Leaf stands for Low Emission Automobile of the Future, which is misleading. The implication here is that the Leaf still creates emissions, they’re just low. It’s actually a zero-emission vehicle (not counting construction). It was purpose-built as a no-emission electric car, the only such car in its segment that you cannot buy in a gas-powered variation. Most of the materials used to make it are recyclable, so it’s sustainable long after you’re finished driving it.
Ultimately, marketing has to win out. A car called the Zeaf or the Neaf probably isn’t going to sell very well, and the added environmental theme is too good to pass up.
So Leaf it is, and a lot of people like the car and its name. The Leaf is the best-selling plug-in vehicle in the United States. Unlike its namesakes that turn brown and crumble once they fall from the tree, each Leaf that leaves a Nissan branch remains green throughout its life.
To date, Nissan has sold more than 75,000 Leafs, and we see plenty just driving around the Raleigh area on a daily basis. Seeing that many Leaves in the road left us with more than a passing curiosity about what it’s like to drive one. There’s one dealership in the area that sells more of this car than any other dealer in the Carolinas, and they were more than happy to facilitate our test drive. If you’re interested in doing the same, look no further than Leith Nissan in Cary.
To introduce us to the Leaf, we got some help from John Felten, one of the sales associates at the dealership. A former cartographer and Wisconsinite, John has been with Leith for more than a year now and is just the sort of earnest professional you can expect to work with every time you visit. He’s enthusiastic about the Leaf because he’s been thinking about getting one for himself, seeing as it’s perfect for his brief commute. We couldn’t have asked for a better person to show us the car.
We mentioned before that the Leaf was designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle, and that gives it numerous advantages over competitors like the Chevy Volt. The engineers started with the battery pack and built the car around that instead of forcing one into a normally gas-powered car. As a result, space inside the Leaf is economized without sacrifice. It’s compact like most other EVs, but you can ride in one without feeling cramped. Trunk space is similarly uncompromised, granting a storage compartment with plenty of depth for groceries or other small loads.
In his walkaround, John was keen to point out all the ways that the Leaf is different from a normal car. For instance, while the Leaf’s propulsion is powered by the 24 kWh Lithium-Ion battery pack, the systems you’re used to finding in a car like climate and audio still get their energy from a regular 12V car battery. The difference here is that the 12V battery is connected to a solar panel on the rear wing of the car, a feature available on top-of-the-line SL models like the one we would be driving.
The shape of the Leaf is also unique. Designed for maximum aerodynamics and conservation of motion, it has a pleasant pod-like body that doesn’t waste any weight on frills and overhangs. It evokes a simple dew drop rolling down a blade of grass.
We slipped into the driver’s seat with John joining us on the passenger side so he could show us the Leaf’s user interface, which is where we required the most education. Turning the car on, the instrument panel comes to life with some cheerful tones and a host of colorful bars and gauges.
John helped us divine the meaning of each meter. There’s the main power meter on the right that tells us how much charge is left in the battery. Then on the left is the temperature gauge, important due to the effect of temperature on an EV’s performance. In cold weather you can expect the battery to expire more quickly, whereas it’s not good for the car to operate in extreme heat either. North Carolina has an excellent climate for a car like this – nice and mild for the better part of the year.
The digital speedometer is actually above the instrument panel in a separate bar, but at the top of the display is a series of interlocking circles. This is the only one that is truly puzzling at first glance, but as we would learn it makes complete sense once you’re actually driving. John explained that when you push on the accelerator, the circles fill in to show you how much power you’re using. The harder you push, the more circles fill up. The power usage meter puts its “zero” at the fifth circle from the left and fills in to the right when you’re using power. When you put your foot on the brake, the circles start filling in to the left in green to show you that you’re regenerating power. Think of this meter like a coach that can train you to get the most out of a charge.
Speaking of charge, the Leaf has an EPA-rated range of 75 miles, though with good driving habits you can go farther than that. When we turned on the car, we saw that it was sitting right at 50% charge, which the computer said would carry us 45 miles. Luckily, John wanted to show us the supercharger behind the dealership, so we were able to learn more and extend the length of our test drive in the process.
When you pop open the cover on the front of the Leaf, you’ll find two charging ports. One of these is meant for a 6.6 kW charger that can be installed in your home and will charge the car completely in about five hours. The same port can also work with the 110-volt charging cable that plugs into any regular electrical outlet as a backup (though it will do its job much more slowly).
