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 Leaf uses traditional, hybrid-style regenerative braking, where the brake pedal actually modulates the regeneration and the braking rate, giving the sensation of regular braking. Under heavier braking, the mechanical brakes take over. Other electrics I've driven — including the Tesla Roadster, the i-MiEV and the Smart ForTwo Electric Drive — divorce the regeneration from the brake pedal. Regen happens when you lift off the accelerator, and the brake pedal activates the mechanical brakes alone. In other words, it's regenerative deceleration, but not really regenerative braking like that in the Leaf.

It's much more difficult to make brakes like the Leaf's feel normal. To that end, the Leaf does a pretty good job: The pedal is a bit soft, but it's not as numb as you'll find in many hybrids. Most important, the regenerative brakes have admirably linear response. When it comes to hybrids and electrics, there's always a lot of attention paid to the transition between regenerative and mechanical braking, and while that certainly matters, it's something you experience infrequently if you drive conservatively. More important, I believe, is how the brakes respond when the regeneration first sets in, because this is what you feel every time you brake. Hybrid car regenerative braking often grabs when it first engages. The Leaf's is more gradual.

Ride & Handling

I drove the Leaf on the smooth roads surrounding Nissan North America's Nashville, Tenn., headquarters. It wasn't the full spectrum of road quality, but what I experienced was very comfortable. The electric power steering didn't offer the best response of its type, but it's better than some I've experienced in regular gas-powered cars. The handling was a pleasant surprise.

In normal driving, the car's dynamics are agreeable, and this is all most drivers will ever encounter. If you push the car harder, it corners differently than normal cars do. Best I can tell, it's because the 600-pound battery pack lowers the center of gravity dramatically, even compared with the Chevy Volt. The pack is under the front and rear seats entirely, which positions all that mass low and between the front and rear axles. In a normal car, when you take a sharp turn the body leans and the inside wheels get light, making the outside tires work harder to hold the car on the road. In the Leaf, when the tires begin to lose their grip, they seem to do so in unison.

Between this and the car's nearly 50/50 weight distribution, front/rear, the tires hold on better than you might expect of the low-rolling-resistance variety. The four Bridgestone Ecopia EP422 tires share responsibility well enough that they're only 205 mm wide (rated P205/55R16). The compact Nissan Versa's standard tires measure 185 mm, the Sentra's are also 205 mm and the midsize Altima sedan's are 215 mm, even though the Leaf is heavier than all of them, at 3,366 pounds. (The other models start at 2,693, 2,862 and 3,180 pounds, respectively.)

The Leaf is no sports car. It slides about if driven hard, and I wouldn't call it agile, but it's surprisingly well-controlled, especially considering it has a non-independent torsion-beam rear suspension.

In the Cabin

At 6 feet tall, I found the Leaf's front seats accommodating, and the cloth upholstery was of decent quality. The seat height adjustment comes in the form of a rotary knob that raises and lowers the rear part of the bottom cushion. Some drivers might prefer a jack-style lever that raises and lowers the whole seat, but I found this design helps provide thigh support if you sit lower. To be clear, the mileage range limits how long you sit in this car, so even if you find the seats less comfortable, you won't be in them for too long.

A major disappointment in any new model, the steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. The Leaf doesn't suffer the Volt's forward-visibility problem, thanks to relatively narrow A-pillars and a roof that doesn't extend so far forward as to obscure traffic signals.

The Leaf's biggest functional drawback is its backseat. Though the 60/40-split folding seat has three positions, versus the Volt's two, it's less accommodating overall. The main problem is a high floor, due to the battery pack. Even at my height, my knees weren't touching the front seat's backrest, but that's only because my knees were pointed toward the sky. Adults might not want to take a long trip in this seat, but, again, you might not consider the car's 100-mile range to be long.

