A couple months ago, Nissan threw a big party at OMSI to unveil their new Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), to be called the ?Leaf? when it hits the market in the fall of 2010. It was no accident that this event was held in Portland, Oregon, as that city will be among the first to get the Leaf, well before everyone else. Seattle, Sonoma, San Diego, Tucson, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, Washington D.C., and Vancouver B.C. are also scheduled to get the Leaf this year.
If that sounds like a strange list of communities for a new vehicle rollout, it is. The cities were selected primarily for their health ?green market? potential and the willingness of local and state governments and utilities to participate in creating the infrastructure that BEVs need to be convenient and reliable. In our case, PGE has been involved in the process from the beginning. Nissan began accepting orders for the Leaf this week, taking $99 deposits and promising late 2010 delivery in the rollout markets.
The infrastructure requirements are simple, but substantial. BEVs need access to charging stations just as petroleum-powered vehicles need access to fuel stations. With help from President Obama?s economic stimulus funds, PGE is building charging stations throughout the metro area and even down to Salem.
The Leaf is expected to travel about 100-120 miles on a charge, so charge-up will likely be a daily or every-other-day occurrence, and the charging process still takes up to 8 hours on a 220VAC circuit. However, Nissan has developed a ?Quick-Charger? that can get the Leaf up to 80% charged in just 30 minutes. That?s not gas-station quick, but it?s perfect for a workday or overnight.
PGE knows a good deal when they see it, and their involvement in BEV infrastructure development is enlightened self-interest. Not only is stimulus money paying for the development, but PGE stands to sell all the electricity used by the Leaf and other BEVs. Even the public charging stations currently in operation downtown at the World Trade Center, and all the others that will be built, will be ?behind a meter? ? meaning that someone will have to pay PGE for the electricity. There?s no free lunch for electric vehicle owners unless some business or other entity decides to pick up the tab.
Physically, the Leaf looks a lot like the Nissan Versa ? it?s a five-door hatchback with the electric motor in front, driving the front wheels. But the vehicle chassis design is completely new. The batteries are located low under the passenger compartment to keep the weight in the optimal location and provide the best possible passenger and cargo layout. The plug-in is located at the front, under a little trapdoor with the Leaf logo.
The car is comfortable, bigger on the inside than you?d expect from looking at the outside, and the trunk area is cavernous. Like all modern eco-mobiles, the dash is equal parts driving information and video game.
In designing the Leaf, Nissan went beyond just designing a BEV. They also embraced the notion of using recycled materials wherever possible. Thus the Leaf uses a great deal of recycled plastic milk and water bottles and materials from recycled home appliances in its interior. Leaf vehicles for the North American market will be built at Nissan?s plant in Smyrna, Georgia, saving trans-oceanic shipping energy.
The Leaf is expected to be priced in the high $20,000s, and it?s not yet clear what the dealer situation will be. The first Leafs could command a tall dealer markup if Nissan doesn?t control the pricing. However, if you?re interested in being the first on your block to own a Leaf, it?s probably a good idea to contact your Nissan dealer as soon as possible.
If you can wait a while, Nissan has a long-term commitment to the Leaf and to a whole lineup of BEVs. Plans are already in the works for a commercial delivery vehicle and for a premium BEV under Nissan?s Infiniti badge.
With the Leaf, Nissan has beaten every major automaker except MINI to the mass-market BEV punch. But unlike the MINI Cooper E (available only in Los Angeles and New York), the Leaf is affordable, and it?s coming out nationwide in partnership with the utilities that will supply the juice. That?s smart business, and Nissan is likely to reap the rewards.