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2011 all-electric Nissan Leaf is eco-friendly and fun to drive

We're on a countdown to delivery. The first all-electric Nissan Leafs, costing $25,280 after a $7,500 federal tax incentive, will be delivered in December. Owners are in for a treat, because the Leaf is a delight on nearly every level:

It's really fun to drive. The car is almost preternaturally quiet — you can't even hear the gentle motor sound it makes to warn pedestrians at speeds of 20 mph or less. The Leaf offers faster acceleration than you would expect from 107 horsepower, a factor of its relatively light weight and aerodynamic design. There's very little regenerative braking effect unless you engage "Eco" mode, but there is a bit of comforting "creep" when you release the brakes at a stoplight. The handling is sharp, and the ride is nicely balanced.

The graphics and interface are cool. If you like cutting-edge video games, you'll be right at home. My favorite screen showed a map with a circle that encompassed your driving range — your performance at the wheel helps determine how far you'll get. There's a nicely designed app for the iPhone (or any computer) that allows the driver to remotely stop or start a charge, as well as preheat or cool the car's cabin. A screen-based timer can be set to start charging late at night, when rates may be lower, but you can override it with a touch of a button to start charging immediately.

The incentives are in place. Some Leaf owners will be luckier than others. Luckiest are those in California, where a $5,000 cash rebate gets the price down to around $20,000. California is also doing more than any other state to put in a charging network. But other states are also getting involved: EV purchase subsidies are in place in Tennessee (where the Leaf will be built starting in model year 2013), Hawaii, Georgia and Colorado. Anyone can get the federal $7,500 tax incentive, and also an up-to-$2,000 tax credit to install a 240-volt charger. But that one expires Dec. 31 unless Congress renews it.

The economics make sense. According to Paul Hawsom, Nissan's product planning manager for sports cars and EVs, a 25-mpg car running on $3-a-gallon gas will cost 12 cents per mile to operate, or $1,800 over 15,000 miles. The Leaf or comparable EV operating on electricity at the national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour will cost 2.6 cents per mile. That means $396 over 15,000 miles. "The advantage exists even if gasoline drops below $1.10 per gallon," Hawsom said. And since there's no real purchase penalty to a subsidized Leaf, the savings start immediately.

There are charging options. The Leaf will come with a 110-volt charger for any wall outlet, but that's a 16-hour slog. Nissan, with partner AeroVironment, will equip your garage for 240-volt charging that can be subsidized by that disappearing federal credit. Luckily, 240-volt charging (seven hours from when the warning light comes on) is standardized with the gun-shaped J1772 plug. Less sure is 480-volt fast charging, which takes just 30 minutes. Leafs in selected markets will be equipped for the Japan-developed CHAdeMO fast-charging standard, but the United States is still debating whether to go with that.

2011 all-electric Nissan Leaf is eco-friendly and fun to drive 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 11:25am]

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