Putting the Nissan LEAF to the Test

Enter to win a Sunshine Kids Radian XTSL car seat just like the ones we fit into the Nissan LEAF!

When I pulled into the carwash to clean up our test 2011 Nissan LEAF, I thought it might be useful to explain to the attendant that this car was 100% electric and thus a little different than the cars she was typically used to seeing.  She immediately informed me, “Make sure you leave the keys in the vehicle and I push the button on the dash.  They are all the same.”

That got me thinking, will most people view this vehicle as more of a logical evolution of the automobile rather than something that would only appeal to a select niche audience?

This vehicle is certainly unique in that it never uses any gasoline, unlike the Chevy Volt, but how does it perform as a normal car?  Given that the “F” in LEAF stands for “Family Car”, we thought we would not only explore how it drives but explore how it performs carrying things like car seats and strollers.

We have already given some initial details about the car in an earlier review but Nissan was kind enough to allow us a few days with the vehicle to explore how it would function within the day-to-day demands of family life.

Does the Nissan Leaf really work as a family vehicle?

Interior Space in the Nissan LEAF

First, I should state that we are a family of 5.  Given that I am 6’3” and we have 3 boys, ages 7, 5 and 3, I will openly state that there are few vehicles that fit our entire family comfortably.

I anticipated right from the beginning that fitting all of us in a 5 door hatchback was going to be a lot like fitting 20 clowns in a circus car.  As it turns out, the Nissan LEAF surprised me.

I had absolutely no trouble getting comfortable.  I immediately put the driver seat all the way back and was shocked that an average size person could still sit behind me.  The seats, made out of recycled water bottles, were comfortable and supportive.

…But Would Car Seats Fit?

I believe that there is no excuse for not keeping your kids as safe as possible.  In my book, that including having all my kids in car seats or boosters (yes, even the 7 year old).

That meant that in order for the LEAF to work as an effective family car for us, we would need to be able to fit 3 car seats in the back seat.

This is a tight fit in any 5 passenger car and in the back seat of the Nissan LEAF is only 47-48 inches across, which makes it especially challenging. Any two car seats would be fine with that width but don’t expect to fit anyone in between them.  Our task of fitting 3 across was going to require narrower car seats.

After a phone call to Russ Berger at Sunshine Kids, we had 3 Radian XTSL seats on their way.  The Radians are some of the narrowest seats on the market at only 17 inches wide and still meet or exceed all the federal crash test standards.

The Radian XTSL car seats also offers the first NCAP tested, high capacity LATCH system for use up to 80 pounds without the use of a seat belt and you can use the 5-point harness system up to that 80 lb limit.

This means that my 7 year old who weighs 57 lbs is still within limits of the LATCH system and the 5-point harness.  Even though he does not legally need to use the 5-point harness, you can see from the pictures that the seats are placed so close together in this configuration that trying to reach in between the seats to buckle a seat belt each time would be very challenging.  Using the 5-point harness is simply easier it seems ideal for our application.

As long as they were not picking on each other, we found the back seat to be a very comfortable place for 3 kids in the Radians. The LEAF utilizes stadium seating, meaning that the back seat sits higher than the front seat, similar to most movie theaters.

The reason for this is the battery packs sit under the floor and the rear seat.  This gave all of our kids a great view out of the windows along with easy access to the window controls (luckily Nissan thought to include child locks for both the windows and the rear doors).

Objective number one accomplished…3 car seats will work!

…What About The Trunk?

As all parents know, kids come with a lot of stuff. This includes everything from diapers to strollers and tons of items in between. The family vehicle needs to be able to carry it all.  The LEAF is a hatchback, which usually helps cargo capacity but we figured the best way to gauge what it could hold would be to show you.

We fit an Aprica Presto umbrella stroller, a Britax B-ready with second seat and a Joovy Cocoon double jogging stroller.  All with room for groceries left over. The deep trunk of the LEAF makes fitting just about anything the kids might need easy. Objective number two accomplished…it will carry your gear!

…But What About the Range?

Chevy has trademarked the term “Range Anxiety” as a means of referring to being restricted to the 100 mile range that electric vehicles such as the Nissan LEAF possess. Nissan estimates that over 90% of people do not drive more than 100 miles a day. I would agree with that statistic but it is still a concern of many people and without an established charging infrastructure, the LEAF can’t be used for that long road trip.

