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.