Saturday, November 28, 2009

Nissan goes gas-free with upcoming Leaf



When I say "Nissan," many readers will immediately think of the svelte and curvaceous 1970 240Z or one of its sporty Z-car descendants.

Some may associate the name with the ferocious GT-R supercar, scrapping it out over lap times with the Porsche 911 Turbo on the battle-scarred asphalt of the legendary Nürburgring.

For others Nissan may conjure up the image of bespoilered neon-coloured JDM Silvias and 350Zs getting fully sideways under opposite lock, only inches from the unyielding concrete barriers at a drifting contest.

All great vehicles, but the latest offering from the Japanese giant is far more important than any of them, even if it does have a face like a frog -- with a concussion -- and hindquarters like one of those rap guys' girlfriends. It's called the Nissan Leaf, it's got four doors and a hatchback, and you can drive it around without putting any gas in it.

Well, not yet you can't, but come 2011, a few lucky British Columbians will be driving the first mass-market battery-powered electric vehicle from a major manufacturer. No partial or full hybrid powertrain here, just a plug in the front, some batteries in the back and a regular family car in between.

You can buy battery-powered electric cars in B.C. now, but by and large they're toy-like things, best suited for (and only legal on) side streets and low speed limit areas. It's also possible to convert your normal car to battery power, as long as you're not piloting something ridiculous like a Hummer, and if you keep your eyes peeled you might spot the odd Geo Metro, Chevy S10 or Scion xB moving through the streets without making a sound.

However, up until now, it has not been possible to walk into a dealership, plonk down your money and drive away in an electric car with a proper warranty, a confusing owner's manual and a helpful service department with bad coffee. Nissan hopes to change all that with Leaf, a car that will take the practical size and utility of a medium-sized hatchback (the Leaf is very similar in size to Nissan's Versa), and add zero-emissions technology in a consumer-friendly manner.

Of course, there's a catch. A Versa can take you a theoretical 850 kilometres on a tank of gas (50-litre tank, 5.8 l/100 km highway fuel consumption). The Leaf, fully-charged, can only manage about 160 km. Additionally, you can fill the tank of a gasoline-powered car in about three to five minutes. Charging up a Leaf fully could take eight hours.

But these are minor quibbles really. If your grocery store is 400 km away, you're probably getting there on a snowmobile anyway. For the rest of us, a 160 km range is more than enough to drop the kids off at school, head to work and back and stop by Whole Foods on the way home to spend the equivalent of the GDP of Belgium on organic free-range rutabaga. Then, tuck your Leaf in at night with a special plug in the garage and it'll be juiced up and ready for the morning.

As a city runabout then, the Leaf seems perfect, especially when charging stations are added into the equation. Part of the reason that Vancouver will be one of the first places in North America to see the Leaf is that BC Hydro, the provincial and federal governments and the City of Vancouver will be working in partnership with Nissan to have charging stations in place, including quick-charge setups, which can give an 80-per-cent battery charge in 30 minutes. So there we have one foreign company, three bureaucracies and a Crown corporation working together. Should go smoothly.

Of course, the real problem with electric vehicles has always been batteries. Electric engines are already smooth, quiet, efficient and almost ludicrously torquey. Unfortunately, all that torque gets involved in hauling hundreds of pounds of lithium or nickel around, and if you own a cellphone, you know how quickly batteries can lose their ability to hold a decent charge. Not a problem when you're going to change the phone anyway, having dropped it and broken the screen approximately five minutes into ownership; quite a bit more difficult for something expensive like a car, with Canadians averaging seven years of ownership of their vehicles before trading them in.

Nissan has a clever solution to this problem: they sell you the car, but they lease you the batteries. That means a monthly cost to operate your Leaf, even if you pay cash, but it means that in three to five year's time, when battery technology has progressed to the point of greater range and shorter charge times, you bring your car in, have the batteries swapped out (and sent back to the factory for recycling) and off you go having turned over a new Leaf.

There will doubtless be problems with this strategy as well, including the difficulty of transferring ownership if you want to sell your Leaf, or the cost to repair the drive systems or batteries in a crash. Additionally, the limited range and longer charging times won't work for everyone. Imagine trying to explain to the boss that you forgot to plug in your car last night, so you're not coming in today. But, even to a stalwart defender of the internal combustion engine such as myself, Nissan's Leaf is a step in the right direction. Its promise of a simplified way to own a true zero-emissions vehicle at an affordable cost is truly laudable in the face of a planet in crisis.

Mind you, I've had a zero-emissions vehicle for years. It's called a bicycle.

source: canada