The second port is for quick charging stations like the one behind Leith Nissan. These high-output stations will give you a big range boost in only a few minutes. As John was explaining, we stood by the charger watching the percentage climb. We also noticed an external indication of charge on the Leaf’s dashboard. There are three blue LEDs that represent 33%, 66%, and 100% battery capacity. As we stood there, the first blue light was lit, the second was blinking, and the third was off, which meant our Leaf was between 33% and 66% of its total charge.
We should note that the Quick Charge port is available for the Leaf as part of a separate package. Our demo car was also equipped with the Premium Package that includes a Bose® Premium Audio System and Nissan’s Around View monitoring system.
Not wanting to wait for the Leaf to fully charge, we settled for 60% and departed the dealership. We like to improvise our test drive routes, but we actually had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go with this car. As a potential EV owner, we thought it would be a good idea to take a tour of nearby charging stations.
The Leaf’s navigation system will display two concentric circles indicating your range. The white circle contains round trip destinations, whereas the outer grey circle shows an area where you’ll need to plug in somewhere before returning to your point of origin.
The map is also dotted with blue points that show you where a charging station is. Off to the east, we saw a dense cluster of blue dots representing Raleigh, but there were three within range to the north that we elected to visit. Our thoughts on each are as follows:
- Located at the McDonald’s on Kildaire Farm Road, the first stop was uninviting. The charging station was tucked away in the corner of the parking lot, and the parking spaces in front of the charger were marked as handicap spots. The charger itself was locked down, and the hedges around it were overgrown making it hard to see. As far as we can tell, the only reason to stop at this location would be to grab a quick bite to eat.
- The charging station in front of the Cary Public Works & Utilities building had much better presentation. Both spaces with access to the charger were marked for EVs, and the station was free for use. The only disadvantage here was a lack of options for things to do while your car charges.
- Our final stop was just outside the SAS Institute. Access to SAS Campus proper is restricted, but we did find an entire row of EV spots with several charging stations outside the front office. These are probably meant for SAS employees, but we’re no less impressed by the implicit encouragement to drive a sustainable vehicle to work.
We should note that it was easy to find all of these thanks to the Leaf’s onboard navigation. Just by bringing up the map and tapping on the next charging station, the car asked if we wanted directions to that location. We said yes, and off we went.
More important than the individual destinations was the journey itself. We were surprised by how easy it was to get used to the Leaf. While driving other EVs, we’ve come to expect the sudden burst of torque and speed offered by an electric motor, but the Leaf seemed to be more reigned in. We would step on the accelerator and only be able to fill in half of the circles on the power output meter.
Even the Leaf’s gear shifter sets it apart from other cars. Rather than a stick or a row of buttons, you change gears by swiveling a tiny lever. You can select Drive mode as usual, but the Leaf also has a Brake mode. Brake mode not only increases brake response, but it also engages the brakes as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. This is great for parking lots where you might want to be a bit more conservative with your movement, and it has the effect of greatly increasing the effectiveness of regenerative braking.
We wound our way through downtown Cary, past the elementary school and the arts center, on up through well-foliated neighborhoods. No doubt this is the Leaf’s natural habitat, a series of quiet, curving roads that can easily confound the best sense of direction.
Our puzzlement over the Leaf’s apparent restraint was answered when about halfway through our drive we realized the car had been in Eco mode since the start. If you’re wondering what Eco mode can do for an EV, the answer is it significantly limits acceleration. As soon as we turned that off, we discovered the zippy, fleet-footed car we expected to be driving from the start.
Beltline commuters should not doubt the Leaf’s abilities there, either. On our return to the dealership from SAS, we took I-40 to 64 and the car didn’t struggle in the least. The noise insulation doesn’t quite hold up on the highway, but at least you won’t have a wailing engine adding to the din. No one was honking at us and we had no trouble maintaining speed, though we would recommend keeping it in normal drive instead of brake mode.
Our afternoon in the Leaf was enjoyable. It’s easy to imagine zooming in and around the Triangle in one of these. We know that an electric vehicle is not the only car a family will have – not yet. As a grocery getter, a compact commuter, and a carpool carrier it succeeds at every turn with little more than the soft humming of the electric motor. Nissan has designed and built a car that is practical, affordable, and conscientious. Let our dealership know if you’re interested in test driving one today.
We want to thank John Felten and the rest of the staff at Leith Nissan for making our test drive possible. If you have any questions about the 2015 Nissan Leaf, feel free to call our dealership or visit our website.