You know that Nissan commercial where the guy finds out that his wife is pregnant and he goes out to the driveway to stare lovingly at his impressive Nissan 370Z (2-seat sports car), lamenting the lack of a backseat for his baby-to-be?  He then proceeds to stretch the vehicle into a new 2011 Maxima sedan.  Presto!  Problem solved!  Of course, in reality it’s not quite this easy to make room for your expanding family.  So, when I was invited to a media event in Manhattan to check out the brand new Nissan LEAF – I wondered, “could this amazing zero-emissions electric vehicle be an amazing zero-emissions family vehicle?”  Then I proceeded to wonder “will everyone think I’m insane when I show up at Micky Mantle’s restaurant on Central Park South with a pile of carseats stacked on a Maclaren stroller (and with no kids in sight)?”  I’m sure a few people unaffiliated with the Nissan event did wonder what the heck I was doing, in a crowded bar/restaurant, with all these carseats piled on a stroller but hey… this is Manhattan and we’re used to strange people and strange behavior, right?   

Before I go into any details regarding my assessment of this vehicle’s capabilities to haul a family around town comfortably, I just have to gush a bit first about how amazing this new vehicle really is.  I’m a typical jaded, native New Yorker and very few things in this world really blow me away.  But learning about this new vehicle and all the possibilities surrounding the technology that it incorporates was nothing short of exhilarating.  The Nissan people were also extremely knowledgeable overall (not just regarding this one particular product) and their energy and excitement regarding the LEAF was infectious. 

Everywhere we went with this incredible vehicle, people stopped to talk and stare.  From random pedestrians, to the doormen on Central Park South, to the guy driving the car-service Lincoln who pulled up next to us in traffic to announce that he had “reserved” a LEAF and was anxiously awaiting its arrival – this vehicle created a buzz everywhere it went!  It was fun to be a part of that experience even if it was just for one afternoon. 

Alright, enough gushing about how impressed I was and how much fun I had.  I know our readers want to know what they can expect from this vehicle when it comes to hauling their most precious cargo and all the gear that comes with that territory. 

The Nissan LEAF is definitely no minivan but I doubt anyone who is thinking about purchasing one expects it, or wants it to be, a minivan.  The LEAF is a small sedan but I was pleasantly surprised by its relative roominess inside – both up front and in the backseat.  I was expecting something with a tiny, cramped backseat and what I found was neither tiny nor cramped.  For reference it’s a few inches longer than the Versa and I sat comfortably in the rear outboard position (behind the driver) with plenty of spare legroom. 

The adjustable head restraints in the rear outboard seating positions were tall enough to provide me with proper head support and the vehicle had side curtain airbags.  The only obvious downside (from a safety standpoint) was that the vehicle lacked a head restraint in the center rear position.  All the rear lap/shoulder belts had switchable retractors to lock the seatbelt when installing a child restraint.  The vehicle had 2 sets of lower LATCH anchors (one set for each rear outboard position) and, as required, had a top tether anchor for each of the 3 rear seating positions.  As is typical in most Nissan vehicles, the lower LATCH anchors were considerably recessed into the bight but luckily it wasn’t too difficult for me to attach the push-on style LATCH connectors when I needed to do that (more on carseat installations in a bit).  I didn’t have the opportunity to review the vehicle’s owners manual that day but unless Nissan has changed their stance on the issue recently – installation of a CR (child restraint) in the center seating position, using non-standard LATCH spacing, is prohibited.  Translation for those of our readers who may be new to this concept or terminology: if you’re planning to install a carseat in the center of the Nissan LEAF, you’re going to have to use the seatbelt instead of the lower LATCH anchors.  This isn’t a problem as long as you can get a good, tight installation using the seatbelt.  You will have to lock the seatbelt either by switching the retractor (see vehicle owners manual for more specific instructions) or using the lock-off device on your carseat (if it has such a feature).          

What may cause problems with certain carseat installations is how narrow that center seating position is.  It’s really, really narrow.  Like only 9″ between the seatbelt anchors kind-of-narrow.  In the outboard positions you’ll have plenty of room to install most carseat models.  However, if you want your child’s seat to go in the center position of this vehicle – just know that you’re going to be limited in terms of what’s actually going to fit there and install well.    

