A look at new features, including a photovoltaic charging panel, and cold-weather performance.
Last year I had a week's worth of driving in a Nissan Leaf electric car (reported here: Culture shock: Driving an electric car), and recently the latest production version was at hand for a spin.
For my original drive, the Leaf was a preproduction version, so I was eager to see if there were any noticeable differences between the two. In a nutshell, no—Nissan had the car where it wanted early on.
The 2012 SL model of the Leaf does come with several new features: A battery heater, heated mirrors and steering wheel, front and rear heated seats, and a rear seat HVAC duct. Nissan says most of these are geared to being more efficient in warming the cabin's occupants than by mainly using the HVAC system.
For the more technology inclined, the car has a quick charge port under the nose door, next to the standard charger coupling, which can give an 80% charge in 30 minutes—great if the restaurant or barber shop you drive to has such a station nearby. A small photovoltaic panel in the rear spoiler (see below) also helps charge the 12V battery used for conventional electronics, such as the audio system and body electronics.
On the road, I was somewhat able to gauge performance in colder weather than experienced on my test drive last year. Starting with a fully charged battery, the energy management display told me I had 101 miles range. Outside air temperature (OAT) was 42F, so I set the climate control to 70F. After driving 7.2 miles, the displayed range was now 82 mi—for an 11.8 mi. loss in range caused by heating needs. The return trip was at night with lights on and OAT = 40F. I set the heat for 71F. At the end of the 14.4 mi roundtrip, range was now given as 65 mi—for a total loss of range of 21.6 mi. Thus heating needs under moderately cold conditions consumed more energy than traveling—indicating Leaf drivers in cold climates have to plan with care if they are ranging moderate distances from home.
The 2012 Leaf SL I drove had only one option, $170 floor and trunk mats. With a $850 destination charge, total MSRP was $38,270—but it should be remembered, in the U.S. there is currently a $7,500 government rebate for buyers of plug-in vehicles.(As an aside, because I have driven both, people have asked which I prefer, the Leaf or the Chevy Volt (Driving impressions: Chevy Volt). Considering the Volt's cost, before rebate of $40,000 (not much more than the Leaf) I personally would select it over the Leaf because it gives me the option of taking a long trip, thanks to its gas engine which kicks in after 40 miles or so of driving to function as a hybrid—thus no range anxiety.)
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