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A Boring Conversation about the Nissan Leaf

By · December 01, 2009

Like a bloodless revolution, the transition to the new era of electric cars might be uneventful.

Nissan Leaf Mule in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Nissan gave test-drives of a Nissan Versa outfitted with the Nissan Leaf's electric drivetrain, in Santa Rosa, Calif.. (Photo: Bradley Berman.)

This morning, we got some time behind the wheel of a modified Nissan Versa outfitted with the Nissan Leaf’s electric drivetrain. The two-minute spin around the parking lot of the Sonoma County Water Agency, in Santa Rosa, Calif., was not much different than our ride last April, when the electric system was placed in a Nissan Cube. The latest Nissan Leaf “mule” feels more solid and refined with features more similar to the production vehicle— like the pop-back gear shifter (not unlike the Prius shifter), and an electrically controlled parking brake. There’s little doubt that the Leaf will be quick off the line, like most electric cars, but there’s not much else to report.

We spoke with Owen Thunes, senior project engineer for electric and fuel cell vehicles at Nissan’s Sacramento-based technical center, to learn what’s different about the new Nissan Leaf “mule” on national tour. Thunes studied engineering at UC Davis with Andy Frank, considered the godfather of the plug-in hybrid, and worked on the Nissan Altima Hybrid.

What’s different about this vehicle compared to the Cube mule from earlier this year?

This car has the correct proportions. We stretched the Versa to be the correct length of the Leaf. So, the footprint is the same. The drive components are almost identical to what the production vehicle is going to be. The size, feel and shape are a lot closer.

What does the new mule show you?

You get a much better sense of acceleration, performance, handling, and the general feel of the car. [At our Sacramento technical center], we drive the car everyday. We try to replicate what a consumer might do, freeway, traffic jams, cities, suburbs. We’re not kind to it. We leave it outside parked in the sun. We leave it parked outside in the cold. We drive it just like a normal car.

What are you discovering?

We’re discovering how real of a car it is. What’s kind of amusing, and not expected, is how quick it is. When you feel like you’re just driving normally, you look behind you, and everyone is still at the stoplight. You suddenly realize that you’re going much too fast, because the characteristic of the motor is maximum torque at zero rpm. So, you just take off. It feels very normal, but you’re accelerating quite quickly.

Is that a product of it being an electric vehicle, or is there something specific that Nissan’s doing about how it’s calibrated?

A little bit of both. It’s meant to drive like a real car. It’s a very linear direct feeling, which is courtesy of the electric motor. But it’s also powerful, with quite a large motor-battery pack combination. The power-weight ratio is good so you accelerate quickly.

And how about the platform, the car design itself?

In the architecture of the car, the batteries are situated low in the chassis, below the floor board of the car. So, the center of gravity of the car is very low. The handling is very stable. It nips around quite quickly. Directional changes are quick.

What else should consumers know?

It’s a regular car. What’s amazing about it is that there’s no asterisk. I mean, there’s limited range compared to a gasoline vehicle, but most people’s everyday activities fall well within that capacity. What’s remarkable about the Leaf is that it’s unremarkable. It’s just a normal car that drives normally, and does everything you expect it to do. It goes on the freeway. It goes up hills. It goes down mountains.

It doesn’t really look like a normal car?

Well, you have to be a little bit distinguished. Some of it is aerodynamics and some of it is styling, making a statement. Certainly, the interior of the Leaf is elegant.

What have you learned about charging from having one of the mules in Sacramento?

We just charge it at night. We plug in at night and go home.

This is one of the most boring conversations ever.

I’m sorry. But that’s how we expect customers to use it, so that’s how we use it.

You’re creating a boring car that happens to have a completely different fueling structure.

There will be more public charging stations in the future, but the principle way is to go home at night, plug it in, go make dinner, and go about your business. And let the car take care of itself. In that respect, it’s kind of boring.

But if you look at it from the other side, it’s quite exciting. It’s a very different way of approaching what you think a car is supposed to do. We’re so ingrained to think, okay go to the gas station and put gas in. You usually don’t think of a car that you can charge at home.

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