Nissan LEAF: My (very limited) test drive

Nissan’s all-electric LEAF is in town today for some test driving and a formal announcement of how the City of Houston/Reliant Energy/Nissan will partner to roll-out the car here later this year.
The roll-out announcement — which my colleague Sharon Hong will be writing about in Saturday’s paper — expands on their previously announced partnership with some other interesting details, such as assurances the city has an easy inspection/permitting process for installing the charging equipment in homes.* (see update at the very bottom)
The test-drive experience today was a bit underwhelming, however. We got to drive a car that was a Nissan Versa on the outside and inside the cab, but all the LEAF components under the hood. And we only got to drive it around a tiny loop in a parking lot at Reliant Stadium — no highway driving. Those test drives don’t happen until this summer, I found out.
If you want to see what the car’s body and interior will look like, we’ve got lots of LEAF photos from Nissan.
Given my expectations, today’s test was far from the full driving experience I hoped to report on. Nissan assures me it can drive and handle just like any other four-door compact at highway speeds of up to 90 mph. And it can do 0 to 40 faster than most V6s. But only Nissan engineers got to have that kind of fun in Houston today.
Having driven some other electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles at slow speeds, the test car didn’t feel like anything particularly new. Naturally it was very smooth, absolutely no jerkiness starting, accelerating or stopping. The steering was smooth and had the feel of a bigger car (unlike my wife’s Mazda Protégé, for example, which feels a bit like a go-cart at times). A few other test drivers spun the wheels — which is actually pretty easy to do since electric motors are all about torque.
The bottom line: Would I buy one? It’s still too early to say without a real price to go on, but for my daily needs (pick-up/drop-off two kids, highway driving, maybe out on an interview, 60 miles round-trip) it would fit my needs just fine.
If you submitted a question about the LEAF yesterday, you’ll find answers after the jump.

I was able to get answers to some of the reader questions from Mark Perry, Nissan’s director of Product Planning and Advanced Technology Strategy.

• How much will it cost?
They won’t reveal the price until later this year, but it’s supposed to be priced very similar to other compact four-door cars. In other words, Perry said, it is meant to compete on price with an identical gasoline-powered car.
With a gas/electric hybrid it can take several years of gasoline savings to pay for the premium one paid for the car over a comparably-sized conventional car. “We’re aiming to price it so the payback time on it will be zero,” Perry said.
• How long does it take to fully recharge the batteries if completely discharged?
If you use a 220 volt system (which will come with the car) about 8 hours. A 440 volt system (which would cost more) could do it in 2 hours. The car could also recharge just using the standard 110 volt plug from your existing home socket, but this would really be a trickle charge, Perry said, that could take up to 16 hours.
• How does using the A/C or heat affect that theoretical 100 mile range?
It depends on how cool you’re trying to keep the car but it can cut about 10 percent off of your distance (so knock you down to 90 miles). The engineer next to me during the test drive said running the heater actually takes a bigger bite and that it would be closer to 20 percent.
• Is regenerative braking used to recover the energy?
• Can it be used at 60 mph on Beltway 8 or Westpark Tollway on 70 mile roundtrip commutes?
Yes, it can go up to 90 mph (and probably faster) but is really set to optimize the range of the batteries.
• Can it be taken to an airport and left for a week or so without the battery losing a charge?
Yes. If you showed up at IAH in August with an 80 percent charge, left it at the Park-and-Ride while you flew to Tahiti, it would still be at 80 percent when you got back.
• How’s the interior roominess and useable trunk space?
I couldn’t actually sit in the real LEAF they had at Reliant Stadium (yeah, really), and the car we test drove was actually a Versa. But looking in the trunk it appeared one could fit an average baby stroller in and maybe a few grocery bags, or an entire large grocery shop for a family of four. I don’t think I could go car camping in it for a weekend with kids but my wife and I could go solo if we could use the back seat for a cooler or two and other items (like that’s going to happen anytime soon).
The driver and front passenger seats looked comfortable but a little confined/cockpit-like.
• Will it fit four adults comfortably? Can you squeeze a fifth adult into the back seat?
It seemed comfortable with four people. A fifth can fit in the middle seat in back but it would be tight. Perry said they made sure it could fit two golf bags easily.
• How many choices does a driver have in seat and steering wheel arrangement?
It has the full range of steering wheel and seat adjustments that any other small four-door car will have.
• Why isn’t Nissan also offering optional 6.6 kW chargers with the rollout, instead of only 3.3 kW?
They want to see how much interest there really is in a more expensive 6.6 kW system first. The typical Houston commuter will get home at night and still have 20 to 40 percent of their battery capacity left, so whether the battery is ready at 4 a.m. (on the 3.3 kW system) or midnight on the 6.6 kW charger won’t really matter to most people if they’re asleep.
• Will the production Leaf’s shifter have a “B” setting, to increase regenerative braking (like Mitsubishi’s iMiEV) so that drivers don’t have to ride (and burn out) their brakes when going down a long, steep slope?
• Can we add batteries to extend the range?
No, but the car is designed such that if you did add more battery cells you’d start to lose performance in terms of range. It’s engineered to get the maximum range possible.
• Will the computer that controls the vehicle be open source?
• Can we download performance data?
Yes, owners will have an interface that lets them download a variety of vehicle performance information onto a laptop.

* update *
Here’s an excerpt from a release the City of Houston put out about their expanding electric vehicle efforts:

” … the city intends to add 25 electric vehicles this year, bringing to 40 the total number of plug-in cars in the city’s fleet. It is also consolidating its motor pool, which should result in a 34 percent decrease in the size of the city fleet, 35,000 gallons of fuel savings and environmental benefits in the form of reduced emissions. “The city’s fleet currently consists of many older and underutilized vehicles with high maintenance costs and poor gas mileage,” said [Mayor Annise] Parker.
“A consolidated motor pool of younger, more fuel efficient vehicles reduce these costs and helps clean the air.”
Other steps taken by the city include installation of 10 electric vehicle charging stations downtown. Through a partnership with Reliant Energy, these fuel stations are offered to motorists free of charge throughout 2010.