From £21,125
First European test reveals a promising future for the electric car, if range is addressed

Our Verdict

Nissan Leaf

The electric Nissan Leaf has its work cut out competing with cheaper mainstream cars - but it does make a case for itself

25 October 2010

What is it?

After months of drip-fed information, development drives and a first test in Japan, the moment to drive the European-spec Nissan Leaf on European roads has finally arrived. This is the very same car British buyers will be able to pay £23,990 for (including 20 per cent VAT and the government’s £5000 electric car grant) from March 2011.

You’ll already know a lot about the Leaf by now, but here’s a quick recap. It uses a dedicated EV platform with a conventional MacPherson strut front/torsion beam rear suspension set-up. A 24kWh laminated lithium-ion battery pack (packaged between the axles and below the seats for optimised weight distribution) powers a 107bhp, 206lb ft high-response synchronous electric motor.

Just one model will be offered with no differing trim levels. They’ll be just one option: a solar panel for the roof. As such standard equipment is generous, including air-con and a sat-nav with some EV-unique features (more on those later).

Here are the crucial figures: it can manage 100 miles on one full charge, enough for around 80 per cent of daily driving needs in Europe claims Nissan. A full recharge takes around eight hours.

What’s it like?

A very conventional driving experience. This may sound like damn with faint praise, but it’s exactly what Nissan was after. The Leaf is the first real EV in familiar, mainstream packaging, so it’s important that it had a uncompromising driving experience that buyers would be familiar with.

Push the button to start and you’re greeted with some graphics from the virtual instrument panel and a cheery chime. Then pull back the driving mode selector into D and you’re off. The first trait that is noticeable about the Leaf (apart from the eerie silence at start-up) is the brisk acceleration. The torque is instantly available, and the Leaf is surprisingly – and pleasingly - quick off the line with it. Throw in the distinctive and really quite pleasant-sounding whirr from the electric motor, and your first few metres in an EV are likely to be memorable ones.

The Leaf will carry on all the way up to a claimed 89mph if you so choose; in our varied test run on a mix of Portuguese roads it was never found wanting for keeping up with traffic, nor did it feel like it was running out of puff up hills. Although the range indicator dropped at an alarming rate when at speed on the motorway.

Find yourself in the wrong lane and in need of a quick surge of power, then there’s impressive roll-on acceleration to rely on, something that also allows for swift passing manoeuvres to be pulled off if needs be.

There are two driving modes: normal and eco. We’d recommend driving in normal unless you really are intent on maximising the range, as eco sucks the fun and relative urgency out of the Leaf in favour of a more sedate, and ultimately duller, drive.

Decent ride and handling are another two surprising Leaf traits. There’s a bit of bump thump on more broken surfaces but elsewhere it’s quite soft and compliant, akin to that of a Toyota Prius (which similarly suffers at lower speeds). Keenly throw the Leaf into bends and it will eventually understeer, but not before surprising you with a stable willingness to hang on and some spirited tyre squeal.

Less pleasing, however, is the steering and brakes. The steering is just too light and devoid of feel and feedback. The hydraulic brakes, backed up by regenerative braking, stop the Leaf very well, but it can be a less than smooth experience, especially in traffic.

While we’ll leave you to judge the Leaf’s slightly peculiar exterior design, it’s a better experience for those inside the cabin. The design is nice, but hunting around does expose lots of hard-touch plastics and switchgear borrowed from models lower down the range, not what you’d expect from a £24k family hatch. Another nagging emission at this price point is the lack of a reach-adjustable steering wheel.

The real highlight inside is the various functions of the centre console. From here the driver can look at a map of how far the Leaf’s current charge will allow you to travel, a list of nearby EV charging stations, a record of your driving history (eco friendly or not), controls to set the charger to turn on overnight when electricity is cheaper and the option to turn the heating/air-con on in the morning so the cabin is at its optimum temperature before you start your morning journey.

These latter two options can also be operated remotely by a smartphone, while the Leaf can also hook up to your computer for you to plot eco-friendly or more scenic routes and remotely upload them to its sat-nav.

The boot space of 330-litres is comparable for the class, although its less than conventional shape limits load capacity. Taller rear passengers will also suffer from a lack of knee and legroom, although headroom is decent.

Should I buy one?

Nissan is the first car maker to get a credible, usable EV to market and for that it should be commended. It concedes an EV isn’t for everyone at this early stage – those without a garage or who regularly travel long distances, for example, need not apply. But it also points out you wouldn’t buy a GT-R as a family car or a Pathfinder as a city run-around.

