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.
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.
My favorite thing about the Leaf is its electronic display, which is dominated by a large range meter and several graphics that show how your driving habits are consuming power. Even though it has surprisingly powerful acceleration—step down on the pedal and the Leaf pounces into action, its electric engine delivering maximum torque much more quickly than a gas motor—the car manages to cajole you into taking it easy. As you drive efficiently—when you start up slowly from a dead stop, or coast, rather than speed up, to an upcoming stop—the Leaf's display adds more bars to a fir tree graphic on the display. The worse you drive, the smaller your tree gets. The Leaf thus turns driving into a kind of video game: You drive to grow your tree, or—if you prefer to think of it this way—to keep your tree from dying.
The Leaf won't work for everyone. If you park on the street or in an apartment building that won't let you install a charging station, you'll have a hard time keeping the car charged. (A fully depleted battery will charge in 7 hours at your home charging station, and it will take 30 minutes to get to 80 percent full at a dedicated outdoor charging station. You can also charge the Leaf using any standard household electrical outlet, but that option is painfully slow—it takes 21 hours to fully charge up your car when you plug it into the wall.) People who frequently drive long distances will also, of course, not get much use out of the Leaf. If your commute is less than about 40 miles each way, though—which accounts for just about everyone—you'll have no problem getting to and from work and doing some errands on a day's charge.
The other drawback is the price. The model I tested—which included a navigation system, a backup camera, Bluetooth connectivity, and an XM satellite radio receiver, among other features—sells for a suggested retail price of $35,430. Nissan says that various state and federal rebates will bring the price of new Leafs down to around $26,000, which is roughly comparable to the Prius and other hybrids—but far more than the Yaris, Fit, Volkswagen Golf, or other small gas-powered cars. You might make up for the higher cost in savings on fuel, but it could take a while; based on my driving habits, I calculated that it would take me about five years to recoup the difference. (Update, 1/4/11: Five years isn't too good, considering that the Leaf's battery will last between five and 10 years under normal use, according to Nissan; it's not clear how much you'll have to pay to get a new battery at that point.)
Still, the more I drove the Leaf, the more it seemed to represent something close to the future of automobiles. Over time, we'll certainly get better versions of cars like the Leaf—electric cars will go farther, faster (the Leaf's top speed is about 90 miles per hour), they'll become easier to charge, and they'll come in a wider range of shapes and sizes, and at lower prices, too. Social attitudes will also change. Over the last few years, we have all grown used to managing the power consumption of our electronic tools—I crank down the brightness of my laptop's screen to make it last throughout a cross-country flight, and I dutifully plug my phone in every night to make sure it's there for me in the morning. We'll soon adopt these same habits with our cars.
Besides, there are too many factors conspiring against the internal combustion engine to let it remain the exclusive propulsive force for cars. Electric motors are simply far more efficient than gasoline engines; the internal-combustion engine uses only a fraction of its fuel for forward motion (most of it is wasted on heat), while electric motors are 90 percent efficient. Today, that kind of efficiency sounds out of this world, and as you drive around in the Leaf—mine included an ostentatious "zero emission" sign plastered on one side—people will certainly notice you. I got many stares and appreciative honks from other drivers, and when I stopped, pedestrians would chat me up about how I liked the car. Often, I didn't know what to say. The Leaf feels just like any old car. It doesn't feel annoying, frustrating, or strangely out-of-this world in any way. And that's how it should be.