Currently reading: Taking on the Three Peaks Challenge in a Nissan Leaf
It’s two years since the Three Peaks Challenge got the better of Team Autocar. Now, with a new, longer-range Nissan Leaf, we’re out for revenge
10 mins read
5 August 2018

We’ve attempted this folly before. Almost exactly two years ago, three fearless – or should that be naïve? - Autocar staffers set out to climb Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in England’s Lake District and Mount Snowdon on the north-western corner of Wales all within 24 hours. You may already know this as the Three Peaks Challenge, and the numbers are plain scary: 23 miles of walking including 10,052ft of ascent.

Linking the lactic acid is almost 500 miles of driving, and to amplify the task at hand our steed was the pure-electric Nissan Leaf. A leggy diesel would have dispatched that sort of distance without even a solitary visit to the pump. As it was, the Leaf gave us roughly 110 miles of range to play with, and that just wasn’t enough. Halfway up Scafell Pike – time, desire and knee joints having seeped away – Team Autocar threw in the towel.

And yet, the sentiment was that with more favourable traffic conditions, charging infrastructure a fraction less embryonic and greater driving range, an unlikely triumph for zero-emission motoring might just be on the cards. That two-thirds of the original team are back for another attempt in 2018 certainly hints at unfinished business, and despite the fact executive editor Matt Burt and photographer Luc Lacey have chosen, questionably, to gird their constitutions with Guinness and curry on the eve of their date with Nevis, we’re actually rather better prepared this time around.

We know which charging points we’ll have to hit and when, and for how long the car will need to remain tethered to maximise all- important ‘draw’. We’ve also been in touch with Chargemaster – the UK’s largest charging network, recently acquired by none other than BP for £130 million – and Ecotricity, which provides stations at motorway services nationwide, to take the pulse of the infrastructure we’ll need. Everything is ‘online’.

Your humble scribe has by editorial diktat been roped in to do the driving at the last minute, and though I don’t have the benefit of Three Peaks experience as do climbers Burt and Lacey, the hardware is very much on my side. That’s because this time we’re using the second-generation Leaf, which is a car the magazine you’re holding considers a game- changer in the very broadest sense, not least because of an increase in real-world range. As stated, by the time it was superseded, the original Leaf’s 30kWh battery pack was good for around 110 miles’ careful driving. With a 40kWh pack, this new model ups that to roughly 165 miles, which we believe represents no impediment whatsoever to the vast majority of motorists’ routines. Extraordinarily, the world’s bestselling electric car is also cheaper than before, in base Acenta trim costing just a fraction more than £25,000 with a £4500 government grant.


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And so to the challenge. Our ‘keep it simple, stupid’ route would be almost identical to before, not least because any charging infra that had sprouted up in the meantime would be thrown into sharp relief given the range-related tribulations of 2016. It would take us from Fort William, near the foot of a conquered Ben Nevis, down the A82 to Glasgow, where we’d board the M74 and straight-line it south to Carlisle.

From there, the A595 would wind us along Lancashire’s industrial coastline and onto the single-lane funnel to the foot of Scafell Pike. Assuming we left Nevis with battery brimmed, the 260-mile route would require only a couple of short stops to ‘rapid charge’ from a 50kW source. Because the Leaf’s lithium ion battery pack protects itself by limiting the intake rate of electricity at the extremities of its capacity, in the interest of time-saving it would be important for us to reach these stations with between 20% and 80% of charge remaining. Do so and we’d be set for a ‘splash and dash’, taking on 100 miles of range in an hour.

After Scafell Pike, we’d be into unknown but straightforward territory, theoretically. Leaving its craggy shadow with a battery replenished while the chaps made for the summit would mean the 209-mile journey along the M6, the M56 and finally the A55 across the North Wales coast should necessitate just the one charge-stop. That done, our Leaf would come to its final, silent stop at the foot of Snowdon after 21 hours on the road. It all sounded ominously doable, if uncommonly gruelling for a midweek assignment.

