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.