Testing the Leaf on Nissan’s Yokohama track

Dawn broke early this morning in Yokohama, and I was awake to see it since I was still on west coast time. I also couldn’t sleep given this was the day I would finally get to drive the actual Leaf EV, not a converted mule like those I’d driven before.

Nissan flew Marc Geller and me, along with a few auto journalists and bloggers from around the world, to Japan on Monday for a Leaf immersion. We got started early with a hearty breakfast followed by a short bus ride through this large industrial city hard to Tokyo’s southern city limits. The streets were amazingly clear of traffic, at least compared to any large American city I’ve visited. Marc speculated that it might be due to a good mass transit system. Also missing was even a hint of graffiti. Wish that were true of the U.S.

We arrived at Nissan’s test track and were brought into a building where we received a thorough overview of the Leaf, along with instructions on how to avoid hitting the birds on the backstretch (hint: stop the car immediately!).

We were each given up to 30 minutes behind the wheel on the track, and I drew the lucky straw to be first. A very nice engineer who had designed many of the exterior features of the car was my instructor. He walked me through the starting process which essentially consisted of pushing a button that triggered a melodic series of notes, one of three you can choose to hear when you start your Leaf. Putting the car in drive is accomplished by nudging the round knob toward you and back, not unlike the dash mounted device on the Prius, but this one is located precisely where your hand naturally rests, so there is no reaching for it.

Ergonomically, the car is a dream. Everything inside seemed to fit my frame perfectly, and I suspect it will for most people. I tried the back seat and there was ample leg room and plenty of head room. Three adults could easily fit in the back seat.

The interior of the car is gorgeous! Like most Japanese cars these days, Nissan is taking pains to make sure as much recycled product is used to manufacture the interior panels, seat fabric and most everything else inside the car. The result feels good tactically and emotionally.

Once I had adjusted the mirrors and fastened the seat belt, it was time to drive. With cameras rolling I glided out of the staging area and onto the track’s main straight away, flooring it to see what kind of kick it had. Since I’d driven the GM Volt not too long ago, I could fairly compare the two in terms of acceleration. I’d give the nod to the Volt on that score, but just barely. The Leaf had plenty of power in the lower speeds, but it leveled out just a tad as I got over 60. I didn’t try to hit the top speed, but did get over 70 quickly and it was still pulling strong as I let off. On the third lap, I was feeling like I could push the curvy section and did. The car responded perfectly, hugging the road and steering predictably. I learned later that this is a consequence of having the bulk of the weight distributed tightly in the lower center of the car. This eliminates yaw of the vehicle when turning hard. An internal combustion car’s front end will pull to the outside since the heavy engine is toward the front of the car. One final test was an emergency brake. I warned the co-pilot so he wouldn’t freak out and slammed on the brakes. Just as with the RAV, the stopping ability was very strong. This seems to have something to do with combining the regen of the motor with the disc brakes. It really gives you peace of mind knowing it’ll stop so well.

My co-pilot insisted I roll up the windows while we drove so he could demonstrate how quiet the car was. I’ve driven several EVs over the years, but nothing comes close to being as quiet as my RAV, that is until I drove this Leaf. Total silence, well, except for the tinnitus, but that’s all in my head so it doesn’t count. I even forgot about the controversial noise that the federation for the blind has insisted be added to all electric vehicles. Many in the EV community have tried to fight the move to add noise to these quiet cars since we think it’s not really needed, but legislation is before Congress to do just that. Both Nissan and GM have given in to the demand and added noise to their respective EVs when they are driven at low speeds. After I got out, I didn’t recall hearing the noise, so I asked them to demonstrate it. They brought a small gas car, the Nissan Versa, and a Leaf to a separate area and had first the gas car drive slowly toward us, then the Leaf. I could barely hear either of them, but the Leaf did have an audible noise. If you clicked that link, you heard the noise for both going forward and backing up. It sounds very loud in the you tube video, and that’s why so many of us got upset that Nissan added such a noise, but in reality, it’s barely audible when you’re outside the car, and pretty much not audible at all from in the car with the windows rolled up. If there is ambient noise on the street, you probably won’t hear it at all. The back up noise is about twice as loud, however, and was a bit obnoxious to me. Both noises can be turned off with the push of a button once the car is on, so it won’t be a big problem unless or until the legislation passes and then they’ll probably have to eliminate the button that disables the noise on future models.

Here’s a picture of the small solar panel you get if you buy the SL version. The energy generated by the panel will help maintain a charge in the car’s auxiliary battery to power in-vehicle devices. It’s a nice touch and helps people understand that they can power the car’s traction battery pack by installing a larger solar PV system on their house.

This photo shows a design of the Leaf that some have found unappealing, the head lamps. We learned today that they were designed to divert the airflow around the side mirrors to improve the coefficient of drag and reduce wind noise. The photo they showed from the wind tunnel seemed to prove the efficiency of the design.

They had three Leafs driving constantly over the course by the 2 dozen invited guests, with most everyone pushing the car to its limits over and over. After we were finished, they plugged in to a couple of 50 kW chargers to replenish the energy. I’d never seen an EV charge so fast! The Tesla HPC charges at about 18 kW and my RAV charges at 6.6 kW. This 50 kW charger took the Leaf’s battery pack to 80% full in less than 20 minutes, then the amperage automatically dropped to top off the battery safely. The Leaf is initially coming out with a 3.3 kW charger, but will eventually be built with a 6.6 kW charger. However, as slow as 3.3 kW is, as long as you have one of the Aerovironment fast chargers available near your house, you’ll always be able to get charged up in a matter of minutes (the one shown here is a Nissan built charger). Several dozen will be installed in the initial roll out cities with hundreds more planned as the number of Leafs grows throughout the first year. Eventually, there will be thousands of fast chargers along the freeways and inside of cities everywhere. All you’ll have to do is drive to your favorite coffee shop and plug in. By the time you’ve sipped your latte, your car will be full.

The day was capped off with a big dinner on the 70th floor of Yokohama’s tallest building. Nissan’s top executives were sprinkled throughout the room with our table being graced by Nissan’s super-friendly COO, Toshiyuki Shiga. Marc and I bent his ear for most of the dinner, then he was replaced with Hideaki Watanabe, Corporate VP and lastly with Andy Palmer, Senior VP, Product Planning. These executives have bet the bank on the success of their EV program, and Marc and I were happy to tell them their bet is safe.

If you haven’t already deposited $99 to get a place in line, go here and do so today.

Thursday, we have lunch with CEO, Carlos Ghosn. I can’t wait…

Paul Scott

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