NASHVILLE, TN – A mass-produced car that does not use a drop of gasoline goes on sale in the U.S. in December.

After more than 100 years of dominance by the internal-combustion engine, it is undeniably a monumental event.

But overshadowing this historic moment is the question of whether U.S. consumers will fork over their hard-earned dollars for a battery-powered car.

Based on Ward’s test drive of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.’s Leaf small car, consumers should embrace, not fear, the electric vehicle.

The Leaf delivers on Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn’s promise to build an EV suitable for the majority of everyday drivers.

The immediate low-end torque inherent to electric motors makes it lots of fun to drive, but the Leaf also is surprisingly comfortable and roomy, with nearly all the creature comforts today’s drivers expect.

The suspension is quite taut, keeping body roll to a minimum in curves. It also does a relatively good job of absorbing bumps, but remains stiff enough to give the car a sporty driving character.

The Leaf’s power source is a 24 kWh laminated lithium-ion manganese-type battery pack making a maximum 90 kW that is delivered to the wheels from an 80 kW AC synchronous electric motor.

Each battery pack contains 48 modules, with four laminated cells per module. The flat, license-plate-style cells allow for improved packaging and make the setup flexible for use in other vehicle platforms.

Nissan touts the inherent long-life and superior performance of Li-ion technology and the battery pack’s 8-year, 100,000-mile (160,934-km) warranty. Even so, the auto maker says its service techs, via onboard diagnostics, will be able to replace faulty modules, or even identify malfunctioning cells, should the need arise.

The 600-lb. (272-kg) battery pack is positioned below the seats. Nissan says it is the safest location and allows for the best weight-distribution characteristics by keeping the car’s center of gravity low.

Nissan put the battery pack through numerous torture tests to ensure its reliability, including dunking it in water, freezing it and blasting it with a high-pressure carwash hose. The battery pack also held up in a 40-mph (64-km/h) off-set frontal crash test.

Much like a hybrid-electric vehicle, regenerative braking helps charge the Leaf’s battery, but the bulk of its power comes from plugging it into a wall socket for a recharge.

Nissan recommends Leaf owners install a 240V line, if they don’t already have one, to cut charge time to eight hours from 20 with a typical 120V household outlet.

DC fast charging, using 480V, is the most desirable, taking just 30 minutes to fill the battery to a governed 80% level. But the availability of that type of charging is rare and relegated to public charging stations.

Nissan has selected AeroVironment Inc. as its in-home charging station supplier. Recharging the Leaf using both AV’s 240V and 480V charging stations at Nissan’s North American sales and marketing headquarters here proves to be simple and easy.

A device looking much like a fuel-filler wand is connected from a wall unit to the Leaf’s 240V outlet on its nose. Lights on the car’s dash reveal when a connection is made and charging has begun, and also when the battery is full.

’11 Nissan Leaf SV
Vehicle type Front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback
Engine 80 kW AC synchronous electric motor
Battery 24 kWh Lithium-ion
Torque (total) 207 lb.-ft. (280 Nm)
Curb weight 3,600 lbs. (1,633 kg)
Base price $32,780
Range 100 miles (161 km)
Competition Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Smart EV, Mini EV
Pros Cons
A real car Only 100-mile range
4.1 kWh returned! What’s a kWh?
It’s an EV It’s an EV

Charging can be programmed, both on the wall unit and via future Smartphone apps, to begin at lower-cost, off-peak times, usually late-night and early-morning when electric utilities discount kilowatt hours.

Because electric rates vary widely across the U.S., Nissan is not able to pinpoint how much it will cost to “refuel” the Leaf.

But the auto maker says at the average kWh rate of $0.11, it will cost $0.026 per mile, or $396 over 15,000 miles (24,140 km).

That compares with $0.12 per mile, or $1,800 for 15,000 miles, for an ICE car getting 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km) with gas at $3 per gallon.

The Leaf’s top speed is about 90 mph (145 km/h).

Ward’s comes close in our drive, hitting about 85 mph (129 km/h) on Nashville highways.

The instantaneous torque makes the Leaf a blast to drive, accelerating hard on entry ramps and in passing maneuvers.

The lack of engine noise and shift points makes it difficult to accurately sense speed, so a keen eye is required to stay below limits.

While accelerating is a thrill, taking your foot off the gas can be less fun. The car’s sudden deceleration can be jarring if the driver does not ease off the throttle gradually.

