Rating: 5 Star
Type: Pure Electric
Range: 109 miles
Power: 107 hp
Top Speed: 91 mph
0-60mph: 11.9 secs
Weight: 1,545 kg
By Will Dron July 14, 2011 1:38 PM
The electric car that’s doing for EVs what the Prius did for hybrids.
The Toyota Prius is no longer the cool kid in town. Hollywood celebs are increasingly stepping out of the classic hybrid and into electric cars and Nissan’s LEAF is the car that’s shaking things up.
Why all the fuss? Well, Nissan, along with sister company Renault, has staked an awful lot in the future of the electric car. The Renault-Nissan alliance has sunk €4 billion into electric vehicle development and the two companies are set to steal a march on the competition over the next couple of years with a number of pure electric vehicles.
Nissan’s LEAF is stealing the show right now as it’s the first dedicated mass-produced pure electric car, having been built from the ground up as an electric vehicle rather than being based on an existing petrol or diesel model. Renault's first ground-up electric vehicles will be the Twizy and Zoe, but you'll not be able to get hold of either of those until 2012.
Nissan's purity of approach has led to some noteworthy accolades, chief among which is the crown of 2011 European Car of the Year. The LEAF is the first ever electric vehicle to pick up the award, causing quite a stir. By all accounts, the votes were quite polarised, but the judges – made up of 57 leading journalists from 23 European countries – that liked the LEAF, really liked it.
Let’s find out why…
Nissan invited TheChargingPoint.com to Milton Keynes’ CentreMK shopping centre to test the LEAF. It wasn’t clear why they chose that location until we arrived and found that they had taken over a large area inside dedicated to the LEAF, complete with a number of cars ready and waiting for journalists. It was from here that we were to start our test drives. While driving through a shopping mall has always been a dream, it wasn’t quite the Blues Brothers experience we were hoping for at the leisurely 4mph crawl. But importantly, the location gave us the first chance to see what the general public thought of the car.
The most notable reaction people have is to remark that the car looks just like a regular car. The LEAF doesn’t have a radical shape that shouts, “look at me – I’m electric.” It looks like a larger Micra – quirky, but it wouldn’t get any second glances in a supermarket car park.
Because the car was designed from the ground up as a dedicated EV, every little detail exists to work in harmony with the electric drivetrain. For example, because there’s no chugga-chugga from an internal combustion engine, Nissan found that the noise from their standard windscreen wiper motor was much more noticeable… so they sourced a quieter one specifically for the LEAF.
Nissan is making the LEAF available in five colours for the European market – metallic blue and pearl, white pearl, silver metallic, solid black and red pearl.
COMFORT AND ACCOMODATION
Unlike a lot of cars that have been converted to electric from internal combustion, interior space hasn’t been compromised. The batteries are stored low down in the car underneath the driver and passenger seats, which aids handling (more on that below) but also means interior and boot space are not compromised. This was expertly demonstrated by Nissan’s press manager, who kindly climbed into both for us.
Nissan says there’s ample room inside for five adults, but just as with other cars of its class, fitting three adults in the back, while possible, isn’t that practical. For two adults, though, the rear cabin is a very good size. In the front the seats are comfortable and the cabin uses quality materials. It feels intuitive and uncluttered.
The dashboard is the first real indicator that you’re not in a petrol car. The instruments are all digital and split into two levels and the dash animates itself into life with an accompanying musical jingle. With no engine firing up it’s the only indicator that you’re powered on and ready to go.
Along with a speedometer and odometer, you get a power meter, which shows how much energy you’re using while accelerating and how much energy you’re recovering into the battery when lifting off the throttle. A conventional car’s oil temperature is replaced by battery temperature and a battery level meter replaces the fuel gauge.
Along with that is a ‘distance to depleted’ meter, which estimates how far you will be able to travel based on current driving style – drive hard and you’ll notice a very swift drop in range. After testing ultimate performance we were quick to stop flexing our over-zealous right foot and bring the miles-to-go back into shape.
The centre console houses the LEAF’s stereo, sat nav and onboard computer. It’s a sophisticated piece of kit that can show you realtime updates of your driving style and its effect on battery range, as well as how far it thinks you can travel and the nearest charging points.
But unless you’re a tech geek, most of the time you’ll probably just have it showing a map or switched to a radio station. You’ll probably ignore the clever calculations the system makes every second.
The smartest and most useful thing for LEAF owners is the CARWINGS app for iPhone, and soon Android phones. It allows you to see real-time battery status for your car so when charging, you know exactly how it’s getting on. It can also programme the car to ‘precondition’ the interior while it’s plugged in – warming up the cabin or cooling it while the LEAF is still plugged in – meaning you don’t have to use up valuable battery power doing it while on the move. Most electric cars offer this but the mobile app adds a pretty handy dimension to it.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO DRIVE?