Now, since I had to schlep the carseats from the parking garage to the event location at Mickey Mantle’s, I was limited in terms of what I was able to bring to try out in the vehicle.  I also had no idea how small the backseat would be or how much time I would have to “play” so I chose 3 current CRs that I thought had a good chance of installing well in a smaller vehicle.  My selections were a Chicco KeyFit 30 infant seat with base, the new Britax Roundabout 55 convertible and the Harmony LiteRider backless booster.  As it turned out – I chose well! 

The first seat I tried was the Chicco KeyFit 30 in the center position. As I mentioned previously, the LEAF has a very narrow center seating position but the KeyFit base installed quickly and easily in this spot using the seatbelt and the lock-off device on the base.  The infant carrier also fit well between the two front seats and didn’t interfere with the ability to move either of those front seats back on the seat track.  Mission #1 accomplished!  You don’t have to get rid of your awesome new electric car (or attempt to stretch it into something else) if you have a baby!  

     

But everyone knows babies don’t stay little for long and before you know it, it’s time to move up to the next step in carseats – the rear-facing convertible!  Hence, my next installation was the Britax Roundabout 55 installed in the rear-facing position.  Since my installation time was limited, I took the easy road and installed it rear-facing with the lower LATCH anchors in the outboard position.  The Roundabout 55 installed quickly and easily, as I expected, and there was still enough room for the passenger up front to have their seat in a comfortable position – even with the rear-facing seat installed behind it.  Mission #2 accomplished!  Your awesome new electric car won’t have to be replaced just because your baby has outgrown the infant carseat!

     

Additionally, I was happy to find an ideal and convenient place to wrap Britax’s tether connector strap around in order to tether this particular convertible carseat ”Swedish style”.  Disclaimer: currently only Britax Convertibles (all models) and Sunshine Kids Radian models allow this type of tethering.  

 

Installing the Roundabout 55 outboard in the forward-facing position wasn’t going to be a problem in this car so I didn’t even bother to waste the precious little time I had on this type of install.  But then there was talk of a challenge… a certain Nissan person wanted to know if I thought 3 CRs would fit (simultaneously) across the backseat of this vehicle.  Hmmmm… maybe?  Any veteran of 3-across situations in smaller vehicles knows that the key to success is finding 3 seats that “mesh” well next to each other.  I didn’t come prepared specifically for a 3-across challenge so the question was, would the 3 seats I had with me fit well next to each other in this vehicle?  Only one way to find out! 

The Victory Lap:  Chicco KeyFit 30 in center position installed with seatbelt, forward-facing Britax Roundabout 55 in the outboard position installed with seatbelt (to position it as close to the door as possible), Harmony LiteRider backless booster in the other outboard position with the necessary head restraint.  Mission unexpected accomplished!!!

Honestly, in my humble opinion, this wasn’t a realistic arrangement if you really needed to transport 3 children in this vehicle on a regular basis.  However, each seat was properly installed and it was all “legit” even if it wasn’t very practical.  In the near future there should be additional information from the Nissan Snug Kids program on other CRs that fit and install well in this vehicle.  

What is realistic and practical is that the Nissan LEAF will accomodate two kids comfortably – regardless of whether they are infant twins or teenagers.  The truck space should be ample enough for most strollers plus whatever else you need to throw back there on a daily basis.  No, it’s not cavernous but it’s not itty-bitty either.  

Truthfully, once kiddo #3 is on the way then it’s time to look at something a tad bit larger.  No matter how much I love this car, I would not recommend it for someone who needed to transport 3 children on a regular basis.  However, for families that have one or two kids – the Nissan LEAF really could be the primary ”family” vehicle.  And you’d definitely be the coolest family on the block if you had one!  Of course, if someday your family does outgrow this vehicle, well… there’s always the next-generation Nissan Quest.  No, it’s not a zero-emissions minivan but hopefully Nissan is working on that! 

Thank you Nissan for a great introduction to the amazing new LEAF!     

PS – Mark, I hope you got your steak dinner! 

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