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)


As a new model, the Leaf hasn't been crash-tested. Airbags include the frontal pair, front-seat-mounted side-impact airbags and side curtains. Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control. See all the safety features listed here.

While concerns about high voltages in vehicles are understandable, similar questions were raised when hybrids hit the market more than a decade ago, and everything seems to have worked out fine there. The batteries and their capacities may be larger in pure EVs than in hybrids, but the voltages are roughly the same. The battery is designed to disconnect in the event of an airbag deployment or water intrusion, and at the behest of rescue workers, Nissan incorporated an access panel into the floor that has a kill switch for first responders. Nissan has also subjected the pack itself to high-pressure water jets and full immersion, and there have been no ill effects.

Leaf in the market

Having examined the Leaf, I'm struck by how simple it is, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The car has a battery pack connected through associated electronics to an electric drive motor that powers the front wheels through a few reduction gears and a differential. That's pretty much it. No clutches, no conventional transmission, no secondary source of locomotion. This comprises few moving parts when compared with a conventional gas- or diesel-fueled car or hybrid, or with the Chevy Volt.

Battery-electric cars potentially have the lowest maintenance of any car type, with no need for oil changes or other routine steps. The brake pads tend to last longer because regeneration relieves them of the typical degree of use. Even items whose replacement intervals have become longer than ever in normal cars, like spark plugs and timing belts, are simply not in the Leaf at all.

The battery pack is the main source of concern, because we all know batteries don't last forever. Nissan addresses this with an eight-year, 100,000-mile battery warranty. After this period, the pack is projected to have 80 percent of its original capacity, but that doesn't mean it will be unusable. My suspicion is the Leaf will enlighten owners as to how few miles they truly put on their cars. Even if a Leaf ends up with an 80-mile range after a decade, that might be enough.

How much range the car actually has in practice — and how good the onboard computers are at estimating this range — are among the unknowns at this early stage. We know cold batteries have less capacity, and the cabin heater further saps power. The Leaf lacks any active battery heating or cooling, though the drive motor is fan-cooled.

Chevrolet swears by liquid cooling and heating, and BMW has noted that its next electric car project is likely to transition to this design as well. It used convection battery cooling in its Mini division's Mini-E field trial, which put 450 electrified Coopers into the hands of U.S. consumers. Nissan is confident, though, saying its proprietary lithium-manganese batteries will be just fine, citing the company's 18 years of development in the lithium-ion field.

We can add this open question to the larger ones, such as how long it will take for battery prices to drop and/or for government incentives to cease, whether there's enough profit potential to keep automakers in the electric game, and how much an electric car will be worth years from now, as newer models inevitably bring higher efficiency and longer ranges. Maybe an EV is like an iPhone after all: Do you really want version two when version four is out? This makes the lease option even more attractive in the uncertain early days of this new-old technology.


Starting MSRP $32,780 – $33,720

Available Engines:107-hp, (electric)

Available Transmissions:1-speed automatic

New or Notable• Pure battery-electric car• Five-seat compact hatchback• 100-mile range• 90 mph top speed• Programmable charge time• Buy or lease

What We Like• Zero tailpipe emissions• Low fuel cost• Many tax incentives• Good cargo space• High-tech interior

What We Don't• Range will vary with temperature, terrain• Charger installation can be pricey• Slow rollout• Little public charging infrastructure