Which brings us to the charging bays at a snowy Beaconsfield services, a sprawling autotropolis at junction two of the M40, with three electric cars you could buy tomorrow and would cost considerably less than a you-know-what. It is cold – hideously so – and during the 30-mile hop from Autocar’s road-test base in south-west London our cars have somewhat worryingly shed 60 miles of indicated range. That’s a bit of a reality check, straightaway.
In fact, with none of our three contenders benefiting from active thermal battery management to stave off the chill and so safeguard their independence, the timing for this test could only have been worse for the manufacturers involved if South Bucks had all of a sudden been hit by an electricity brownout. Such foul weather is, however, rather convenient for the rest of us because we get to judge these cars some way out of their respective comfort zones.
So, this new and British-built Nissan Leaf, which is the main reason we’re here: is it a big deal? Yes, it’s a watershed moment, potentially. For the second generation of the world’s best-selling electric car, driving range has increased by half again, to 168 miles on the new, more representative WLTP test, with power up by an almost similarly encouraging proportion.
There’s now 148bhp on offer, up from 107bhp, although it’s the 236lb ft (an increase from 187lb ft) from a standstill that you’ll rather more easily perceive. The car costs less than before too, with our well-equipped Tekna-grade model (Bose sound system, heated seats all-round and semi-autonomous driving functions) costing £27,490 after a £4500 government grant for plug-in cars.
With that range especially, it’s a convincing, more usable package than before and, while the curious proportions of the old model have not entirely faded, the 2018 car is undoubtedly sleeker and the dark accents on white paint lend it a hi-tech identity previously lacking. It still has a big bottom, mind.
Adjacent to the Leaf, also rapid-charging at a cost of 30 pence per kilowatt-hour, are Volkswagen’s e-Golf and the Renault Zoe. They’re key rivals that straddle the newcomer on price and, for want of a better word, premium-ness. The French car, with its comical tough-guy frown, is still cute as you like in Zircon Blue even five years after launching, and continues to strike the same-but-different aesthetic better than most.
It’s cut out of the supermini cookie-mould, and we already know it sacrifices a little in refinement and practicality next to the others but counters that with a persuasive set of vital statistics.
Our sub-£20,000 test car (though you do pay £59 a month for battery rental) is a Q90 model. With 87bhp is a little less powerful than the R90 but in return is capable of charging on a 43kW rapid charger, as provided by the Ecotricity station to which we’re currently cabled. That’ll get it to 80% of a real-world range nudging 150 miles in just over an hour.