When I picked up the LEAF, Nissan had it fully charged for me. I found that when I first started driving it I was very cautious to watch the range gauge, monitor my speed and minimize use of the climate control system. That fear quickly disappeared as I realized that I had plenty of battery life to get to everywhere I was going regardless of how I drove it (I guess I fit in that 90% stat).

Nissan has created 3 ways to charge the vehicle. They expects that most people will install a 220/240 volt charger in their garage (at an additional cost of approx. $1,000-2000) to take advantage of off-peak electricity rates and having the vehicle charged each morning (approx. 8 hours). They are also including what I heard called a “flat tire” charger, meaning that it is a 110/120 volt charger that plugs into any wall plug.  This method is more of an emergency use as it will take almost twice as long as the 220/240 volt method but it provides reassurance as you can charge it almost anywhere.

The final option involves opting for an optional $700 rapid charging port on the vehicle and enables the vehicle the capability of using commercial rapid charging stations. These chargers will likely be deployed along major interstates and will allow the LEAF the capability to get an 80% charge in around 30 minutes making those road trips much more possible.

In my area of San Diego, I hear that there will be over 1000 220/240 volt charging stations and 60 rapid charging stations deployed by June 11, 2011. If these are placed in locations that people regularly frequent such as Costco, Best Buy or public parking garages that quickly makes it easy to increase your range beyond that 100 mile cap.

My response to “range anxiety” after living with the car for a few days is look at how many miles you drive on a daily basis. You will likely be just fine. I would recommend seriously consider installing the 220/240 volt home charger. If you are looking for a road trip car, you’ll have to wait for a later generation but you might at some point be able to make it work with rapid chargers.

…How Does It Drive?

The LEAF is silent. You only hear the wind and the tires on the pavement. It is so silent that Nissan manufactured a sound to let people know it is coming at low speeds. They coupled a back-up beep with a rear camera to make it safer in reverse as well.

Most people hear electric car and they think of a golf cart. They don’t think of speed. The truth is that an electric motor has 100% torque from right off the line. It has no need to rev to a certain RPM’s like a gasoline engine in order to find its power.

Up to about 40 mph, I feel it feels about the same as many 6-cylinder cars. Past 40 mph, it may be more like a 4-cylinder car but it still has enough power to easily exceed any posted speed limit in the country.

How Much Does It Cost?

The Nissan LEAF starts at an M.S.R.P. of $32,780, however, The Federal government is offering a $7500 tax credit making it as low as $25,280 net after tax savings or qualifying for $349 a month lease with $1999 initial payment (Nissan keeps the $7500 on the lease).  Various states are also offering additional incentives. The state of California, for one, offers a $5000 rebate check for buying the vehicle.

Nissan states that the average cost for a full charge is $2.75. I have heard reports of vehicles being charged during off-peak hours for as low as $1.00. How much does it cost you to drive 100 miles in your gas vehicle?

In addition to that, think about how much maintenance costs on a gasoline vehicle. The LEAF requires no oil changes, spark plugs, transmission fluid, or much else. The recommended service to 82k miles includes basically rotating the tires and changing the wipers. Nissan even expects the brakes to last longer given that the vehicle uses regenerative braking to charge the batteries instead of creating a lot of wear on the brakes.

Once you calculate all these costs and incentives, the LEAF’s pricing starts to look pretty appealing to me.

I feel that the LEAF is a great car! It is a real car and and even if it does not make the sound the Jetson’s car made (which I’ve heard rumors future owners have plans to try and create a hack that would do that), it is a great family car.  It will hold 3 car seats, a double stroller and all a family’s gear.  I’ve placed my order and my kids are ecstatic about saving the environment!


  1. 6

    Wayne Brady says

    Electric cars are terrible. They cause a LOT of pollution due to electrical signals and may even cause cancer in your children. Parents should stick to tried and true gasoline engines.

    • 7

      Conan O'Brian says

      You certainly live up to your name! You know what else causes cancer? Nitrogen oxides, which is what you get from burning gasoline. Unburnt gasoline is also hazardous to your health, not to speak of the carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide produced, acid rain, smog… the list goes on. Oh, you know most cars also produce and consume electricity? How do you think the A/C and stereo work? And oh wow, all those radio transmissions and GPS signals all bouncing around… it’s a small wonder we aren’t all walking tumors already.

      Whether battery-powered vehicles really are a viable alternative to internal combustion engines that use gasoline, or merely a temporary fix is a decently complex issue and worth a serious discussion. But if you’re going to reduce the issue to “OMG ELECTRIC CAR SCARY”… well, I’m afraid there isn’t much to talk about.


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