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Plug and Play

Nissan's all-electric, zero-emissions Leaf is tailor-made for city driving. But what happens when it's taken out of its urban comfort zone for a joyride along the Japanese coast?

Author Robert Michael Poole

JAPAN

THE NISSAN LEAF IS QUIET. It’s so quiet, in fact, that it has to play a little tune to let you know it’s awake. I step inside a light-blue SL model outside its place of birth, Nissan’s Yokohama HQ, and push a button that illuminates the deep-blue LED dashboard, which alerts me that I have 84 miles’ worth of charge and cues a musical snippet reminiscent of “The Jetsons.” And after that, silence: the sound of the automotive future.

It was a long time coming. Nissan’s first electric car, the Altra, debuted back in 1997 at the L.A. Auto Show with underwhelming results. Thirteen years later, at this very spot in Yokohama, Nissan unveiled the Leaf, a compact vehicle that would require charging stations galore sprinkled around cities and along highways to keep it alive. The first surprise is how quickly the needed infrastructure was built throughout Japan to accommodate the Leaf. The second is how, well, normal it looks sitting outside the factory (save for the “Zero Emission” declaration plastered across its doors, lest there be any mistake about the size of the driver’s carbon footprint).

As I pull out and start feeling my way through Yokohama, the near-silence of the engine creates a feeling of floating over the urban road surfaces. (The car also emits a faint beeping sound so that pedestrians know it’s there.) But then, the city is the Leaf’s natural habitat. To test its mettle, I hop onto the Yokosuka Highway and head toward the holy city of Kamakura, which was the nation’s de facto capital between the 12th and 14th centuries. The Leaf performs well against its gas-powered peers, the electric engine responding quickly when the hammer is dropped. Acceleration is fluid, as if it’s being dialed up by a dimmer switch. Plus, the 600-pound battery pack is set under the seats, giving the Leaf a low center of gravity and thus crisp handling at higher speeds.

I stop in Kamakura to see the Great Buddha, a monumental bronze statue dating from 1252. Originally situated in a giant hall, the 44-foot-tall seated Buddha has been out in the open air since a tsunami leveled its home in the late 15th century. It ranks among Japan’s most popular attractions, with tourists in abundance—one of whom hears the Leaf beeping and remarks, “What is this, a cute baby ‘Knight Rider’ car?”

From Kamakura, I decide to take the coastal roads along Sagami Bay to the town of Ito, on the Izu Peninsula, where the car can recharge overnight. But pushing the limits of the Leaf on the highway has depleted my range well ahead of schedule. I have 9 miles left in the batteries, and it’s 28 miles to Ito. With the help of the smart onboard IT system, I locate nearby spots where I can get the 30-minute charge needed to finish the drive. I find a charging station beside a convenience store in a small coastal village, plug in and grab a coffee. Just then, a curious Japanese couple with a young child (a.k.a. the target market) wanders over to examine the Leaf. “These charging stations are appearing everywhere these days,” the father tells his boy, with a note of fascination. The boy examines the thick cable now protruding from the center of the hood. “It’s like an elephant trunk,” he says.

Heading south, the Leaf takes on winding roads, tight turns and tunnels like a slot car in its groove, and mounts hills without a hint of loss in propulsion. By the end, though, the Leaf’s most glaring drawback is again apparent. The remaining-miles counter has plummeted with the additional exertion (plus the air conditioning). The moral: If you’re going to take this car out of the (undemanding, flat) city, you’ve got to plan for it.

In Ito, I pull into what seems to be a Japanese rock garden. Instead, it’s the immaculately ordered pebble stairway leading to Kai Ito, a traditional hot-spring resort with the ancient scent of incense, newly laid tatami mat floors and fresh warm water that feeds indoor and outdoor bathing areas, as well as balcony hot tubs in private rooms. As I step out of the car and hand the keys to the valet, he’s a bit at sea. “How do you even start this thing?” he asks, before discovering the big red power button and heading off to figure out how to charge it in a normal household socket.

As the car repowers itself (a process that takes about seven hours), I recharge my own batteries with Kai Ito’s distinctive “water walking” exercise course, 30 minutes of trudging against the current in an outdoor hot-spring pool to rejuvenate the muscles. Harnessing geothermal energy to fuel a modern resort underscores our ability to use nature to help care for ourselves. It’s nice to know while driving back to home base that the Leaf, in its small way and despite its limitations, repays the kindness.

When strolling Yoyogi Park, Tokyo-based writer ROBERT MICHAEL POOLE has also been known to emit a faint beeping sound to alert pedestrians.

 

2012 NISSAN LEAF SL
The bells and whistles

STARTING PRICE: $37,250

PERKS: The advanced IT system at the center of the dash is connected to a 24-hour global data center that pinpoints charging station locations, among other useful functions. A solar panel on the rear spoiler charges a 12-volt auxiliary battery that powers the car’s systems (stereo, headlights, wipers, etc.). You can also preprogram the car’s settings via mobile phone, so you can just hop in and get going.

ENGINE: A high-response synchronous front-mounted AC motor (80 kW) that stays virtually silent throughout the ride, powered by 48 modules of four-cell, laminated-type lithium-ion batteries for an output of 90 kW.

PERFORMANCE: A single charge can last for about 100 miles, but less if tackling inclines, carrying loads or using air conditioning. Speed tops out at 90 mph.

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