At friend and family gatherings, people tend to catch up with the fact that I'm driving an electric car. Questions are asked, mostly about range, battery power, and how I plug it in. But, due to my role of working as an automotive journalist, the assumption is that I know the inner workings of the car down to the finest detail. So when the question of the "engine" comes up, the witty banter ends and half the group moves on to the dessert table.

An engine is an engine, right? In its most common form, the internal combustion engine takes gasoline and ignites it to convert it into motion by powering the wheels. There are over 1,000 moving parts involved in a typical combustion engine - valves, sparkplugs, pistons, crankshaft and the like, and that's just the engine.

Well, the Nissan Leaf (and other electric cars soon to come) does not have an engine. Much like your washing machine, it has an electric motor. Compared to a gasoline engine, the Leaf's motor only has a few dozen parts, and there's no gas, no oil, no sparkplugs, no etc.

To be technical, the Leaf's has a "high-response AC synchronous electric motor" that generates 108 horsepower and 206 pound-feet of torque. The transmission is a one-speed automatic. This is the point that the eyes glaze over and, depending on the knowledge base of the person who asked the question, the conversation may end there. If it continues, the next question is, how fast does it go? I say, 'up to 95 mph.' You see, instead of a transmission, that reads the commands of the pedal and brake, the Leaf has an all-electric drive mode controller.

Sensing confusion, I cleverly change the topic to performance. You see, this crazy, simple motor is able to catapult the Leaf from 0-60 mph in less than 11 seconds and nobody is ever ready to feel the torque it creates from a complete stop. I've personally shocked many a sporty luxury car driver next to me by speed off the mark when I'm not driving in ECO mode. And, I am constantly impressed by the fact that this one lonely gear can also propel me on highways at speeds up to and beyond 80 miles per hour. No shifting.

Nissan also provided me with a some motor trivia facts that I can use at future social gatherings:

  • The Leaf's AC motor is industrial-grade, which means it's far more robust than what you'd find in everyday electric-powered machinery, such as a washing machine.
  • The car shifts into forward and reverse without a transmission or any cables - all done by wire, which is a more flexible, lighter-weight system.
  • The single gear is called a "reducer" which slows power coming from the motor to the wheels.

It's amazing how quickly the conversation turns to movies, books and the latest family gossip after this topic is soon exhausted, but conversations like this will be necessary to change the way people think about the new technology of cars in the future. Painful though they may be.

Want to learn more? Follow our long-term test of the Nissan Leaf.

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Joni Gray is a long-standing member of the automotive industry and has worked on both the corporate and publishing sides of the business. Over the past 20 years, she has managed advertising and marketing programs at Mazda, Hyundai and Honda and has been an editor at both Kelley Blue Book and the Los Angeles Times.

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