Refreshed saloon is much more convincing inside, but range-topping 2.5-litre...
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, when you have an outspoken, entrepreneurial polymath in the form of Elon Musk at the helm and your family saloon can reach 60mph faster than a Lamborghini, people are going to notice. Similarly, when you launch an example of your old whisper-quiet roadster into the silence of space, people are going to jabber. And if you can also promise nearly 400 miles of driving range between battery charges, they’re going to queue around the block.
The kicker? Simple: a Model S saloon costs £80,000 and, while a smaller, more mainstream Model 3 with an asking price less than half that is incoming, production troubles in the US mean it won’t cross the Atlantic until next year. Today we put Tesla to one side, then, and assess what the more accessible options might be for those who feel now might be time to kick the hydrocarbon habit.
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.
The Leaf, by comparison, takes just under an hour for a 80% top-up and the e-Golf takes around 45 minutes. However, being good for only 120 miles or so in real-world driving, the VW has the shortest, but most expensive, legs of the three.
We’ll not be here too long, then. In any case, 45 minutes is the maximum stay in the Ecotricity bays, and it’s time enough for our test subjects to take on at least 100 miles of range. Most owners charge overnight, of course, and, using a wallbox at home, a full charge would have taken up to four hours for the Zoe, five hours for the e-Golf and seven-and-a-half hours for the Leaf. Is that more convenient than a twice-weekly fuel- station jaunt? One for you to decide.
Having driven the Zoe thus far, plumping for the Nissan on the next leg of our journey seems sensible. We’re heading to a picturesque spot in the Chilterns that should be handy for photography if snapper Luc Lacey’s fingers haven’t already seized. Where the Zoe can feel a bit of a toy – something that plays to its advantage in built-up areas – the Leaf immediately feels like a car in which great distances would be of little concern were it outfitted with a combustion engine and fuel tank. Indeed, were it not for their zero-emissions powertrains, these two would never otherwise cross paths as rivals, and moving from a conventional family hatch to the Leaf would feel natural enough.
The interior in particular has a pleasant maturity to it, though the 7in touchscreen is of disappointingly low resolution and there’s too much cheap plastic switchgear at this price point. Still, it’s cushty and spacious in here and, most importantly, it warms up more quickly than the others.
Out on the roads, there’s an awful lot of slush and ice, but the impact these have on the driving experience is questionable. Simply, the Leaf – ostensibly new but built on the old platform and with the same high driving position – is steadfastly loyal to the detached modus operandi of electric cars. It means that while the steering is quicker and a fraction weightier than before, there’s not really a whiff of useful feel. I say ‘useful’ because the combined management of body roll and a heavy battery has resulted in a stiffened chassis that feels plenty agile but never truly settles on most roads, and thus transmits a low-frequency patter into the cabin.
At speed, the primary ride is generally laudable, but don’t expect it to match combustion-engined alternatives on anything but the smoothest of surfaces. Mind you, those cars don’t get an ‘e-Pedal’. It’s a more aggressive regenerative-braking setting that Nissan has calibrated to appeal to the layabout in all of us. ‘One-pedal driving’, the marketing campaign says.
It’s true too. With a judiciously timed lift, you can roll into bends having shed just enough speed to give the tyres a chance and then pick up the super-responsive throttle as you exit. We’re not talking Toyota GT86 levels of cornering delight here, but there’s surprising fun to be had in getting it just right.
Time is short and so next up is the £28,230 e-Golf. No question, outwardly it’s the most desirable of the three and, not to unduly do the Zoe down, it’s also the car the Leaf really needs to beat. The LED tusks in the front bumper are quite a statement, but otherwise it’s just a Golf, and as such is a uniquely approachable yet aspirational device. While Nissan has taken some strides forward in the tangible quality of the Leaf, once inside it’s clear the German car remains in another league of solidity and polish.
What then hits you once the wheels are turning is how naturally this car positions its driver and the authenticity of its control weights and responses in comparison to the others. It hasn’t got quite the same spring in its step as the Nissan, but remember it’s a touch heavier and, with 134bhp, marginally less powerful. I suspect the fact it mops up choppy surfaces and communicates grip levels that much more fluently further diminishes the sensation of speed. In electric form, the Golf remains a class act.
And yet, as magnificently as the German car normalises the EV driving experience, it loses the numbers games with a usable driving range almost 50 miles short of where it needs to be – at least until a 48kWh battery pack arrives in the near future.
Is the eagerly anticipated second-gen Leaf the finest EV here today? It isn’t, in truth, because the e-Golf remains the more neatly resolved package: better to look at, better to drive, better to be in. But the Nissan isn’t so far behind, and has a tyre on the VW’s jugular in the form of greater range.
If you’ll permit us to subtly reframe the question, then: is the Leaf the first electric car that will make most sense for most people in terms of cost, practicality, range and refinement? So long as our enjoyment of fossil fuels to date doesn’t precipitate too many more days like this one, then yes, this new Nissan is that car.
1st - Added range, refinement and abundant charging infrastructure propel the new Leaf to the top of the ‘affordable EV’ rankings
2nd - Still a wonderfully well-rounded product, and boasts an interior of class-leading quality. Needs to go further on a full charge, though
3rd - Likeable, capable and, although a bit out of its depth next to larger electric rivals, it arguably beats them for city driving
Is it time to switch to electric?
Switching from pump to cable will be an attractive but daunting proposition for many motorists. So, putting to one side the snag of limited range and the benefit of environmentally friendly travel, how do the numbers stack up?
For a VW Golf of similar space and performance to the Tekna-grade Leaf tested here, you’re looking at an R-Line model with the 1.5-litre TSI Evo petrol engine. It’s a very nice car that costs £26,975, undercutting the EV by around £500, and comes similarly well equipped. Based on our test averages of 2.8 miles per kWh for the Nissan and 40 miles per gallon for the Golf, for 10,000 miles you would pay just under £430 in electricity or about £1360 in fuel. That electricity bill assumes all of your charging is done at home but doesn’t factor in off-peak rates, which can be as little as half the typical 12p per kWh in the UK.
Clearly, on a day-to-day basis, the Leaf would be the cheaper car to run, but what about depreciation? Using the price of the Leaf before any government grant, our sources suggest that after three years and 36,000 miles it would be worth 37% of its original value. The Golf, on the other hand, would retain 42% of its original price. All in all, it’s closer than you might think.
Imminent industry developments:
The popularity contest for electric cars is still very much a numbers game concerning driving range. Either the capacity of the battery or the proliferation of the infrastructure with which to recharge it can address the issue, though of course the eventual solution will be a blend of both. Consider that Volkswagen is readying a 48kWh battery pack for the e-Golf that would give it 260 miles of range on the NEDC cycle (and probably victory in this test).
Using one of the 350kW chargers Dutch infrastructure firm Fastned has recently opened near Amsterdam, it would take about ten minutes to almost entirely replenish the battery.