Nissan LEAF: the autofieldblog 2009 Car of the Year

It wasn’t all that long ago that Nissan wasn’t merely at Death’s doorstep, but seemed to be all the way over the threshold and looking for the kitchen to get a snack before pegging off to the Junkyard in the Sky.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Nissan wasn’t merely at Death’s doorstep, but seemed to be all the way over the threshold and looking for the kitchen to get a snack before pegging off to the Junkyard in the Sky. Then there was a guy by the name of Carlos Ghosn who rolled in from Renault in 1999 and became Nissan president and CEO by 2001. The guy was something of a superhero (he even starred in a manga), and transformed the fortunes of the company.

For a while, Ghosn’s every action was chronicled by business and automotive journalists. But then the fascination faded and other things have captured their attention. Ghosn is still there, but now There is a bigger place, because along the way he helped orchestrate an increasingly integrated Renault-Nissan alliance, and the combination puts it quite comfortably in the top 10 of global manufacturers.

But one thing about Ghosn, it seems, is that “comfortable” is something that he’s, well, not “comfortable” with. Sure, they could just keep producing Altimas and Sentras, but that’s not sufficient. They need to stretch. To do more. They’re not maintaining the status quo.

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Instead, they’re launching the Nissan LEAF, a purpose-built (meaning, this is engineered specifically for a lithium-ion battery-powered vehicle, not something that’s been retrofitted for the purpose) C-segment car that will launch in the U.S., Japan and Europe late next year, a car that was introduced this year. It will seat five. It will have a range of about 100 miles.

100 miles!?!?

Yes, the distance that is said to meet the daily driving needs of 70% of drivers worldwide.

If you need greater capacity, you don’t get a LEAF. If you need to haul mulch, you get a Ram, not a Lexus sedan. For some reason, there are a number of people—even those who write about cars for a living—who don’t seem to understand the old phrase “horses for courses.”

When the LEAF runs out of juice, it can be brought back to 80% charge in about 30 minutes with a quick charger. For ordinary charging, it is a matter of plugging in overnight. One interesting feature is that the dash provides a display of how much charge remains and where there are charging stations in relation to the car.

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Yes, the number of charging stations is infinitesimal. I wonder how many corner gas stations were around when Henry Ford kick started the auto industry. Probably about the same number.

Nissan entered into the lithium-ion battery business to get the cells it needs. Nissan designers and engineers worked really hard at achieving a car that is advanced-looking and attractive, not like a box of bran flakes. And their colleagues in the business side of the business have worked really hard at crafting relationships with cities like San Francisco and businesses like Better Place to make the LEAF more practical.

Admittedly, I haven’t driven a real LEAF. I did have the opportunity to drive a developmental vehicle with the powertrain installed and it was unremarkable—which is a good thing.

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Will the LEAF be successful? There is no way of knowing how many will be moved on the market, multitudinous tax breaks notwithstanding.

But in one way the LEAF will be successful regardless: It, like the Prius, will drive a stake into the ground of auto dealer forecourts as another example of the proliferation of powertrains that will become the way forward.

And that’s why I think it is the car of the year. 2009 hasn’t been all that great in the auto industry. But this is truly a significant development.