The Nissan LEAF is due to be the UK’s first mass-produced all-electric five-seat family hatchback, and Green Car Guide
has driven the final pre-production car.
There has been much talk in the media about the forthcoming electric car revolution, and Nissan looks set to have the first mainstream electric car on sale. However consumers are known to be rather distrustful of such new technology, so read on to find out what our guest reviewer, Tim Anderson, Consumer Transport Manager, Energy Saving Trust, thought about his first drive in the Nissan LEAF, and whether car buyers should think differently about electric cars.
As Nissan takes its LEAF on roadshows across the world, the company is seeking to demonstrate this truly revolutionary global car to as many influential people as possible. Arriving at Nissan’s Technology Centre at Cranfield near Milton Keynes, there is a sense that this leafy site holds some immense secrets about how the world will be saved. Parked outside the front door is a bright blue Nissan LEAF.
The first impression is of the modern styling. It aims to strike a balance between being futuristic and being acceptable to today’s car buyers, and the result is a smart-looking family car with some interesting design details, including high-mounted LED rear light clusters and a sharp pointed nose with long sweeping headlights that start near the windscreen. The designers were able to make the front of the car quite low as there is no engine under the bonnet. And of course this car has been designed from the outset as an electric car, rather than taking a conventionally-engined car and replacing the engine with an electric motor and batteries.
Inside the car, traditional dials are replaced by an electronic panel giving an array of information to the driver, and a central LCD screen with yet more data. This is a pre-production car but it’s pretty much the finished article, so there are no wires hanging out of the dashboard.
A key difference compared to a conventional car is that the gear lever has disappeared, along with the traditional gearbox. It’s replaced by a computer mouse-like control for selecting drive, reverse and eco mode.
The cabin is light with all the comforts you would expect from a modern car, including full climate control. A hint that this is an electric car is the slightly raised rear floor, under which sits the battery pack. The on-board charger is behind the rear seats and partially eats into the boot space.
As long as the key is present in the car, pressing the start button will bring the car to life with a pleasing futuristic chime. All the lights spring to life and only a whisper of noise emerges as the system gets ready for action. The dashboard tells you immediately how much juice is left in the batteries, with a range figure telling you how far you can drive. A quick flick of the ‘gear’ knob and you’re in drive and ready to go. With just the slightest pressure on the accelerator, the car pulls away effortlessly and silently. Once acclimatised, with a little more pressure on the pedal, the surge of power is quickly evident. The LEAF doesn’t behave like a normal petrol or diesel car, particularly from standstill and at low speeds. With 100% torque available as soon as the revs climb, it feels as though it has lots of power in reserve, and from a standing start gives the performance that you would expect from a high performance sports coupé.
The car is very enjoyable to drive and whilst there is power available, it seems more natural to drive with a smooth style. A slight electric whine has been artificially added at very low speeds for pedestrian safety but this doesn’t trouble the occupants. The handling is also more impressive than you might imagine, with a low centre of gravity helped by the thin, laminated lithium-ion batteries that live under the floor and the seats. This gives the car a planted feel on twisting roads, and even at speed it inspires confidence with little in the way of body roll. The ride is well balanced and coupled with the lack of noise it gives the car an almost luxurious feel as you glide through the streets.
Once you have adjusted to the different driving style, you can take in the assortment of gadgets that are available to the driver. This car is a boffin’s dream and it actually adds to the fun of the experience. The car provides constant feedback on driving style, range, energy consumed and charging patterns. This data seems entirely appropriate for this car and will ensure drivers get the absolute best from the LEAF.
Driver feedback is delivered in multiple ways, ranging from quirky little LED trees that grow if your driving style is energy-efficient, to the provision of detailed data on kilowatt hours per kilometre energy consumed. Using the GPS the car can also give you a range map that visually tells you where you could get to from your current location before you have to charge.
The LEAF has a range of 100 miles, which meant that from Cranfield, Birmingham was achievable. Recharging from completely empty to full using a standard domestic socket takes eight hours, and you can pre-programme the car to use cheap electricity during the night. It’s possible to recharge to over 80% capacity in less than 30 minutes, but a quick charger is needed, and there aren’t too many of these around at the moment. You can even communicate with the LEAF from your mobile phone and ask it to cool down the car’s interior while it’s connected to the mains, so conserving the battery’s charge.
Nissan understands its market and it sees its electric cars accounting for 10% of sales by 2020. The LEAF will probably be a second or third vehicle for affluent users in the short-term when it goes on sale. As a car for day-to-day use, the LEAF delivers all that is required from it and more, in a smart package.
In May, Nissan announced the price of the LEAF; with the new 20% VAT rate that is due to be introduced in January 2011, this will now be £28,990. However the company recognises that for it to be competitive, it needs a boost of support from government in the form of a grant, and as this story goes live, the coalition government has confirmed that it will honour the grant programme proposed by the previous government.
Even with a £5000 government grant, £23,990 may still sound pricey for a family hatch. However as with many aspects of this car, you need to look at it in a different way. In terms of whole-life costs, the LEAF starts to look more favourable, with hugely reduced fuel costs, as well as reduced maintenance requirements, and exemption from road tax and congestion charges.
The Nissan LEAF is an impressive car, and until you drive one, it’s not easy to appreciate its performance and practicality. It’s also a clever car, supporting the driver with data to alleviate ‘range anxiety’.
Is this the future? Well, it’s definitely part of it, although decarbonisation of our electricity grid needs to be addressed if we’re to see the major CO2 savings from this technology. The future is almost certainly going to be a mix of fuels, with petrol, diesel, biofuels, hybrids, electric and eventually hydrogen all playing a part. For now, the Nissan LEAF proves that the electric car wasn’t killed after all. Ultimately we will need a revolution in consumer attitudes towards electric cars. And the revolution starts here with the LEAF.
The Nissan LEAF is due to go on sale in the UK in March 2011.
Review by Tim Anderson , Consumer Transport Manager, Energy Saving Trust