Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Nissan Leaf electric car

It would be easy to paint Nissan as late to the burgeoning U.S. green party, as the company essentially only counts the Altima Hybrid to sell among its alt-fuel offerings – and that sedan utilizes technology borrowed from Toyota, and it's only sold in a few states in small volumes. While that may be the case, Nissan says their near-term prospects are really quite different. While the company has admittedly been cautious in marketing alt-fuel vehicles in North America, they have been hard at work developing electric vehicles – as well as the advanced lithium-ion batteries to support them – since 1992. What's more, officials say they are now singularly well-placed to leapfrog "transitional" powertrain solutions like gas-electric hybrids in favor of genuine zero-emissions vehicles, and they are promising that their first pure-electric car will reach U.S. shores late next year.

That car, the Nissan Leaf shown here, is the reason we find ourselves in the company's brand-new Yokohama headquarters today. Designed as a four-to-five seat, front-drive C-segment hatchback, Nissan says the Leaf is not just for use as a specialty urban runabout, but rather, it was designed as an everyday vehicle – a "real car" whose 160-kilometer+ (100 mile) range meets the needs of 70% of the world's motorists. In the case of U.S. consumers, Nissan says that fully 80% of drivers travel less than 100km per day (62 miles), making the Leaf a solid fit for America's motoring majority, even taking into account power-sapping external factors like hilly terrain, accessory draw, and extreme temperatures.

We were afforded an advance look at the Leaf ahead of the car's unveiling today, and while it was a hands-off affair, we did have the chance to formulate some in-the-metal first impressions and take a deep dive into the car's technology. Click through to the jump to learn all about it.


As we noted, it would be fair to say that in North America, at least, Nissan has been something of a laggard in publicly promulgating and promoting an alternative fuel strategy. Instead, in recent years, the Japanese automaker has seemingly focused on burnishing its performance image, bringing powerhouse offerings like the GT-R and the 370Z to market – not to mention augmenting their lineup with accomplished new crossovers and luxurious Infiniti vehicles. Not that we're complaining, mind, but the company's apparent focus on these segments has had us wondering about how the automaker views its long-term energy responsibilities and prospects.

 During that same time period, Nissan's fellow countrymen at Toyota and Honda have made very public strides in not only offering hybrid vehicles, but also marketing the lifestyle and successfully positioning themselves as benevolent, eco-friendly corporations. Similarly, European automakers like Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz have invested heavily and openly in clean-diesel technology, and American automakers have produced a startling number of keenly fuel-efficient gasoline-engined models, not to mention hybrids and scads of E85-capable vehicles - all while publicly priming us for extended-range offerings like the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt. Nissan says they have a lot of alternative propulsion vehicles in the pipeline for America – including hybrids – but the Leaf is the first concrete evidence we have of that commitment.

A Question of Style

Interestingly, unlike the current alt-fuel darlings from Toyota and Honda, Nissan has purposefully eschewed a fastback shape for a more formal five-door appearance. Shiro Nakamura, Nissan's senior vice president and chief creative officer (read: styling director) admits he wanted the car to be unique, but not so bizarre as to be off-putting to most car buyers:

"From the beginning, we did not want to make the car very strange, because one of the perceptions of the EV [is that] people think that EVs are toys, or cheap... that you cannot drive high-speed, that EV means 'not real car.' But the car we have is a real car – you can drive it at 140 kilometers, you can sit four or five passengers comfortably.

By that measure, the more upright yet unique Leaf is a success – it is a slippery shape with real passenger space, yet it doesn't resort to visually polarizing aerodynamic tricks like faired-in wheel housings and to maximize aero. Instead, it has a smooth face (secreting two charging ports hiding beneath the Nissan logo), strangely prominent blue-tinted headlamps that manage airflow as much as they do nighttime vision, and a roofline whose rearmost pillar reminds us of another Nissan – the Murano. The Leaf has an almost Gallic rump that recalls that of the Versa, a design that in turn reminds us of offerings from Nissan's European partner, Renault.

Underbody aero management has also been a clear priority, as the Leaf looks to have a nearly smooth belly thanks to the flat battery-pack subframe, and there are functional diffuser elements beneath the rear bumper cap to detach air from the car. It might have been wishful thinking, but we also couldn't help noticing that the alloy wheel pattern we were shown reminds us of those employed on many Nineties-era 300ZX models. At the end of the day, we wouldn't call the Leaf's exterior pretty, but neither would we call it offensive – not unlike the Prius and Insight, then.

The interior is at once handsome and spacious, with what appears to be plenty of room both front and rear for real-sized adults, and the cargo area is very deep, as it is unencumbered by a gas tank assembly (the batteries are mounted beneath the seats within the wheelbase). The center stack is production and looks slick, but its smooth finish flush buttons may also be hard to operate by feel on the move. The digital instrument cluster display and the drive controller (we can't really call it a gearshift in an EV now, can we?) are also production pieces, and they look well finished and inviting, as does the interior as a whole.

While there will probably be a few discreet changes to the Leaf (non-showcar paint, slightly different interior fabrics, etc.), this isn't a concept vehicle – Nissan assured us that you are looking at the Real McCoy, the vehicle headed for select American, Japanese, and European showrooms next year.

 Lithium Ion Becomes a Reality:

Powered by a unique array of thin, laminated lithium ion cells capable of delivering over 90 kW of power, the Leaf's front-mounted electric motor delivers 80 kW (107 horsepower) and a healthy 280 Nm of torque (208 pound-feet), and it promises brisk and silent off-the-line power, with acceleration from a stop comparable to that of the company's Infiniti G35. And as Nakamura-san noted, the Leaf has a top speed of over 140 km/h (87 mph).

Perhaps more important than the Leaf's top speed are its battery's charging characteristics. In this regard, the car's under-floor mounted assembly of 48 lithium ion modules (each laptop-sized module is comprised of four magazine-sized cells) offers a number of charging strategies. To yield a full charge, a 200-volt, single-phase AC charger takes less than eight hours, and topping off the battery from a 100 volt single-phase standard home wall outlet will take somewhere around twice that time, so prospective Leafmakers would do well to get 220 volt hookup like their clothes dryer uses out in their garage.

 More impressive is the battery pack's 50 kW AC fast-charge capability, which is capable of accepting an 80% charge in less than 30 minutes, or an extra 50 km (31 miles) worth of range in about 10 minutes. For that, though, you'll need access to a special dedicated (and at around $45,000 – expensive) three-phase charger, which various cities around the globe have begun installing as part of their own greening strategies. The executives we spoke with says they are working with local governments in the States and around the world to help build supporting infrastructure, but they admit the automaker has no plans to financially support the networks themselves, and fast chargers like the one we experienced in Yokohama are clearly cost-prohibitive for private ownership.

Make no mistake, though, as despite clever construction methods, the Leaf's batteries remain heavy, at around 200 kg per car (over 440 pounds). Despite this, Nissan projects that the car's total weight will be similar to that of a comparable gas car because the electric motor is lighter than a traditional internal-combustion engine and because there is no need for a conventional transmission. Of course, there is the added bulk of a power inverter, but on the whole, Nissan believes the car's center-of-gravity will be lower than an I.C. car, so handling might actually be better than the aforementioned Versa.


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