As MNN’s home blogger, you may think that I have no business writing about cars especially considering that I live in New York City and don’t even own a car — my last steady ride was a ’81 Volvo GL from my high school days — and only sporadically get behind the wheel. Some folks are surprised to learn that I can actually drive.
When Nissan invited me to visit company HQ outside of Nashville and get behind the wheel of the 2011 Nissan Leaf, of course I jumped at the chance to experience the revolutionary, tailpipe-less wonder that MNN’s resident transportation expert, Jim Motavalli, has been reporting on for some time now.
When you think about it, my blogging about the emission-free Nissan Leaf isn’t completely off topic given that it has a much more intimate relationship with the home than other cars. After all, as the world's first all-electric vehicle that runs on a battery, you plug the Leaf into a 220/240 volt port at home at night— ideally in a garage — to charge it much like a cell phone. Essentially, your home acts as the Leaf's primary filling station.
According to Nissan, a full at-home charge takes 8 hours and will add about $2.75 (about the cost of a gallon of gasoline) to an electric bill per charge based on the national average electricity cost of $0.1147/kWh. Not too shabby when you think about the financial horror that occurs after filling up a car with a full tank of gas. However, it's important to remember that a full tank of gas in a fuel-efficient car will get you much further than a fully charged Leaf battery since the range of the car is only about 100 miles/charge based on upon US EPA LA4 City cycle.
On the topic of range, MNN Lifestyle blogger Siel cleverly noted after her Leaf test drive, “for now, Leaf owners will have to treat their cars like homing pigeons, making sure to come back home to charge up every night.” While public charging stations where Leaf owners will be able to “fill ‘er up” in 30 minutes or less via a Quick Charge Port do exist they obviously aren't as plentiful as petrol stations at this point, particularly outside of California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Tennessee, the states where the Leaf will first be sold next month.
Back at home, it should be noted that the 220/240V home charging dock is not included in the Leaf’s sticker price … which by the way starts at $32,780 but drops significantly, to as low as $25,280, after federal tax credits are taken advantage of (there’s also generous state tax credits available). Outfitting your garage with AeroVironment’s home charging dock requires a professional evaluation of your home's electrical system with installation costs setting you back $2,200. However, after Federal tax credits are applied, the total cost drops down to $200.
There’s also a portable trickle-charger that can be used with any standard, three-prong 110/120V household outlet that will charge the Leaf in 18 to 20 hours although Nissan does not recommend relying on this method. Additionally, the Leaf is equipped with an optional photovoltaic solar panel spoiler that can charge a 12-volt battery for car accessories.
So this brings me to the big question: What if you don’t have a garage? What if you live in an apartment building? Well, you may be out of luck. While the home charging dock is waterproof and can be installed outside of a home — in a carport or on the side of a house facing a driveway, for example — those with dedicated private garages have a distinct upper hand in Leaf ownership. For those who live in apartment complexes with garages, Nissan recommends talking to the building's owner about the possibility of installing a charging port.
You could rely strictly on public infrastructure — and the trickle-charger for emergency situations — but that’s obviously a crapshoot especially for non-Californians. So when it comes down to it, unlike non-electric cars that you can park just about anywhere, your home really does play an integral part in owning a Leaf.
And you're probably curious about my own personal experiences test driving the Leaf. Long story short, I liked it! Again, I’m no auto aficionado and won't pretend that I really knew what was going on during the pre-test drive presentation (click here for more detailed specs). But I can confidently say that driving the Leaf was a smooth, comfy (the interior fabric is made partially from recycled PET) and super-duper quiet (there’s an “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians” system installed in each car) experience.
I was out and about in the Leaf for around 30 minutes along a course that took me through the winding, lonely back roads of Tennessee and on a major freeway. I must admit that for someone accustomed to operating a Volvo from the early '80s — when power windows were super cutting-edge! — there was a lot going on on the Leaf’s dashboard. Still, I was only slightly overwhelmed by all these bells and whistles. So if I could figure it out, I'm guessing the majority of the car-driving public can.
And when it comes to the car's exterior, the Leaf’s unfussy hatchback design makes it feel like a “real” car designed for real people, not some space-age curiosity reserved for tech-savvy treehuggers.
Would I ever buy a Nissan Leaf, an easy-to-drive car that comes with a gentle price tag and some serious eco-cred? Sure, I would ... if I lived in California and owned a home (preferably with a solar system or with the help of RECs to negate the cost/slight eco-impact of charging the Leaf at home) with an attached garage. And if I liked Lance Armstrong.
But I don't. For those who live in the states where the Leaf will first be sold next month — the car will be unrolled in Texas and Hawaii in January 2011 followed by North Carolina, Florida, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Georgia in the spring of 2011 — would you ever (or have you already) purchase a Leaf? Or does its dependency on home-charging give you pause?