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Exclusive First Drive! Nissan's 2011 Leaf EV

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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 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 Sheraton Miramar Hotel, smack in the center of the beach town. The challenge to Toyota has been made, and it might get ugly.

Turns out all the excitement isn't so much about the car's performance, technology, styling or even interior design. It's the car itself -- the fact that it comes to life at a time so many other EVs, hybrids, extended-range hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles are hitting the marketplace. Customers will have a lot of info, maybe too much, to sort through when making their next vehicle choice.

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It's bound to be shunned by some of the "holier than thou" who think cars should be banned entirely. But Leaf will be embraced by others, especially the so-called "hyper-milers," who spend their days coming up with ways to suck even more energy out of every last atom in their batteries.

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

Nissan, along with Japanese battery-maker NEC, has formed a new corporation specifically to make Leaf's batteries in Japan. For model year 2013, Nissan has plans to officially open its own dedicated battery-making facility in Tennessee for cars built in the U.S.

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.

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Now sit down, listen and learn something. Sorry, just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

There are three different charging methods for Leaf including "portable" charging, which uses a standard 110-volt wall plug-in 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 per cent filled.

"Installed charging" is the second method. When buying the Leaf, customers can also order an installed home charging unit. This method, using a 220-volt receptacle, takes around 8 hours to fully recharge Leaf. The home unit costs about $2,200, installed, but there are rebates and tax credits which can pay up to $2,000 of the total cost to encourage this option.

Now, just as in auto racing, how fast you want to go depends on how much you want to spend, and this next option will be expensive, especially for Nissan and Aerovironment, the company working with Nissan on charger development and installation.

"Quick charging" plans call for Leaf's battery to be charged up to 80 per cent of capacity in only 30 minutes. Nissan engineers envision these quick chargers installed in busy shopping mall and office building parking lots, on major routes between cities ala truck stops and wherever else there might be a burgeoning population of EVs and plug-in hybrids needing a little love from the electric gods.

We've gone over some of these specs before so let's get down to it: How is Leaf on the streets?

The Leaf we drove delivered about what 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, as on almost all the hybrids we've driven so far, there are some gimmicky eco-gauges and -controls that don't seem altogether necessary (one allows the driver to "build a tree" as their eco-friendly driving style continues and improves 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; perhaps Valerie Bertinelli and Jason Alexander can take fellow Jenny Craig clients to meetings and help Leaf lose a little bulk, too.

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Nissan Leaf interior

Our test Leaf was, Nissan told us, about 90 per cent 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 curves and lines that appear to go every which way are functionally manipulating oncoming air so it goes above and below the side mirrors, not right smack into it as on most cars and trucks. Even the radio antennae is specially shaped to cut noise and add to the vortex pushing the car along from the rear.

These little things pay off as Leaf is very, very 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 than it really is from a passenger's point of view. It's a nice visual trick. 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, animated and I understand the next-generation Leaf will come with 3D glasses. Well, it isn't really that involved, so let's just say the dash is, uh, "busy".

A single center tunnel mounted trackball-like appendage (similar to that found on the BMW center tunnel) keeps Leaf in or out of its single forward gear. Leaf uses Nissan's start system which allows engine start/stop by touching the brake and pushing a dash-mounted button with the key still in your pocket (or pocket book).

Fit-and-finish inside and out was better than in most prototypes 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. As another Nissan engineer told us, "We're still not through with it yet."

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, the first time in the car, that due to the car's heavyweight stance, drivers have to hit the brakes harder than they might in their previous compact car to slow or stop Leaf. That ABS braking system also creates battery-charging power through regenerative braking.

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 gradually 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.

The audio system is superior for a car of this size and price (after tax credits and etc.) and allows plugging-in your iPod and all the other latest gizmos. Leaf has everything from 3D nav (not kidding this time) to Bluetooth.

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Let's talk price. There are two Leaf models, a base (SV) and a step-up model called 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 available (do the math yourself; I'm terrible at it), and, in California, the State Air Resources Board makes available another $5,000 tax credit.

Your state may also offer similar credits, so check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles before buying an EV or hybrid to see what's available.

And $2,000 of the $2,200 cost of the installed home charger can be deferred; your dealer will fill you in.

Similar to what Toyota did when their Prius first went on-sale, Nissan is using the Web to take "reservations" (a $99 "down payment" holds one for you) and let you stay in-touch with Leaf enthusiasts, get the latest news on technical highlights and Leaf availability, etc. 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.

Nissan's 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, all 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, and Leaf will not be the butt of jokes using the words "glorified golf cart," Leaf is a real car which will generate intense interest among the public worldwide.

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