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For locating potential charging spots, apps such as Zap-Map are a godsend and will furnish you with information on availability, power-draw and any fee that may be required. The climbers having set out for the summit of Nevis at midday, my first port of call is a government-operated ChargePlace Scotland point in nearby Fort William. Being of the ‘fast’ rather than ‘rapid’ variety, it takes 2.5 hours for our Leaf to ramp up from 60% battery capacity to fully charged, at which point the range graphic reads an encouraging 177 miles. The car has drawn precisely 18.692kWh of electricity at a rate of 6kW and, to my surprise, I can’t help but geek out about these numbers in a way I simply wouldn’t if I’d just squeezed 18.692 litres of unleaded into a typical hatchback. The process itself is also simple: merely a matter of swiping a ChargePlace Scotland card and plugging the thing in.

Car and chauffeur are back in the Camanachd car park at the base of Nevis in good time for the safe return of Burt and Lacey, some 4.5 hours after the stopwatch started ticking. Spirits are high but it’s a roasting day and the pair seem nicely sautéed. Breath is in short supply; biscuits are obliterated.

Time for the second-generation Leaf, surely yet to undergo so stark an examination of its faculties outside of Nissan’s own testing regime, to shine.

And shine it does, even against the A82’s astonishing Highlands backdrop, whose stature reduces arched bridges to Hornby-spec trinkets and shrinks entire forests to tufts of grass. If Nissan has succeeded in anything with this car, it is normalising an unfamiliar driving experience. Mounted atop the drive battery, the seats are still awkwardly perched and a steering wheel inexplicably bereft of telescopic adjustmentdoes nothing to help you get settled, but there’s a measure of maturity in the way the Leaf operates that wasn’t always there.

The damping feels less brittle over poor road surfaces and the by-wire steering is more convincingly weighted. Best of all, when your aim is to assiduously massage maximum mileage-per-kilowatt-hour out of the battery, you don’t have to drive as though you’re stuck behind farm traffic. Pin-sharp throttle response and a new digital instrument binnacle with well-defined energy-usage dials help you hone the flexion of your right ankle to hair-trigger levels. The trick is to establish your ideal speed and then sustain it by trickling electrons into the powertrain at the minimum rate.

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It’s a matter of concentration rather than patience, and most of the time the Leaf keeps pace with other cars as willingly as the pubs in these parts smuggle haggis into every other dish. Several levels of regenerative braking also help enormously in tailoring energy-recuperation to conditions. The first of our two stops on this stint is at a Shell station almost perfectly en route on Glasgow’s periphery. We reach its vacant charging bays just past six in the evening. The Instavolt points are positively gleaming, and even the lady at the kiosk admits we’re the first people she’s seen to actually plug something into them.

They must be brand new. After 106 miles, our Leaf is showing 68 miles’ range remaining, having registered a better-than-expected 4.5 miles/kWh, and a battery capacity of 36% – safely within our splash-and-dash window. Plug goes in, contactless credit card is swiped and charging commences. What happens next seems surreal. Not the fact that Burt and I head inside for water and tuna sandwiches. Rather, by the time we’re back out, the car’s indicated range has climbed to 99 miles. Such is the potency of a 50kW charger, and the technology is only improving, with 350kW super-rapid charging on the horizon.

Thus far it has been easy, but a motorway stint to our next top-up point brings a dose of reality. Cruising in a Leaf at 70mph might now be tremendously comfortable, but it remains a frightening drain on the battery. So much so that were it not for the topographical descent from Scotland to England and some opportune slip- streaming of an articulated lorry clearly late for its next delivery, we may have required a third stop before reaching our second peak of the day. After such energy-sapping tension, drifting over onto the entry slip for Todhills services on the M6 with precisely 20% battery charge remaining ranks as one of my most satisfying moments in this job.

We nevertheless reach Scafell Pike later than expected: at 1.06am, specifically, having evaded road-hogging sheep that can’t audibly detect our approach. Nine hours in our top-spec Leaf’s leather saddle and the rigours of charging have left my own biological batteries depleted, but from a purely selfish perspective things are about to get worse. To complete our challenge, at least one Autocar staffer must scale each peak, and of our assorted ailments – Burt (dodgy knees), Lacey (dodgy hips) and Lane (dodgy attitude) – it’s mine that invokes the least compassion. There’s but time enough for the ill-advised inhalation of an entire magazine of Jaffa Cakes before the second instalment of the double-stint from hell culminates in a 3am rendezvous with the tallest point in England.