Early-adopters and those who love new technology will already be sold, while those who really don’t do more than 80 miles or so a day should definitely take a look at the Leaf as effective transport that’s (initial purchase price aside) cheap to run and easy to maintain. Nissan reckons you could save £800 per year on fuel alone if you travel 9300 miles a year. That’s before savings on the congestion charge and discounted parking.

But doubts over the range and a lack of charging infrastructure remain and this will be a deal-breaker for many, regardless of how conventional and enjoyable it is to drive. Those who fit into this category should still admire the Leaf for what it does, and watch with interest if the EV really does take off enough for battery technology to come down in price and increase in range. Then EVs such as the Leaf really could be seen as a viable alternative to mainstream rivals such as the Golf.

Price: £23,990 (including 20 per cent VAT and £5000 electric car government grant); 0-62mph: 11.9sec (claimed); Top speed: 89mph (claimed); Range; 100 miles (claimed); Economy: 0g/km at tailpipe; Kerb weight: 1595kg; Powertrain: electric motor, 24kWh laminated lithium-ion; Power: 107bhp; Torque: 206lb ft

Join the debate


26 October 2010

Great to see a safe EV and I am sure these will sell like hot cakes in London where the savings will make some sense. If you do not drive into London every day though this will need to stack up against a golf/focus in many areas other than basic usability, such as practicality, versatility, comfort and performance and in these areas I bet it will fall far short of the mark. Like the mark 1 prius this is the first foray for electric cars into a highly evolved market, it will be the mark 3 or 4 that will start to truly compete.

26 October 2010

Come on, let's see a proper test of the new Leaf. We all know that it will deliver a claimed 89mph top speed and a claimed 100 mile range, but what will it do in the real world?

Will it run for more than 5 minutes at top speed, and how far will it go with the lights, wipers and heater on at motorway cruising speeds? Or would you be wise never to venture out of town lest the thing runs out of juice?

I suggest that you get one on your long term fleet right now, and tell us what this car is really like.

26 October 2010

Totally agree with LP, there needs to be some proper transparency on the range of these cars in real-world driving. How long did the Leaf test run last, and what was its state of charge at the end of it? Why aren't EV manufacturers obliged to quote urban, ex-urb and combined ranges expressed in time (rather than mpg), and bracketed by worst- and best-case scenarios (ie winter's night on gridlocked road, and steady-speed non-stop running)? Unless and un til there's some honesty to go with the honeymoon-period novelty value of EVs, the only growth industry in the next few years will be in EV breakdown recovery.

26 October 2010

Also wondering if there is a genetic difficulty with regenerative braking as the Hybrid Escalade appears to have the same problem.

26 October 2010

[quote tonym911]Also wondering if there is a genetic difficulty with regenerative braking as the Hybrid Escalade appears to have the same problem.[/quote] I'm sure that the regenerative braking works just fine. The real problem is that the Leaf's batteries contain just 24 kWh of energy, equivalent to less than 3 litres of petrol (1 litre contains approx 9 kWh). The only saving grace is that a petrol engine has a thermal efficiency of around 30%, whereas the efficiency of an electric motor is close to 100%, but even if you allow for this, it's like driving a petrol car with a 2 gallon tank which you can't fill up in a hurry.

26 October 2010

shame that`s so bloody ugly

26 October 2010

I agree with the others. We need autocar to run one on the fleet to see just how far it really goes on a charge, how much that is reduced by hard driving, and cold weather etc. We also need to know if the range drops as the car ages. My 4 year old laptop can barely manage 20 minutes on its batteries. This will be no good if by the age of 3 or 4 this car is down to a 15 mile range.

26 October 2010

Excellent point there by artill on battery degradation over time. It would be an interesting feature to round up some of the early Priuses (I saw a Mk 1 in Milton Keynes the other day) and test their battery status. This might seem like degilding the gingerbread or pouring cold water on all this EV excitement but we really do need a dose of reality about now and it would be nice to see that coming from the manufacturers before legislation makes it compulsory. As it stands it's little more than a 'look at us, we're first' marketing exercise which has no relevance to the potential adopters of this technology.

26 October 2010

Dont see EVs as the way ahead yet . They are like windfarms grant rather than results driven . See range extenders as a much more realistic future .

26 October 2010

I see this car working for a suburbanite with a garage, who has a short commute and/or runs a lot of short errands. My commute to work is 5 miles one way in stop and go suburban traffic, and my wife's driving consists of running lots of errands of 3 miles or less (kids to school, groceries, library, etc.). Our electricity is cheap and we park our vehicles in a garage each night, so charging wouldn't be a burden. We have two cars anyway, so the other (petrol) car could be used for longer drives. In contrast, I don't see the Leaf working for somebody with a long drive to work, no dedicated parking, etc.


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