Driving the Nissan Leaf

Hertz Nissan Leaf
I was invited to drive one of the Nissan Leafs that Connect by Hertz is planning to start renting from 60th street sometime in February. After being charmed but a little underwhelmed by their slow Smart ED on Tuesday, I was excited to have a go in a car that had been designed from the ground up as an electric vehicle.

The Leaf looks a like a fat Yaris with bubbly headlights-it doesn't make you ache like a Corvette, it doesn't mimic the appealing techno look of the new Prius, and it isn't adorable like the smart.

There isn't much about the car that hints that it is a special vehicle. In fact, when you factor in the tire roar and motor whine (and noise from nearby cars in our Manhattan test drive), it doesn't feel shockingly quiet compared to a 7-Series or even a Mazda 3.

What it does do is an excellent job of "playing car." You could toss someone the key fob and they might not realize that the car was electric for a long time. The Leaf accelerates briskly and goes on to 95mph (although the FDR was clogged and I'd be surprised if we touched 45), and it looks like the fat cars everyone already drives anyway. That it needs no excuses is a huge feat.

Still, there are a few puzzling things. During our test drive in 35 degree weather, turning on the heater made the range gauge instantly drops by a third, from 100 to 69 miles. Sureley some part of the motor gets too hot to touch and could supply some heat. Maybe not. In any case, a third of the range being lost through heat seems unlikely. Maybe a heated steering wheel and heated seats would be a better use of heating elements. The car does use HID lights and LED's everywhere though, so maybe the heater is really the major drain. Is my regular car losing so much energy to heat? If so, I want years of my money back.

Nissan Leaf interior
Apologies for the static pictures, I was with a Connect rep and didn't want to go overboard taking pictures

The car also has a pointlessly weird shift knob that slides right for park and then wobbles around in the left position for RND and "eco", which dulls the car's performance using throttle-by-wire trickery. There is also a reverse camera that shows lines on the road that bend as you turn the wheel to indicate where the car is going to go since it isn't easy to see over the high trunk panel.

Hertz' Leaf comes with a "electricity card" that you can scan at charging stations for a free charge, and as the Leaf's final trick, the navigation has a list of local charging stations.

The car I drove had controls for the headlight angle, suggesting that it is a foreign market car. I am surprised that Hertz is renting non-DOT approved cars but apparently they can bring them in and rent them for 3 years.

After putting nearly 100 miles on two electric cars during the past week, I've realized that there is nothing to be afraid of, that electric cars drive just like normal cars (the smart's lazy pace notwithstanding), can be charged slowly anywhere and rapidly at an increasing number of locations, and the range seems to be the tradeoff you give for almost no maintenance until the battery eventually dies, and the ability to charge anywhere for cheap.

The wierdest thing is that these cars are more "normal" than normal cars. They don't run on a highly flammable liquid and there isn't thousands of explosions worth of pandemonium under the hood each minute. Electric cars just whirr along in relative peace. I was expecting to be blown away by... something, but wound up missing the character of the raspy engines I deal with on a regular basis.

And I'm not sure the cars help save the world just yet, since the elements in the batteries come predominantly from China, and the electricity is probably coming from coal-fired powerplants. Electric cars still keep kids from playing hockey in the street, won't reduce the 33k deaths a year on our roads, still make for loud highways, and their drivers can still lay on the horn.

Still, well done Hertz for renting V8 mustangs, Corvettes, and now, electric cars. I just wish they would rent Miatas with manual transmissions and some twist-and-go scooters that I could take on one-way trips around Manhattan.

Maybe someone will invent a video bumper sticker that just plays on loop and says

I'd rather be in one of these:

I'd slap it on the back of my Leaf.

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