LOS ANGELES--Driving Nissan's new Leaf electric car around Dodgers' Stadium in Los Angeles last week was not as glamorous as it sounds. There were a lot of journalists in line under a hot sun. But there were compensations, including a touch of Hollywood--actress Alexandra Paul, ex-Baywatch and a former General Motors EV-1 driver, was there.
This was the kickoff of a 22-city national tour for the Leaf, and it may be coming soon to a metro area near you. Go to this site, enter your zipcode and it will point you to the nearest stop. Or check the full list here. The tour ends in New York City February 14.
Nissan is the only automaker (through the Renault-Nissan Alliance) to actually build charging stations. In LA, it announced its 33rd alliance, this time with Reliant, a subsidiary of giant Texas-based utility NRG Energy. Like most utility executives these days, NRG CEO David Crane talked about the virtues of the smart grid and charging electric cars off-peak during evening hours. He said the current U.S. grid could easily handle up to 10 million additional EVs. "We don't get into trouble until we're talking about 50 to 100 million cars," he said.
The Leaf, which has a 100-mile range on lithium-ion batteries and will be out next year, was revealed in sky blue. It was a little bigger than I thought it would be, with excellent seat layout and some of the same eco-verities as the Toyota Prius. Not to confuse you, but the Leaf we saw was actually a styling model and not drivable. The "Leaf" we drove was in the body of the Nissan Versa, with the Leaf's drivetrain. This is what they call a "mule," and it gives a very good indication of what the production car will be like. Here's what it was like from the back seat:
Since there were so many people waiting, we were allowed a short drive around a cone course in the parking lot, with an anxious Nissan guy riding shotgun (there are only two of these "mules" in the world). I wasn't trying to make a spectacle of myself, but I'm a notorious doofus around cone courses and that led me to a serious braking test -- they worked great, and I left such dramatic rubber that everybody rushed over to see if I'd crashed the car. No, just reduced the lifespan of its low-rolling-resistance tires.
The car is much improved since I drove it last in Bear Mountain, New York. At that time, it was in the body of the then-new Nissan Cube. Previous flat spots on the Leaf's acceleration at around 50 mph appear to have been straightened out and the car now accelerates dramatically well up to at least 60 mph (people were diving out of the way) and handles well, with only minor body lean. The actual Leaf may differ, of course, but probably not all that much.
Just after the Leaf event in Los Angeles, Nissan's executives, including CEO Carlos Ghosn (who's impressive in person) flew to Washington, where they announced the company's participation in the Electrification Coalition. It's a big tent of mostly CEOs (from automakers, including Bright Automotive and Coda Automotive, to utilities, including NRG Energy, and charging companies, including Coulomb). Their plan is to fast-track EVs, so that there would be 50,000 to 100,000 of them in each of six to eight U.S. cities/metro areas by 2013 (a total of 700,000 vehicles). And that would ramp up with 20 to 25 more cities by 2018. That would put seven million green cars on the road. The plan projects that by 2040, as much as 75% of the miles traveled on U.S. roads would be in either plug-in hybrids or battery electrics.
To help get this off the ground, the coalition calls for rapidly expanding the range of tax breaks and subsidies available to consumers who buy cars and businesses that build electric infrastructure. Great. I note the following response, however, to a related story I did about this at the New York Times: "Lots of things need jump starting,'" wrote a reader. "But the hard truth is we just don't have the money anymore. Groups like this that want something jump-started will just have to figure out how to be entrepreneurial and do it themselves -- sort of like Henry Ford and William Durant did back in the 1910s and 20s."
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