We have driven the future, and you can too, sometime after the beginning of the new year.

We took some short road test drives recently and one of the cars we flogged was when we took a closer look at Nissan’s 2011 Leaf EV.

And while Toyota’s Prius gas/electric hybrid has been the Official State Car of Santa Monica for some years now, Leaf is definitely worthy of taking a shot at the title and could well prove successful in its efforts. In fact, the latest Leaf press preview was hosted at the Fairmont Miramar, smack in the center of the beach town. The challenge to Toyota has been made, and it might get ugly.

Leaf is, without doubt, a history-making car. In terms of performance Leaf is about what we expected but it’s still, by default, a revolutionary and historic vehicle, the first EV to be mass-produced by a major car company in the “modern era” (post-WWII) and sold worldwide.

Weighing in at about 3,500 pounds (the battery pack alone is 600), Leaf will begin its U.S. sales sometime around the end of this year.

Nissan announced this past week that Leaf’s on-board battery will be warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. For model year 2013, Nissan has plans to officially open its own dedicated battery-making facility in Tennessee.

Using laminated Lithium Ion batteries (Li-Ons for short), these batteries have been highly-developed by Nissan engineers to keep Leaf going for 100 miles after a charge, with a top speed of about 94 miles per hour.

There are three different charging methods for Leaf including “portable” charging, which uses a standard wall plug-in 110-volt charger which comes with the car. The portable method takes about 18 to 20 hours to make Leaf’s battery go from 0 to 100 percent charged.

“Installed charging” is the second method. When buying the Leaf, customers can also order an installed home charging unit. This method, using a 240-volt receptacle, takes around eight hours to fully recharge Leaf. The home unit costs about $2,200 installed,  and there are rebates and tax credits which can pay up to $2,000 to encourage this option.

Now, just as in auto racing, how fast you want to go depends on how much you want to spend. “Quick charging” plans call for Leaf’s battery to be charged up to 80 percent of capacity in only 30 minutes. Nissan engineers see these quick chargers installed in busy shopping mall and office building parking lots, on major routes between cities.

How is Leaf on the streets?

The Leaf we drove delivered about how we expected. The car is very intuitive; Nissan knows what we’re thinking when we get into the driver’s seat. All controls are in familiar places and operate accordingly, though there are more gimmicky eco-gauges than we’d like (one allows the driver to “build a tree” as their eco-friendly driving style continues for a period of time).

The battery is under the car, as near the center as possible to help locate the center of gravity and help with handling. Nissan was smart to do this because they are going to catch a lot of hell for the car’s heft.

Our test Leaf was, Nissan told us, about 90 percent of what the final production version will look, feel and sound like. And the news is good in those areas: the car has an extreme style and much of that comes from use of a wind tunnel to design the car and cut down on that nemesis of EVs, wind noise.

For instance, the highly-stylized headlamps with lines that appear to go every which way are really manipulating the air so it goes above and below the side mirrors, not right smack into it as on most cars and trucks.

These little things pay off as Leaf is extremely quiet; it’s like the local library. It’s so quiet, Nissan engineers tell us, that they had to engineer-in a certain amount of noise so pedestrians know there’s a car coming their way. We’re not kidding.

The interior has a surprising amount of head room and that makes the entire car seem taller and wider from a passenger’s point of view. Both front and rear seats do not offer what we would call “generous” legroom, but by no means would you think you’d be calling the chiropractor after a trip to Las Vegas in any seat on Leaf.

You’ll have to go to a dealer to see the instrument panel up close and personal. Words simply can not do it justice. It’s colorful and animated.

Fit-and-finish inside and out was better than in most all prototype cars we’ve seen through the years. And with our test car not being a complete, sale-able Leaf, that bodes well for the car’s quality when it does go into production. 

Steering is electrically boosted and was a little light for my tastes. I like to feel more connected to the road. Brakes are four-wheel anti-lock discs and seem up to the job, at least on the streets of Santa Monica. It is a bit surprising, though, when you speed up to a red light, have to hit the brakes hard and suddenly discover all that extra weight.

Leaf gets off the line well as do all EVs and gas/electric hybrids. That’s because electric motors exhibit all their torque instantly, while a gas engine has a “torque curve” which brings the torque up as the revs get higher. So Leaf drivers, like Prius owners before them, know that at the daily “Stop Light Grand Prix” they can take-on and beat just about any other car on the road. For the first 200 feet, at least.

Oh, the radio is good and the audio system allows plugging-in your iPod and all the latest gizmos, from 3D nav to Bluetooth.

There are two models, a base (SV) and a step-up model, SL. Because SL is only $940 more than the SV, it seems the best bargain of the two. The SV is $25,280 while the SL rings the bell at $26,220. For both cars, there is a one-time $7,500 federal tax credit (do the math yourself; I’m terrible at it) available, and, in California, the State Air Resources Board makes available another $5,000 tax credit. 

As with Prius, Nissan is using the Web to take “reservations” (a $99 “down payment” holds one for you) and stay in-touch with Leaf enthusiasts. Check-out www.NissanUSA.com and cruise around until you find “Leaf”.

Finally, there’s an anomaly which not only Nissan but all companies making any kind of plug-in EV or hybrid need to think about: after a car-maker sells 200,000 units of whatever plug-in they’re making, that federal tax credit goes away. It’s almost a given that the new Prius plug-in hybrid and certainly the Leaf plug-in EV will fall victim to this rule. Nissan assures us their top execs are brainstorming to come up with a solution, so the woman who buys a Leaf one day and gets the $7,500 credit finds that her friend who bought one the next day does not get that credit.

Leaf, GM’s Volt, Toyota’s plug-in gas/electric hybrid Prius and several other zero- or ultra-low-emission cars are about to go on-sale, within about a year of each other. It’s an exciting time for those who are fascinated by the technology of these cars as well as their future possibilities.

 Steve Parker is a two-time Emmy Award-winner who has covered the world’s auto industry and motor racing for over 35 years. Contact Steve through his own automotive issues website at www.SteveParkerMotoring.com.

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