When you start the new Nissan Leaf by pushing a button on the dash, the only audible confirmation is a pleasant chime. The engine is totally silent.
Once the engine is on, you can choose your direction with a knobby toggle in the center console. Push it forward and you're in "drive." Pull it toward the back and you're in "reverse." Leave it in the middle and you're in "neutral." Push the toggle downward and you're in "park."
When they say this car is "all-electric," they mean it. The parking brake is electric. Absolutely no gas will be consumed in the propulsion of this four-door hatchback, and zero emissions will emerge from a tailpipe.
Unlike Chevrolet's new plug-in hybrid the Volt or Toyota's best-selling hybrid-powered Prius, the Leaf will appeal to environmental purists by never taking a sip of gasoline, said Paul Hawson, manager of product planning for sports cars and electric vehicles at Nissan.
"It's like our chief executive Carlos Ghosn says: whether you smoke 10 cigarettes a day or one, you still smoke," Hawson said.
Even though the total output of the 80 kilowatt motor is comparable to that of a 110-horsepower, 4-cylinder gasoline engine, the Leaf's acceleration is much, much brisker because all of the torque is available at a dead stop. With internal combustion engines, the power has to build up, and the process can be noisy, indicating that the engine is straining to get you up to speed.
With the Leaf, acceleration, as experienced inside the car, is virtually silent except for the faint sound of the tires on the pavement at high speeds. To warn pedestrians that a vehicle is approaching, sound was created and broadcast from a speaker at low speeds. It is supposedly loud enough that a blind person would be able to hear it if he were trying to cross the street.
The quietness gives the Leaf an ambience of luxury and makes the car fun to drive. You really feel yourself gliding across the pavement. Without the sound of an engine revving, the acceleration seems effortless.
With a high roofline, the Leaf feels surprisingly roomy. It accommodates five passengers and offers enough trunk space for a week's groceries and assorted other odds and ends.
There is no spare tire, which means you must call roadside assistance or use one of those emergency tire repair kits if you suffer a flat. Roadside assistance is included in the purchase price.
When you get through claiming all of your tax incentives, the Leaf is extremely affordable, which was one of Nissan's major goals.
The base price of $32,780 falls to $25,280 with a $7,500 federal tax credit. If you live in California, you qualify for a $5,000 rebate, which brings the price down to $20,280. Other states have rebates as well. Hawaii offers $4,500. Colorado provides $6,000. Washington State has a $2,000 sales tax exemption, and Oregon provides a $1,500 tax credit.
If you don't want to go through all the paperwork of tax breaks, you can lease the Leaf for three years at $349 per month. The lease incorporates the incentives.
Another cost you have to consider is installation of a charging device in your garage that averages about $2,200. It could be more or less, depending on how your 220-volt wiring is arranged. The installation is handled by a company under contract to Nissan.
Charging the Leaf by hooking a gun-like apparatus to a port on the front of the car takes less than eight hours and costs on average across the U.S. about $2.70. A quick-charge device that Nissan expects to see in various cities can charge the car in less than 30 minutes.
Under the hood, you see what looks like a conventional engine, but that is just an illusion. It is actually an inverter that turns alternating current into direct current. The motor that powers the car is below that.
The laminated lithium-ion batteries that produce the juice are just a few inches thick and are distributed beneath the floor and seats. The location of the 600 pounds of batteries is designed to provide the proper center of gravity and also adds structural rigidity to the chassis.
The batteries are under warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles. Nissan can't actually say how much it will cost to replace them after that but does expect the cost to fall by the time they need replacement. The batteries are also recyclable for other uses.
"The idea is that the consumer will never be exposed to the full cost of the batteries," Hawson said.
The first Leafs will come from Nissan's Oppama, Japan, assembly line. But the Nashville-based U.S. operations are planning to start a plant in Smyrna, Tenn., by 2012.
The Leaf is immediately recognizable as a different kind of car but is not particularly bizarre. It looks a little like the old AMC Gremlin, to be honest. Engineers went to extraordinary lengths to reduce wind resistance, creating a pair of ridges that run from the nose across the headlamps and around to the sides to divert the airflow around the car.
"We could have made it look like a toy or a spaceship," Hawson