It’s finally here. The world’s first practical affordable electric production car that doesn’t look like it’s designed by a kid with a crayon and driven by Noddy. The Nissan Leaf may not be an exciting car. But it is an important one. If it sells – and Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is betting his company’s future on it – this may be a Mini/Model T moment. Game changers aren’t released very often.
The Leaf goes on sale early next year and, as long as David Cameron rubber-stamps Lord Mandelson’s grant, European production will come from Sunderland from 2013 (and from Japan until then). Unlike the G-Wiz and other similarly risible electric runabouts, this is not a ‘quadricycle’ that circumvents all safety rules (and common sense). It’s a proper car, meeting all Golf-sized hatchback safety expectations, seats five, and looks like a ‘proper’ car. Nissan purposefully made it look ‘normal’, hinting at unconventionality (note the rakish TGV like-nose) but not going too Dan Dare. This is a mass-produced Nissan, after all, and expected to have mass appeal.
Read our guide to the best electric cars and EVs on sale in the UK
OK, so what does the new Nissan Leaf cost – and what’ll she do, mister?
It’s £28,350 – but that drops to £23,350 after the UK government grant. (Many European governments, as well as the US and Japan, are offering similar rebates.) That’s still a fair bit more than a same-size Golf or Focus. But when the much lower running costs – the electricity should cost about a fifth as much as petrol or diesel – are factored, the AA reckons you’ll get that extra money back in about three years. The Leaf is also exempt from London’s congestion charge and road tax, and there is zero company car tax for the first five years.
Top speed - 90mph - is some way behind petrol class rivals, although 0-60mph in 11.5 seconds is similar to a mainstream petrol Focus. But the Leaf isn’t designed for top-end motorway and A-road speed. Rather, it’s for urban and suburban use. Off the mark and from 20-40mph, the Leaf feels brisk. That’s a corollary of its meaty V6-like torque. What’s more, that torque is delivered almost instantly.
The Leaf accelerates with amazing smoothness and refinement. It’s quieter than a Rolls Phantom at low speed. Up to 15mph, the only discernible sound – more obvious to pedestrians than occupants – is a muted jet engine whirr, an artificial sound (conveyed by a nose-mounted speaker) designed to warn pedestrians of its imminence. Over 15 mph, it cuts out. Nissan figures tyre noise and engine whine provide enough aural warning after that.
And the handling?
This was the really pleasant surprise. The Leaf is no lightweight, at just over 1500 kg, mainly due to the batteries. Yet those new-generation lithium ion batteries are all cleverly mounted in the floor, under the seats. This keeps the main mass of the car nice and low.
The upshot is agile handling and little roll. The light electric motor up front helps. This is one front-drive car that doesn’t have the majority of its mass perched over its front axle. Turn-in is sharp, steering pleasingly linear and light, and overall agility is a notch or two better than the mid-size hatch norm. Mind you our test was on a billiard-smooth Japanese track. We’ll have to wait and see how it fares on Britain’s broken B-roads, but the signs are promising.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Nissan Leaf first drive
What about range? Is this one EV that will always get you home?
Batteries have been the bugbear of EVs. Poor range is why the world car makers went down the petrol, not the EV, route right back at the dawn of motoring.
The Leaf not only has new-fangled lithium ion batteries – developed jointly with NEC – but, claims Nissan, they have double the energy storage of older Li-ion batteries. The claim is for a 100-mile range using the (relatively untaxing) US LA4 mode. That’s enough to satisfy the daily driving requirements of 80 percent of the world’s motorists. In the UK, average daily driving range is even lower. Nissan expects drivers to recharge overnight, using a specially supplied charger (with necessary circuit breaker). With a 220-240V system, as used in the UK, a full charge (from empty) will take about eight hours. A garage or at least a car port is highly desirable.
My test drive in Japan – just outside Yokohama – was brief. But the way the ‘range to empty’ gauge was dropping during energetic driving suggests that you’ll be lucky to cover 40 miles if you’re determined regularly to outdrag the petrol cars and be an electric Ayrton. More circumspect driving will play range dividends, and in the UK’s temperate climate that 100-mile guide range sounds realistic. There is also an ‘eco’ mode – selected by the cute little gear lever – that blunts acceleration, dials down the aircon and boosts the braking battery regeneration.
This is the world’s best-connected car
The Leaf must also be the world’s best-connected car, and this connectivity is mostly to aid what Nissan calls ‘range management’. Apart from the variety of gauges that show how much energy you’re using and how many miles to empty (at low remaining battery charge a ‘turtle’ icon shows), an ‘Intelligent Transport’ system displays nearby recharging stations and give satnav directions to get there. An iPhone app can turn on and off battery charging, pre-programme charging, and even turn on the aircon or heating when the Leaf is connected to the grid. So you’ll be comfortable the moment you step on board. Your iPhone can also remotely tell you the car’s battery charge level.
Does it drive like a ‘normal’ car?
Mostly, yes. Acceleration is brisker low down yet slower at higher revs when a petrol engine would be getting into its stride. It’s always fabulously and eerily quiet. There are no gears of course – electric motors have such broad and usable torque bands that a stepped transmission is unnecessary. So no clutch pedal, and none of that ‘slush’ you sometimes get in torque converter automatics.
Electric motors don’t idle, so when you turn on the ignition you get a Nintendo Wii-type electronic jingle rather than the gruff bark of combustion. Nissan offers a choice different ‘ignition’ tones. Children will love it. The dashboard also lights up. To go, simply put the gear lever in Drive and accelerate (noiselessly).
Any other compromises, beyond that 100-mile range?
Nissan has tried hard to reassure buyers that the Leaf can do everything – except ply motorways long distance – that a ‘normal’ car can do. It’s roomy – rear seat room is good enough for three – and the boot is big.
All very well, but does it really make for ‘greener’ motoring?
Good question. There is of course no tailpipe pollution, so the Leaf will help cleanse city air (thus the ‘Leaf’ name). That’s good news for anyone living, working, walking or cycling in cities. Most surveys also conclude that EVs produce less CO2 – even when the grid is powered by ‘dirty’ coal – than petrol or diesel cars. With natural gas, nuclear or even better solar- or wind-power, the carbon-saving benefits are considerable.
Nissan also has a robust plan in place to reuse and recycle exhausted Leaf batteries. They are guaranteed for five years. The battery should comfortably last eight-10 years, says Nissan.
This is a cleverly wrought and well-developed EV. For those who need go no more than 50-100 miles a day, it provides perfectly adequate – and conscience-cleansing – daily transport. It’s heavier than ideal, and no doubt subsequent EVs will go faster and further: we are still at the dawn of a new technology, and pioneers never stay class leaders for long.
Yet the early adopters will likely love it, and even those pragmatists who simply want eco-friendly transport – and don’t mind paying a premium up front – will likely become advocates, charmed by the agility, silent progress and standing start urge. They should also like the low running costs.
The electric revolution has arrived. It will not supplant petrol or diesel power, at least not for many years – the compromises are still too profound. (Even the likely EV market leader, Renault-Nissan, expects only 10 percent of its total car sales to be EVs by 2020.) But drive a Leaf, or a prototype Mini E, or listen to many car makers’ ambitious EV plans, or take note of governments’ efforts to promote their expansion, and you know this is a technology that will blossom, just as the global green revolution continues to bloom.
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