The Nissan Leaf, an electric car that doesn't drive like an electric car.

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Jan. 4 2011 5:05 PM

Prius Killer

The Nissan Leaf, an electric car that doesn't drive like an electric car.

Nissan Leaf car. Click image to expand.
Nissan Leaf 

A few months ago, my wife and I went out to test-drive a Toyota Prius. Before we got behind the wheel, we made it clear to the dealer that the drive was a mere formality. We'd recently moved to the Northern California suburbs and had already gone through the agonizing decision between cloth and compostable baby diapers, so buying a Prius seemed to be the obvious next step in life.

As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot, though, our dreams of green driving began to fall apart. For one thing, we couldn't see anything out of the back window. To keep the tail of the Prius aerodynamic, Toyota's engineers split the curved rear glass into two separate sections that are interrupted by a large plastic bar, reducing visibility to nil. We were also bothered by the Prius's lethargy; sure, we weren't expecting a sports car, but in its handling and overall responsiveness, the Prius feels scarcely different from a minivan. Prius fans are fond of pointing out that the newest model has one of the lowest coefficients of drag ever achieved on a production vehicle, but they neglect to mention that the car gets this cred because it drives like a drag. The Prius never lets you forget that it is a special kind of vehicle, one dedicated to saving the earth rather than giving you a great ride.

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I got to thinking about my bad time with the Prius last week, as I took the wheel of the fantastic new Nissan Leaf. The Leaf, which was launched in December, and which I recently got to test-drive for a week, is the first mass-market electric car to go on sale in the United States. (It was quickly joined by the Chevy Volt, which made its first deliveries to customers just a few days after the Leaf.)  

The Leaf consumes no gasoline. Instead, you charge its raft of lithium-polymer batteries by plugging the car into a special charging station installed in your garage. (It can also be charged at one of the many dedicated stations that are popping up around the country, or even a standard wall plug.) The biggest drawback to plug-in cars is their limited range. Nissan says you'll be able to drive about 100 miles on a fully charged battery, but that's just an estimate—depending on your speed, your driving style, the road conditions, the weather, and the age of your battery, you could get anywhere from 70 to 140 miles on a charge.

You might fear driving a car that could leave you stranded when you stray too far from electricity, but after a few hours in the Leaf, I stopped worrying. That's partly because of the Leaf's extremely informative display, which lets you know how many more miles you've got in the can and how you can change your driving style and other comforts (say, turn off the climate system) in order to get more. But I also stopped worrying because of how the Leaf feels—like a regular car, something that doesn't ride like it's trying to save the polar bears. According to the EPA, the Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon—106 MPG in the city and 92 MPG on the highway, with an estimated annual electricity cost of $561. That would make the Leaf about twice as efficient as the Prius. More important for its long-term viability, though, is that it's twice as fun.

The first thing you notice about the Leaf is how it looks and feels like a normal car. A five-door hatchback, it resembles the Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit; its bug-eyed headlights are the only outward feature that suggests something vaguely futuristic, and I actually hope Nissan tones them down in future versions. On the inside, the Leaf is comfortable, roomy, and deafeningly silent even at maximum speeds. We managed to fit four adults and a baby seat, plus a stroller and groceries in the trunk with no problem. Rear visibility isn't occluded, and the driver's seat is a dream, offering control of most of the car's features on the steering wheel.

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