Aside from the exterior styling, Nissan seems to have gone out of its way to make the Leaf seem like a "regular" car in most ways. (Pop the hood and you'll see what looks like a gas engine's valve cover, and next to it a conventional 12-volt car battery.) The center control panel is pretty conservative, and nicely finished in piano-black trim rather than the usual silvery plastic. Overall, the Leaf doesn't attempt to be as upscale as the Volt, but its quality is quite good.

One exception to the conservatism is the drive-selector knob, which looks like an overly ergonomically engineered computer mouse. It recalls the Prius shifter in that it's a toggle that springs back to center no matter where you push it. In my opinion, a mechanical knob or lever that assumes a different position for each setting is better. That way, you know what setting it's in without looking at a display elsewhere. Chevrolet went this way with the Volt. If there's a benefit to the floppy-toggle approach, I haven't found it.

The Leaf's instrument panel — split between a low information display and a separate speedometer up high — lacks the video-game-quality graphics and resolution found on the Volt's, though the Leaf's center-of-dash touch-screen is more impressive. Among the various energy-monitoring displays are a distance-to-empty readout and a running-efficiency meter on the instrument panel. The center screen can show a range radius on the standard navigation system, as well as detailed energy usage by the drive motor, climate control and other systems. My favorite: a line that tells you how many miles of range you'll gain or lose by turning the cabin heat or air conditioning off or on.

What we don't know is how well these monitors predict the remaining range. That knowledge will require more time and miles in varied conditions.

Cargo

The Leaf's sloping liftgate definitely takes a toll on cargo space, though preliminary specs suggest it has an edge on the Volt. The space behind the Leaf's backseat is rated 10.6 cubic feet using a German measurement method; the U.S.-standard Society of Automotive Engineers method is typically about 15 percent greater, which would give the Leaf an estimated 12.2-cubic-foot rating. The Volt has 10.6 cubic feet by the SAE standard.

The Leaf's cargo area is relatively tall and deep, as it takes up residence behind the battery pack. A large hump containing electronics for the onboard charger spans the space immediately behind the seats, though. Both it and the folded rear seats are about a foot higher than the cargo floor.

Charging

The Leaf requires a 240-volt charging station. At this level, a depleted battery recharges in eight hours. Nissan provides a 120-volt charging cord it wisely calls a trickle charger, which takes about 20 hours to fully recharge a depleted battery.

In my opinion, the No. 1 wake-up call of the entire electric-car movement is how long charging takes. The appropriately named Leaf is out on a limb. Though being the first in a new field can pay great rewards, it is risky. It's through the Leaf that people will realize an EV isn't an iPhone that you can charge for a few hours and use all day. An EV is the opposite: You can charge it all day and drain it in little more than an hour, depending on where and how you drive. If you're concerned that there isn't currently a public charging infrastructure, the question is less about how soon it will exist and more about whether it will matter once it does.

You add roughly 10 miles of range per hour of charging at 240 volts and five miles of range at 120 volts. This isn't about the Leaf; it's simple physics. The Volt recharges at the same rate; it's the Leaf's greater range that makes it take longer. If the Leaf is down to 40 miles of range, it will top off in eight to 10 hours at 120 volts and probably less than four hours at 240 volts — same as a fully depleted Volt.

Unlike the Volt, whose gas engine is a backup, the Leaf supports high-voltage DC "quick" charging, known as level three. To use it, you must buy the $700 quick-charge option, which is offered only on the Leaf's higher trim level and can't be added later. A level-three charger will bring a depleted Leaf battery to 80 percent in 30 minutes. These stations will be commercial only; by the time you purchase a level-three charger and the high-voltage three-phase power you'd need to feed it, you could just buy yourself a second Leaf to drive while the other one's charging. Maybe even a third.

Home charging will be the most important source. Using the dashboard's touch-screen, a smartphone app or other web access, an owner can program the Leaf to begin charging at a preset time, such as when off-peak electric rates begin. You can also program it to preheat or precool the cabin using grid power before you drive, which preserves the battery for driving range.