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And there are problems at ground level too. The hotel where we had intended to charge up has locked its gates, and so despite reassuring infra expansion along arterial routes since our last Three Peaks Challenge attempt, there are still very real perils to going off the beaten track. Fortunately, another hotel offers us the use of their charging point (well, their achingly slow three-pin socket) during the middle of the night, demonstrating the sort of goodwill pioneering EV owners often enjoy first-hand.

That charging kerfuffle results in an additional stop between Scafell Pike and Snowdon and considerable delay, though the writing was on the wall before that point. The klaxon eventually sounds as we’re passing Conwy’s medieval walls, some 35 miles short of Snowdon. Team Autocar has again failed, though this time we can hardly blame our very sophisticated tool. In fact, the car, unlike its occupants, comes out of this pretty well. The Leaf remains a dispassionate device but, during 24 hours and 487.3 miles in which we’ve subjected it to a hyper-compressed caricature of the various activities owners will undertake, it has conducted itself without objective fault. In fact, were we to change anything for yet another attempt, it would be our own physical specification rather than that of the Nissan.

The growth of charging infastructure: 

With the up-front cost of electric cars falling, the availability of public charging is the predominant constraint on sales. That, at least, is the perception, but our Three Peaks adventure suggested otherwise.

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Opportunity for 50kW rapid-charging at motorway services was plentiful and planning ahead meant we were able to easily locate charging points in quieter suburbs, such as in Fort William. Just because a charge point exists does not mean it’s accessible, though, and our unusual schedule undoubtedly shielded us from any potential queues to plug in. Topping up the sizeable 40kWh battery when off the beaten track in rural Lancashire was more complicated, and there was no available public fast charger within easy reach of Scafell Pike.

Plans are afoot to address this, however. The government recently announced a £400 million fund for companies building and installing charge stations, and there’s an emphasis on providing low-cost, easy-access charge points – in street lighting columns, for example.

Oil giants Shell and BP are also in the process of installing rapid chargers at their UK petrol stations.

Doing the climb: 

When we last tried this in 2016, our progress was stalled by unexpected delays with recharging on the Scottish leg as much as by human frailties. This time, though, a lack of stamina was clearly the inhibiting factor.

We needed to be up and down Ben Nevis in a competitive time, but on the rocky steps that make up the route back down from the 1345m summit, my leg muscles turned to jelly.

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Despite his protestations of “hardly ever doing exercise”, snapper Luc Lacey skipped up Ben Nevis and Snowdon with his camera slung over his shoulder. Having joined the expedition as our designated driver, Ricky Lane was surprisingly enthusiastic tackling the Cumbrian leg in the dead of night, and completed it in under four hours. I, in turn, was happy to take his place behind the wheel of the Leaf.

Despite exceeding the 24-hour limit, we pressed on with Snowdon and, in total, our tag-team Three Peaks took 30hr 28min – a creditable step forward compared with 2016.

We didn’t have to look far to discover what a fit person could achieve. In a second Leaf, Gareth Dunsmore, Nissan Europe’s head of EVs, got round in 23hr 40min, which left the rest of us in awe at both his determination and the ever-expanding capabilities of electric vehicles. 

Read more

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Nissan hybrids in the pipeline as brand expands electrification push

The last time we tried taking on the Three Peaks Challenge in a Nissan Leaf

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5 August 2018

The A595 and Scarfell Pike are in Cumbria, not Lancashire

5 August 2018

Autocar, I can’t help but think that you should be doing more video content. This is an interesting read but I feel as though this extravaganza lends itself perfectly to being either a single video or a 3-part mini-series. 

6 August 2018

Article says the LEAF is "the world’s best selling electric car" pretty sure the BAIC EC and Model 3 sells more.

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