Another minor annoyance is the muffled whine emanating from the Leaf’s inverter, at speeds up to 45 mph (72 km/h). However, it’s likely to become invisible to owners after some time and also is easily drowned out by mid-level radio volume.

The battery in Ward’s Leaf tester was 81% full when our drive started. After 30.4 miles (48.9 km), we still had a 58% charge. Not bad, especially considering the car “idled” for 10 minutes during a driver change.

We strove to drive the Leaf much as we would a “normal” car: Air conditioning set at 70° F (21° C), and fan speed was low during the full route. The radio also was on, but at a low volume.

While the U.S. government still is debating how to state EV fuel economy, Nissan’s driver-information system told us we averaged 4.1 kWh over 14.5 miles (23.3 km) at a 23 mph (37 km/h) average. We guess this is good, but it seems battery state-of-charge is destined to be the go-to EV metric.

Nissan also uses a coniferous-tree-scoring icon to gauge efficient driving, with the tree growing in layers from bottom to top.

Another factoid from the driver info system: At the end of our 30.4 miles, it would have taken us four hours using a 240V line and 11 hours via 120V to completely recharge the battery. A driver also is told how much range can be gained by switching off the AC, heater and other devices.

Yes, Nissan has made the Leaf overly informational so as not to strand drivers who somehow forget their range is limited.

Various warnings are shown at low-range points, and the standard navigation system has a map with range-visualizing concentric circles radiating out from the current location of the car. Icons identify the nearest public charging station.

But all the ways the Leaf communicates with a driver are very cool and sure to please the techno-geek EV buyer.

Geeky, in a good way, best sums up the Leaf’s design. It certainly is not a sexy like Nissan’s 370 Z. But it’s not bland either, with its wagon-y hatchback shape, high-mounted headlamps (patented for their design that reduces wind noise) and prominent nose under which resides the charging receptacles for the car.

Still, we long for the day of the sexy EV and hope Infiniti’s future model breaks the dork mold.

The Leaf’s overall interior comfort level is high. Seats are supportive, legroom and headroom are adequate, if not above average, especially in the rear.

Thanks to the placement of the battery pack under the seats, rear-cargo space is good. We also like the deep glove box under the dash.

Fit and finish also get high marks. Hard plastic surfaces abound but they are low-gloss and panels meet cleanly.

Seat fabric, made from recycled post-consumer plastics, is soft but does not look fuzzy or cheap.

There are a few minor flaws in the interior, including bits of flashing and sharp edges on the driver’s door pocket and the obvious seam where the front and back pieces of the steering wheel meet.

The shiny, piano-black plastic trim of the center stack promises to be a headache to keep clean, but its gleam goes well with the Leaf’s futuristic design theme.

The Leaf comes in SL and SV grades. The SL adds $940 worth of content, including a solar-panel rear spoiler and a rearview monitor. SV Leafs come standard with Bluetooth hands-free calling, navigation, cruise control and 16-in. alloy wheels.

The SV costs $349 a month for 36 months with $1,999 down; an SL lease is $379 a month for the same duration and down payment.

Despite all the Leaf’s positives, the car’s much-debated 100-mile (161-km) range remains a huge drawback.

Committed drivers no doubt will learn to live with it, the same way they do an ICE-powered vehicle with a limited tank size. But charging stations are few and far between right now.

Even so, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when Ford began selling the Model T in 1908.

Nissan estimates 100 miles is plenty for 90% of drivers’ average daily routes. Plus, as battery technology improves, range will grow.

The Leaf likely can’t be someone’s only car, but in most households it’s enough to get you to work and back, with some stops along the way.

The Leaf’s price also is subject to scrutiny.

Yes, $32,780 (before the $7,500 federal tax credit and various state come-ons) is pricey for what essentially is a compact car with manual, cloth-covered seats and just two cupholders.

But a driver today easily can spend that much on a non-luxury Chevy Equinox or Honda Odyssey.

The biggest question mark is what will happen to electric rates in the future. EVs have the advantage now over ICE vehicles, but if rates go up the gap will shrink, or maybe disappear altogether.

And while it’s easier to control emissions at a coal-burning power plant, rather than at the tailpipe of millions of ICE vehicles, driving an EV isn’t a totally guilt-free endeavor, unless electricity is being generated via wind or solar power.

For now, driving a Leaf at least means saying goodbye to a dirty, smelly gas station and not filling the coffers of countries that are more foe than friend. And, if you’re so inclined, helping save the planet, one kilowatt hour at a time.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com