CAR's Gavin Green drove a pre-production Nissan Leaf in Japan last year and came away impressed. So did European Car of the Year judges, who awarded the Nissan Leaf the COTY award for 2011.
The Leaf continues to garner accolades in the media and positive reports from all who drive it. But we haven't had a chance to try the Leaf on UK roads. Until now. Read on for our UK-spec Nissan Leaf first drive review...
Read our guide to the best electric cars and EVs on sale in the UK
First impressions of the Nissan Leaf electric car
Sent to save us from our fossil-fuel addiction, and herald a new age of zero-emmissions driving, the Nissan Leaf is a rather homely five-door hatchback on first acquaintance. There are some nice aerodynamic details and it doesn't stray far from convention but the bustle-backed five-door is styled for maximum efficiency, not beauty contests.
Open the door and you're greeted with a spacious and mildly more exciting interior. Be warned though, the Leaf contains a level of beige and light grey material which must come close to contravening the EU standards on dark interior colours rigidly followed by most manufacturers. You get a split-level digital dashboard that mimics conventional dials for 'fuel level' and powertrain temperature and a central infotainment screen for the sat-nav system as well as eco statistics. You also get good seating space for up to five regular adults and a spacious 330-litre boot.
If you're carrying an iPhone, you can even remotely control your Leaf's heating, door locks, engine start-up and monitor battery charge levels using Nissan's free Carwings application. It does not allow for remote driving of the Leaf at this time.
Once ensconced in the comfortable driver's seat, a touch of the dashboard power button causes a chime akin to an LCD television powering up, and then silence. A diminutive hockey-puck shift lever operates the single-speed automatic transmission, which offers Drive and Eco Drive engine mapping, neutral and reverse. Park is activated by a push-button on the top of the shifter, and an electronic parking brake is situated nearby.
Drop into D and a small amount of transmission creep has been built in, so you start rolling forward in near-silence, a nose-mounted speaker providing bystanders with a synthesised whirring noise to ensure they don't test the Leaf's pedestrian impact capabilities.
Driving the Nissan Leaf
A one-word summary of 'normal' seems to damn the reigning European Car of the Year with exceedingly faint praise. But once over the novelty of EV silence and out in traffic you find that the Leaf rides, steers and handles much as its midsize hatchback rivals. No surprises there, as the Leaf uses a MacPherson strut front/torsion bar rear suspension that is still common in its class. The electrically-assisted steering is light but is unaffected by the Leaf's instant-full torque, and undisturbed by typical potholed urban streets or the patchwork patina of B-roads.
Cornering the Leaf is fun, with a lower-case 'f' befitting its family car role and comfortable suspension tuning. The Leaf's battery pack is positioned low in the chassis for ideal weight distribution, and combined with the responsive electric drive you can enjoy stringing together a series of bends, albeit with more roll than a fundamentalist hot hatch driver would tolerate. You'll still have to suffer Focus drivers waving motoring magazine endorsements in your face when talk turns to family car driving thrills, but you can silence them by asking how much road tax they're paying and what their fuel bill is.
If you treat every traffic light as if it's the lights at Santa Pod dragstrip, best leave the drive selector in D, and stay close to home. The Leaf will leap handily away from the line in D, and keep ahead of traffic if so-driven up to around 30mph. But you'll pay for it in terms of range.
Eco Drive puts the car into full energy-miser mode, blunting acceleration no matter how desperately you may mash the pedal on a dual carriageway. In regular D another journalist apparently managed to coax the Leaf up to 94mph, but your natural environment on motorway runs will be amongst the slower vehicles, perhaps slipstreaming lorries to maximise range. The Leaf still works best in town.
Braking is by conventional discs and the EV's regenerative braking system. In Eco Drive you get full regenerative effect upon lift-off and braking, and I was able to add range to the Leaf's battery pack by coasting on an extended downhill section of the test route. Left in D, the Leaf provides around 60% of available renegerative braking capability if the dashboard power display is an accurate indicator.
What about the range of the Nissan Leaf?
Nissan points out a 110-mile maximum range for the Leaf, in Eco Drive mode, and 100 miles in D. Driving it on the UK launch route (and off it when my solo navigation skills failed me) I did roughly 72 miles of driving in both Eco Drive and regular D. The route included suburban streets, B-roads, dual carriageway and motorway driving, to which I added more motorways and some additional unplanned sightseeing of the featureless boulevards of Milton Keynes. I had an indicated 22 miles of range remaining when I returned the car, with motorway running proving to be the biggest detriment to power conservation.
Charging the Leaf can be accomplished in 7-8 hours using Nissan's £999 240 volt 16 amp charging box, with British Gas and Scottish Gas contracted as installers for the UK. Nissan's 26 EV dealerships will also boast fast chargers operating via three-phase power, which can put a Leaf battery back to 80% in 30 minutes. Expect similar performance from public EV charging points. If you get caught with only regular power outlets available it'll take 12 hours to fully restore a Leaf battery pack.
The price of Leaf ownership
Thanks to £5000 in government EV subsidies, you'll pay £25,990 for a basic Nissan Leaf. That does get you a car with power windows, mirrors, automatic air conditioning, sat-nav and the sort of earth-friendly driving emissions that is the Leaf's primary selling point.
Parking sensors (£365.21 for front or rear), metallic paint and a rear hatch spoiler boasting solar cells for additional charging capability (£260) are the only major options, apart from the near-mandatory £999 home charging station.
Nissan promotes a £399 per month Private Contract Purchase (PCP) lease deal for three years, which would absolve the owner of any long-term worries over battery pack longevity - they could trade in the Leaf for the next generation at the end of the term. Depending on your off-peak night-time electricity rate, Nissan claims you may pay as little as £1.30 to refuel your Leaf.
Company car buyers will pay zero benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax on the Leaf, and you'll escape road tax and London congestion charges thanks to the zero-emissions status the Leaf enjoys.
You get both car and battery for your purchase price. Nissan claims after five years the 95% recyclable lithium-ion cell will be down to 80% charge capacity, and slowly degrade from that point onwards, resisting the sorts of performance losses that blight mobile phone and laptop computer Li-ion cells. There's a five-year warranty on the battery too, for added peace of mind. How the market for replacement batteries evolves over the Leaf's lifetime remains to be seen, but this won't trouble early adopters.
The Leaf has the EV family car market to itself at the moment - you may save by purchasing a Mitsubishi I MIEV at £23,990 after subsidy, but it's a much smaller car and boasts a 90-mile range.
However, that £26k purchase price puts the Leaf equivalent to a Lexus CT200h hybrid in mid-spec SE-L guise, which still gives you one foot in the Birkenstocks of eco responsibility whilst removing EV range anxiety from the equation. If you're happy with the free baggage you get with Toyota Prius ownership, a top-spec T-spirit goes for £23,895. Or you can be a conformist in a VW Golf Bluemotion TDI and get 65mpg for £22,500 in manual form.
Early adopters and alternative-fuel enthusiasts won't care about the high purchase price, the debatable eco-friendliness of EVs and their related battery tech, or the somewhat-awkward appearance of the Nissan Leaf. But they will enjoy the fact that they have a practical five-door hatchback that displays a depth of development and ease of driving befitting a sensible family car, along with their zero-emissions drivetrain.
If you're in a position to give EV motoring a try, the Leaf should pleasantly surprise you by the way it minimises the compromises that have been associated with EVs to date.
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