A new day has dawned, and purveyors of petroleum should be plenty nervous. Vehicles running on electricity have arrived and more are on the way from well-known brands such as Ford, BMW, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Smart.
But the EV that sets the benchmark for others to meet – because it’s the first one to be affordable, functional for five occupants and practical for everyday driving – is the Nissan Leaf.
For its groundbreaking zero-emissions potential and for reinforcing the notion that every vehicle, from EV to muscle car, must be fun to drive, the Leaf earns a spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list, the first EV to do so in the competition’s 17 years.
Of course, there’s the matter of range anxiety. With its 24 kWh lithium-ion battery pack fully charged, the Leaf can run for 100 miles (160 km). But the range plummets if cold or hot weather require steady use of the climate control.
The Leaf continually recalculates the anticipated range based on how aggressively it’s being driven and how much energy the HVAC system is consuming.
Herein lies the biggest compromise prospective Leaf customers must consider. Driving 2 miles (3.2 km) with the heat and defrost on actually might cost 10 miles (16 km) of range. The inverse can be true as well: One editor drove the Leaf several miles with HVAC off, but the range mysteriously never changed.
The Leaf forces consumers to rethink everything they know about mobility, and that’s not a bad thing. For instance, few people know exactly how far it is to their grocery store, dentist, favorite restaurant or workplace. A buyer of a Leaf will have to find that information and plan the route accordingly.
Gas stations are plentiful, but so is electricity. A 120V socket in your garage will charge a depleted battery in about 20 hours. Pony up a few thousand dollars for a 240V hard-wired charging station, and that charge comes in eight hours.
The Leaf isn’t for everybody – neither are muscle coupes and 4-wheel-drive SUVs – but it’s ideal for someone in a moderate climate with a short commute, limited spontaneous travel needs, a penchant for conservation and a second vehicle that can be driven long distances.
Nissan and other auto makers know these consumers exist, especially at a relatively modest price point of $25,280, with a federal tax credit. Plus, electricity for a Leaf costs $0.02 per mile, compared with $0.12 for a gas-powered car getting 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km), with fuel priced at $3 per gallon.
EVs have been around for more than a century, but not Li-ion batteries packing 24 kWh of power. The battery (48 modules positioned under the floor) sends power to the inverter, which converts energy to power the 80 kW AC synchronous motor, which turns the wheels through a single-speed reducer gear.
Nissan has done a masterful job tuning the technology to feel like a conventional car with an internal-combustion engine. The brake and accelerator pedals provide smooth, linear inputs to slow and propel the vehicle.
Unlike a conventional car, the Leaf delivers 100% of its torque from a standstill. With so much thrust readily available, the EV is a blast to drive, easily capable of pacing highway traffic with a top speed of 90 mph (145 km/h).
Early adopters of the Leaf generally are left to their own devices for charging at home, but certain states are establishing the infrastructure so buyers will be able to power up their EVs while they work or shop.
This is the car environmentally minded politicians want. Let’s see how many consumers will want it, too.
Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.