Review: Nissan Leaf (rental)

posted by Jeff | Friday, June 21, 2013, 9:44 PM | comments: 1

I had to make a last-minute trip to Orlando this week. When I checked rental car prices, Enterprise was $2 over the cheapest, and I had a good previous experience with them. So I went to their site because you can typically be more precise about the car you get. To my surprise, at the same rate, I could get a Nissan Leaf. So I figured, why not? I've always wanted to drive a purely electric car.

The Leaf is a commuter car. It has a battery that can get you around 70 miles of range, and as much as 100. Temperature, driving habits, air conditioning, weight, etc., can all affect the actual range. Since I was planning to go to and from my hotel, and scope out some residential areas, I figured that 70 miles was enough.

First, I have to talk about the driving. Holy crap. The acceleration curve is very steep. On any of the many stops I had at the front of the line, on those six-lane "parkway" roads that criss-cross Orlando, flooring it caused the car to just completely take off. You could feel the G's. Every time I did it, I was surprised, just getting to the speed limit, how the cars behind me were very behind me. If you've ever driven one of those competitive electric go karts, it's a little like that, only bigger. I've driven fancy cars with big engines, but nothing feels quite like this. It's really fun to drive.

Many of the hypermiling techniques you would use in a Prius (coasting, gradual acceleration and braking, avoiding hard stops, etc.) apply here in pretty much the same way. You can coax more range out of it. If you've driven a Prius, the weird part comes where the "engine" never kicks in. It's the same feeling of a smooth, continuously variable transmission, but without the transition.

Keep in mind, this is a car designed for commuting, where you plug it in at night at your house. Staying in a hotel, I obviously didn't have that option. Well, I suppose I could have found a plug in the landscaping around the hotel, but that probably wouldn't be appropriate. I didn't entirely think that through, and since I was driving it for performance, I was hardly trying to conserve battery life. There came a point where I had to stop my exploration around town and return to the hotel, knowing I needed about 20 miles of range to get me back to the airport, with a little buffer.

However, with nothing to do Wednesday night, I had the realization that, crap, I was stuck because I needed that charge to get to the airport. I did a quick search to see if there happened to be any charging stations at a destination I would want to go to. By some strange coincidence, there were two of them at Give Kids The World Village! Perfect! I could go hang out with my best friend (she works there) and volunteer, while my car charged. Score! I arrived at the village with 8 miles (8%) to spare. I had driven 88 miles at that point, so I was on pace for a 96 mile range.

Charging most of the way took under two hours, with the last 10% or so taking the longest. What I thought was really cool was that there are three huge LED's over the dash, visible from the front, that indicate the charge level as if it were a giant cell phone. The third one was already blinky after 60 minutes.

As far as the range issue goes, I think 70 miles is actually pretty adequate when you can plug it in at home. Another 20 or 30 would be nice, but the car already has a base price of $21k (and consider another $2k or so to have a charger installed... plugging in to the wall takes too long), so I'm not sure what impact that would have. If you're a two-car family, and you use the Leaf for commuting, groceries and tooling around town, there isn't a single reason why this would not be a solid car for that purpose.

The car itself is very comfortable. Mine had heated seats (in Florida!), navigation, XM, etc. The materials seem pretty durable and solid. Cargo room was oddly large with a very deep trunk, presumably because there is no gas tank. The batteries are in a T-shape under the back seat and center console. The big flat unit under the Tesla Model S seems like a better design. I thought the front seats were roomy, and my 6-foot-tall friend didn't seem squished, but I doubt the back seat would be very comfortable for adults.

Again, it's a lot of fun to drive, and I find myself really, really interested in having one. It's not to "save money on gas," because you're not thinking straight if you think that's possible. You buy this car because you want an electric car and you like to hug trees or something. The only considerable negative that I can really think of is that if you need to move it out of the metro area you live in, you'll need to have it transported. Beyond that, I think it would be a fun commuter car, especially for a single driver.



June 21, 2013, 10:55 PM #

Thanks for the writeup! Some of my coworkers have electric cars (Leaf, one Tesla S on order but he's moved so that won't show up in our lot), and a few have plug-in hybrids (Volt, Prius), but it's great to hear about the viability of renting from an outfit like Enterprise.

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