One Leaf Cut Too Far


[Image credit: itMoves]

The recent AltCar Expo in Santa Monica gave me the opportunity to finally see, sit and briefly sample the Nissan Leaf. My opinion? In their effort to seriously undercut any possible competitor, and to firmly position the car as a mainstream model, Nissan might have pushed a little too hard in a couple of aspects of the vehicle.

It is undeniable that Nissan shocked many people when they announced their $32,780 price for the Leaf back in March. Following anecdotal evidence (Mini-e lease price, some rumors regarding the Smart EV, GM openly talking about a $40k Volt), I had been saying for over a year that $40k was going to be the entry price for any mainstream EV. The announced price, paired with the generous federal and state incentives (which drop the price in California to around $20k) was therefore a very nice surprise.

Unfortunately there is no free lunch, and since Li-ion batteries have not dropped their price 50% overnight, Nissan had to make certain compromises. Two stand out in my book, one technical and one emotional.

The technical compromise has to do with the lack of thermo management for the battery pack. Many people have complained; Elan Musk called them primitive back in August, and a recent chat with Coda executives confirmed that they see their bigger, actively thermo managed battery pack as a competitive advantage for their $44,900 sedan. On the other hand, the quite knowledgeable woman explaining the Leaf's technology at their Electric Drive Event pointed out that Nissan has been extensibly testing in Arizona, and that the chemistry used in their batteries is less sensitive to heat than some of their competitor's.

Whose PR is right? I personally find it hard to believe that Nissan would come out to the market with a battery pack that would perform so dramatically different in warm climates. Cars are not mp3 players, and although first adopters might accept limitations from companies like Aptera and Coda, I don't see Nissan risking their reputation that easily, specially since they seem to be betting the company's future on EVs. All in all, I am cautiously on Nissan's side.

The second compromise regards design, and as a professional I can't give Nissan a pass here. The thing is hideous.

The exterior starts well enough, with distinctive bug-like lamps, no grill (no thermo management, so no need for a radiator), and a big yet pleasantly disguised overhang. There is a reason why most blogs seem to pick this image.

As we turn around, however, things get (literally and figuratively) uglier. The side is heavy handed and ill-proportioned, aided in no small way by their decision to keep the Versa door architecture, and its unfortunate, almost vertical tumblehome. And then there is the rear... there are no words to describe one of the clumsiest rear ends in cardom today, the type of rear-end hastily done on a Friday afternoon, right before it's time to go home. I can take deliberate ugliness (see the previous generation Renault Megane, Leaf's first cousin), ugliness with a theme, but I find the Leaf's randomness simply offensive.

Other than in the obvious quickness to get the job done (with the subsequent lack of refinement), the exterior doesn't show the cost cutting too much. For that, you have to step inside. Here we might, if we squint our eyes, see a theme, (perhaps they worked over the weekend on this one?), but the execution and material choices are simply awful. When the most refined, elegantly element in a car interior is a Bluetooth logo, you know you are in trouble. The dashboard is an ill-formed blob no doubt outsourced to Rubbermaid, punctuated by a couple of very black, very shiny, very cheap plastic isles. Someone didn't get the memo that piano black only works well when the material is substantial enough as to avoid waves on the surface. The harsh plastic steering wheel (it's a $32k car, so c'mon) is a tactile assault, while the beige (beige!) seats scream rental every time you look around. With the possible exception of the cyborg gearshift knob, nothing inside is distinctive, well executed, or nice to the touch.

Is was hard not to compare with the Chevy Volt, also present at the event. After decades of being the laughing stock of the auto design world, American car companies have definitely stepped up their game, and many of their cabins are not just competitive but better than their Japanese competitors in the crucial feel good factor. Sure, the Volt is 30% more expensive but, white plastic console aside, the fit and finish and overall quality of its interior is years ahead of the Nissan's.

The only question is, why the hell it's a $40k Chevrolet when it really should be a $45-50k Cadillac?

Nissan has great designers. Their previous generation of vehicles (350z, Maxima, Armada, Murano and the whole Infiniti range) was arguably the reference for many designers worldwide, including myself. The original Cube was the perfect exponent of cheap-n-cheerful (good design doesn't have to be expensive), and the current one is not too far behind. Although perhaps not as refined, today's lineup is still quite good, veering towards a more muscular, almost animalistic language but retaining a lot of the refinement and originality of their predecessors. As much as I hate SUVs, I have to admit I stop to admire the neighbor's FX50 parked downstairs every time I see it. Why they have decided to do such a lazy job with such a significant product as the Leaf is a mystery to me, and a big disappointment.

Will the cost cutting ultimately matter? I don't think so. A very attractive price is a very attractive price, and the Nissan is ultimately the only game in town if one is not fond of startups. Along with me to the expo came a friend couple, both of them with good taste, one of them a product designer. Their verdict? They loved the airy, distinctive Leaf, didn't care about my crying cheap from the back seat and went home seriously considering getting one.

Despite all my grumbling, so did I.