First DriveNew Leaf has plenty of substance to go with its striking looks, but there is still work to do if Nissan wants to take class honours in the UK
First DriveNissan has raised the all-electric Leaf's game by increasing its range by 25%. We drive it on UK roads for the first time
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.
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.
Early-adopters and those who love new technology will already be sold, while those who really don’t do more than 80 miles or so a day should definitely take a look at the Leaf as effective transport that’s (initial purchase price aside) cheap to run and easy to maintain. Nissan reckons you could save £800 per year on fuel alone if you travel 9300 miles a year. That’s before savings on the congestion charge and discounted parking.
But doubts over the range and a lack of charging infrastructure remain and this will be a deal-breaker for many, regardless of how conventional and enjoyable it is to drive. Those who fit into this category should still admire the Leaf for what it does, and watch with interest if the EV really does take off enough for battery technology to come down in price and increase in range. Then EVs such as the Leaf really could be seen as a viable alternative to mainstream rivals such as the Golf.
Price: £23,990 (including 20 per cent VAT and £5000 electric car government grant); 0-62mph: 11.9sec (claimed); Top speed: 89mph (claimed); Range; 100 miles (claimed); Economy: 0g/km at tailpipe; Kerb weight: 1595kg; Powertrain: electric motor, 24kWh laminated lithium-ion; Power: 107bhp; Torque: 206lb ft