds. This is the nature of an electric drivetrain with no conventional transmission and only one "speed." The top speed is electronically limited to 95 mph. I found myself speeding inadvertently — a lot. This is always a good sign in a car. It reflects low noise levels, stability and confidence, things you don't always get in typical cars, much less in efficient ones.

As I said of the Volt, the Leaf isn't merely quiet as it accelerates from a stop, it's admirably quiet at high speeds. Only when you hit around 60-70 mph does wind noise begin to become intrusive, especially when you encounter crosswinds. The car's bizarre, bulging headlights are designed to deflect air around the side mirrors. It's possible the crosswinds interrupt this stream, leading to intermittent noise from the A-pillar and mirror area.

To address concerns about vision-impaired (and smartphone-impaired) pedestrians wandering into the quiet car's path, Nissan implemented a feature that might someday be mandated: At speeds below 17 mph, where there's almost no other sound, the Leaf emits a synthesized, vaguely electric swirling sound that grows in intensity as speed increases. You can't hear it inside when the windows are closed, and you can turn it off if you wish.

There are two forward drive modes: Drive and Eco. Drive gives you gentle acceleration that increases gradually as you step down on the accelerator. Eco makes the pedal even less sensitive, to promote more efficient driving, though you still go full-speed if you floor the pedal. Eco also provides more regeneration, whereby the car's inertia turns the motor to recharge the battery. This causes the car to decelerate more quickly, with an engine braking sensation, but it isn't as dramatic as I've experienced in some electrics.