The quiet in the cabin is the first thing you’ll notice. At speed you hear the tyre and wind noise but there’s no grumbling engine in front of you. At low speeds the LEAF actually emits a synthesised low buzzing noise on the exterior to alert pedestrians of the car’s presence, but it’s not audible from within the cabin.
Steering is a little too light for our liking, but the car is still responsive and agile around corners. The placement of the battery gives a relatively low centre of gravity and 50:50 weight distribution between the front and rear, which gives the LEAF an ideal handling balance and first rate road holding.
As with other electric cars, there are no gears – there’s a seamless progression from standstill to full speed. Driving it is very similar to piloting automatic transmission car (right foot only) and extremely simple to get the hang of – if you can drive a car now you’ll be able to get in and drive out of a showroom with no problem.
Nissan’s press info equates the torque of the LEAF’s electric motor (in very basic terms, torque is the twisting action available to get a car moving) to that of a 2.5-litre V6 petrol engine.
Official power and torque figures for the LEAF are 108bhp and continuous torque of 280Nm respectively. 62mph range can be reached in 11.9 seconds. By way of comparison, if you were to get yourself a VW Golf 1.4 TSI 122 petrol you’d be looking at 120bhp, 200Nm and a 0-60mph time of 9.5 seconds.
Certainly the LEAF pulls away from lights effortlessly and acceleration at any speed is a doddle. We took it for a spell on the motorway and putting your foot down at 70mph takes the LEAF to its limited top speed of 90mph very rapidly indeed.
In its more naturally environment around town and on A-roads, the LEAF can easily keep up with the flow and proves more than capable in terms of performance. We found we were cruising around in ‘Eco’ mode – which reduces power by 20% in order to increase range – pretty much all the time.
Whether you’re in ‘Drive’ or ‘Eco’, for an extra burst of power you can floor the throttle and the ‘kickdown’ will give you everything the car’s got.
Nissan’s been using lithium ion batteries (now standard in electric cars) since its Prairie Joy EV of 1996, so they’ve had a fair amount of experience.
The LEAF’s 24kWh battery will carry the car a potential 110 miles. While that is achievable the car invites you to drive it swiftly and many owners are finding the real-world range to be less. As demonstrated by Michael Boxwell in the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, a number of factors greatly affect range and it’s worth learning how to get the most from an EV’s range before you sign up.
However you drive it, the LEAF will certainly fit the driving needs of most commuters – in the UK 80% of the population drive less than 30 miles per day. In the unlikely event that the car does run out of juice, any current owners for the next 12 months will be covered for free under Nissan's roadside assistance service.
Charging the LEAF at home will take 11-12 hours using a UK standard wall socket but a home charging unit (£995) will reduce that to 7-8 hours, and at a public quick charger you’ll take it to 80% charge (the maximum for quick charging) in less than 45 minutes.
The LEAF has to conform to the same testing standards as a petrol or diesel car. While the Euro NCAP test hadn’t been completed at the time of writing (it’s expected in the next few months), the car should do well and comes with an airbags, ABS, Brake Assist, Vehicle Dynamics Control and pretensioner seatbelts as standard.
Nissan admits that the car won’t be suitable for everyone’s needs – long motorway trips aren’t practical and if you have no way of charging at home, that could be an issue. And the sticker price of £25,990, which is after the £5,000 government subsidy, will put many people off.
However, if home charging’s not a problem and you never do more than 80 miles a day, the LEAF is a truly viable option and could actually save you money in the long run. Here’s why…
Charging the LEAF should cost you just £2 in electricity, and if you only get 80 miles on a charge (rather than the full 110 miles) then your average monthly charging costs will be £25. Compare that to an average petrol bill of £165 and the LEAF really begins to make sense. Add to that the road tax exemption and 100% discount on the London congestion charge and the savings start to add up.
Aside from that, the car is fun to drive, has plenty of room inside and a good quality, comfortable cabin. It’s a convincing package and our hats go off to Nissan for being the first to get their mass-produced EV effort to market.
INTERVIEW WITH DAVID JACKSON, LEAF PROJECT MANAGER
NISSAN LEAF IN NUMBERS…
Trim level tested: only one style available
Range: 110 miles
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 11.9 seconds
Top speed: 90mph
Peak power: 109bhp
Torque: 280Nm (206ft.lbs.)
Kerb weight: 1,525kg
Type: Lithium ion
Operating voltage: 360V
Recharge time: 7-8 hours from domestic supply (0-100% level)