Test Driving the Nissan Leaf

Our intrepid reporter takes the new electric vehicle for a spin

It might not be environmentalism or patriotism or saving money that becomes the factor that compels Knoxvillians to end their love affair with the Pilot pump. In the end, it might just be the cars.

Because the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are both really damn cool cars.

At the Electric Power Research Institute event two weeks ago, I was able to ride shotgun in TVA's Volt, and Nissan allowed me to test drive the Leaf. I didn't get to floor it on the highway, but I did take it up to close to 50 mph on the road, and I spun it around a few parking lots.

I am not a car person, per se, but I am a person who drives a lot, and I am a person who wants a car that can hug curves and make agile turns—in short a car with some zip and performance. I care about fuel economy, but I care about how the car drives more. The Prius was an option when I last went car-shopping, and it was not an option I considered. But the Leaf seems to have both zip and performance. And if my turn in the passenger seat is any indication, the Volt does too.

And the dashboards! And the control panels! They tell you exactly how many miles you have left in your battery, a number that adjusts itself when you turn on or off the heating system, or speed up or slow down. The GPS in the Leaf can locate the nearest charging station, and it can show you on a map how far you can go, and all this other cool stuff that I couldn't write down because I was driving the car as the Nissan rep explained it to me. It was hard to not keep saying, "This is so damn cool!"

As someone who averages 20,000 miles a year on her car, and lives alone, the Volt would probably be a more practical car for me. Unlike the emission-free, 100 percent electric Leaf, the Volt is a plug-in hybrid with a battery range of up to 40 miles before the engine kicks in. I would have an all-electric commute to work every day, but I'd be able to go on long roadtrips too. Of course, both vehicles are well out of my price range, but I can say that my few minutes in the new generation of plug-ins will make me much more likely to consider buying one a few years down the road.

And if you'd like to check out the Leaf for yourself, Nissan is scheduling test drives at World's Fair Park for the weekend of Feb. 25-27. Visit www.drivenissanleaf.com for more details.