A New Leaf

Floor the accelerator and I can leave Porsches in the dust, and give myself a case of instant whiplash. On the freeway, I could easily go 90. (Don't worry, California Highway Patrol, I'd never really do that ...) My Nissan Leaf -- it ain't no golf cart. It's just my wonderful new car. Which just happens to be all-electric.

Sure, I'm an early adopter. Had one of the first Prii. You know, the boxy model that looked like a French sedan. I remember startling my neighbor when I'd driven up our shared driveway in electric mode -- silently. Hybrids were a rare novelty then, and many people were uncomfortable with their smaller size, solid, but not flashy, performance, and the stop-start operation of the gasoline engine. A decade later, around my West Los Angeles environs, there seems to be a Prius in every garage. My Prius' license plate frame reads "How many lives per gallon?" Glad to see all the hybrids saving oil -- and lives.

But now it was time to take the plunge and turn my back on gas stations forever. My Prius, still going strong at over 100,000 miles, was handed on to my son for college, and I decided my next car would be all electric. I needed a vehicle that would handle well both in town and on the highway -- so I had to rule out a raft of city-cars with limited speed and acceleration. I also had to consider price -- Tesla was way out of my financial league. The package that seemed to balance price, functionality, and performance came from Nissan, with its new all-electric Leaf.

Yes, my car was built in Japan, and imported before the tragic quake. But Nissan plans to begin production of Leafs in Tennessee next year, so future Leaf owners will be able to "buy American." I picked up the cute red model from the dealer a couple of months ago amidst a flurry of onlookers -- it was the first electric Leaf they'd sold. And my 240 volt home car charger was the first one installed in LA under a national grant to ECOtality to promote zero emission vehicle use. With a tip of my hat to the GM EV drivers a generation before, I felt like a pioneer. For a few minutes.

It didn't take long for me to start enjoying my Leaf as simply a "regular" car. More responsive than my "classic" Prius, the Leaf drove like other modern sedans on the road: maneuverable, energetic, with excellent handling. The interior was roomy and comfortable, and could hold four hulking teenage boys on my weeks doing afternoon carpool, with plenty of space in the large hatchback trunk for backpacks and sports equipment. I enjoyed having the newer technological advancements: rear camera, GPS navigation, MP3 input, satellite radio, etc, though I did feel a twinge of regret when I banished my collection of cassette tapes to a storage shelf in the garage. (And a greater twinge of regret when I paid iTunes a fortune to buy the songs in downloadable format.)

And range anxiety? Well, at first. The Leaf is rated at 99 MPG, but uses no gas. With a full charge, depending on one's type of driving, the Leaf can manage anywhere from 70 to 120 miles. (Rabbit starts and high speeds tend to use more energy -- true for any car, yes?) My daily commute is 60 miles, and I soon felt comfortable that I would be able to make it to work and back without running out of "juice," even using the AC.

The Leaf drives in two modes -- Ferrari fast and Eco Mode -- the latter regenerating more electricity from braking and using less by restraining rough driving. If I need to, I can recharge the Leaf away from home -- using a standard 110 volt outlet, a 240 volt charging station, and even a 440 volt rapid charger that can recharge the batteries from zero to 80 percent in less than 30 minutes. Until a system of 440 volt chargers is installed along Interstate 5 in California, I won't be taking the Leaf from LA to San Francisco, but for my daily activities and trips in the Los Angeles metro area, I am now "range relaxed."

I am also "gas price relaxed." Charging my Leaf costs me a third of what I used to pay for my fuel-efficient Prius. Can't argue with that. A solar panel on the car's rear spoiler recharges the accessory battery, and has inspired us to completely go off the grid by planning to install solar panels in our home to provide free energy for the Leaf and our other electric needs. Southern California's a sunny desert -- we should all be taking advantage of solar rays to cut our dependence on oil, coal, and nuclear power.

Is the Leaf for everyone? Almost. Ideally, a 200-300 mile battery range would meet most people's local and longer distance needs. I plan to upgrade my batteries as soon as the longer range ones are available (2012-ish?). Meanwhile, the Leaf is perfect as a daily commuter car and as a family car, especially if a second vehicle is used for out of town trips.

I still believe safe, clean and efficient public transportation should be the priority for our society. But, if "you can't get here from there" on the bus or train, I'm cheering for electric cars like my Nissan Leaf. Tooling along in my quiet little beauty, I'm the one grinning from ear to ear and waving a warm "hello".