Image: Boyle in Leaf
Jim Seida  /  msnbc.com
Msnbc.com's Alan Boyle looks for a parking space that's near a power source for his all-electric Nissan Leaf. The Leaf's charging outlets are beneath the little door on the hood.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com
updated 11/15/2010 5:38:26 PM ET 2010-11-15T22:38:26

Someday, millions of electric cars will be on America's roads, gulping down the juice from tens of thousands of charging stations scattered around the country. But "someday" isn't here just yet — which is why I'm so happy I found a space in the parking garage next to an electrical outlet for my Nissan Leaf .

Over the next couple of days, we'll be putting the all-electric Leaf to a real-world test here in the Seattle area, thanks to Nissan's nationwide "Drive Electric Tour."The folks at Nissan were kind enough to lend us a car for a couple of days in between their Seattle and San Francisco stops.

It's one thing to drive the Leaf around on a two-hour test drive, as CNBC's Phil LeBeau did in July, but quite another to work it into your day-to-day driving routine. Fortunately, my routine is a perfect fit for the Leaf: I have a commute of as little as 7 miles to work at msnbc.com's mothership in Redmond. Because the Leaf has an estimated range of 80 to 100 miles per charge-up, I could easily bring the car back to Nissan on Tuesday without ever plugging it in.

But where's the fun in that?

This was an opportunity to take the neighbors for a ride, deal with the issues that early-adopting Leaf drivers will face and test my tolerance for "range anxiety" — the worries about having enough electricity to go where you need (or want) to go. Nissan says 20,000 customers have already ordered the all-electric subcompact, with deliveries due to begin next month. So there'll be lots of car owners going through a similar reality check.

The Leaf's basics
First, the basics: The Leaf is a hatchback that can seat five (we proved that on Sunday night with the neighbors) and still leave a good amount of cargo room in the back. The list price is $32,780, but that figure can be reduced by a federal tax credit (up to $7,500) plus state and local incentives. The car can also be leased for as little as $349 a month.

The Leaf is powered by an 80-kilowatt electric motor, and it runs totally on electricity that's drawn from a plug and stored in a 600-pound battery pack under the floor. Because the Leaf lacks a gasoline engine, it's quiet — so quiet that Nissan has built in a faint synthetic whine that comes on when the Leaf is traveling at 18 mph or less, just to let pedestrians know the car is coming their way. At higher speeds, the noises of the tires and the motor are enough to do the trick.

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This is no glorified golf cart: Even though there's no vroom-vroom sound, the Leaf offers plenty of get-up-and-go.

The common refrain you hear about the Leaf as well as the Chevy Volt, the battery-plus-gasoline-powered electric car we drove last month, is that they drive "just like a regular car." In normal mode, the Leaf does perform like a regular car, or perhaps a regular hybrid — a verdict that was seconded by my Prius-driving neighbors. But if you want to find out what driving a not-quite-regular car feels like, you can use the Leaf's "palm shift" drive selector to toggle the drive train from normal mode to "eco-mode."

In eco-mode, the accelerator seems a bit less responsive, and the brakes grab a bit more aggressively. Those tweaks help the Leaf hold onto more of its electric power and recover more electricity from the regenerative braking system. The payoff comes in the form of a 10 percent increasein the car's range.

You can also increase your range by going without the heater on a cool, misty Seattle morning. At one point, I could fiddle with the Leaf's controls to show a variety of readings for how many miles I had left: 55 miles (normal mode with climate control), 59 miles (normal without climate control), 60 miles (eco-mode with climate control) or 65 miles (eco-mode without climate control).

Looking for a charge
I have to admit I was fixated on the routine for recharging the Leaf, since that's likely to be a key sticking point for potential buyers. Nissan says it can take as long as 20 hours to charge up the car using a standard 120-volt circuit. If you hook up to a 240-volt Level 2 charging station — which can be installed in your home for the estimated cost of $2,200 — you can cut that time down to eight hours or so for a full charge. A 480-volt Level 3 charging station can bring the Leaf's lithium-ion batteries to full power in 30 minutes or less. Once you're fully charged, you're good to go for another 100 miles or so.

Chevrolet went with a different strategy for the $41,000 Volt. Its all-battery range is lower (25 to 50 miles), but it takes just 10 hours to charge up from a 120-volt outlet, or four hours at 240 volts. And because the Volt also has a gasoline engine on board, you can go 350 miles or so before filling up again at a gasoline pump.

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Because of this fundamental difference, the installation of fast-charging stations is more important for Leaf owners than Volt owners. The federally supported EV Projectaims to get 15,000 publicly available charging stations installed in six states and the District of Columbia over the next year, and thousands more will no doubt join the list.

Today, however, the pickings are slim: The number of publicly available 240-volt charging stations in the Seattle area can be counted on one hand, and I haven't yet located a place to plug in at 480 volts if need be. Because we're gearing up for an extended test drive, I wanted to make sure I could top off the batteries as much as possible. And that's what motivated my search for an outlet in the parking garage nearest to msnbc.com's headquarters.

At first, I hunted around the edges of the parking level, to no avail. Then I wandered around the stairwells and access doors — and found my first prospect, near the door to the cafeteria. Unfortunately, the spaces surrounding that outlet were all marked for disabled parking. It wouldn't have been P.C. to park there, even with an zero-emissions car.

Finally, I came across the perfect place: An open "compact car" slot right next to an elevator lobby, with an electrical outlet just inches away. I eased my car into position, flipped open the plug-in door on the Leaf's hood, grabbed my recharging cord and let the juice flow in. Victory at 120 volts!

Every hour of recharging lets you recover about 4 miles of range, so while I've been tapping away at my computer, the Leaf has regained all the power it lost during my drive to the office.

This exercise in power-hunting made me realize that plug-in parking places will become more highly prized as more electric cars enter the market. They'll be as sought after as the electrical outlets in airport terminals. It's not too early to start reserving some of the prime parking spots for electric vehicles — or to installing more 120/240-volt charging outlets in parking ramps and public places.

The alternative isn't pretty: In the months ahead, there just might be a lot more people like me, lurking around the garages like voltage vampires.

After charging up, I'm all set for an adventure. Keep checking our Green Innovationsection for more about electric cars and our "Electric Road Trip."Connect with the Cosmic Logcommunity by "liking" the log's Facebook pageor following @b0yle on Twitter. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto,"my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.

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Video: Inside Nissan's zero emission 'Leaf'

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