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Electric Nissan LEAF final prototype driven

The Nissan LEAF will be the world’s first affordable, mass produced, zero emission five-seater hatchback, and Green-Car-Guide has driven the final pre-production prototype.

And we’re delighted to tell you, before you read any further, that it is excellent to drive. If you’re not sure about electric cars, you’re not alone. But the LEAF should make you think again.

The official drive of the final pre-production prototype, which was clothed in a Nissan hatchback body rather than the body of the actual production LEAF, was supposed to be a very short affair. However we gained some extra time with the car, including some circuits around the test track at top speed.

To say the prototype drove like a Tesla Roadster would not be fully accurate, however the same feeling of continuous amounts of torque under acceleration is certainly a feature of both cars. The acceleration feels similar to a conventional car with a much larger engine than a family hatchback – Nissan says it has the acceleration of a 2.5-litre V6, and we wouldn’t argue with this claim. And of course it’s nearly silent – although that may have to change due to legislation that may be on the way over here from Japan and the States.

First impressions suggest that the car’s steering and suspension feel up to the same quality as the powertrain. However, as with our much longer drive last year of the previous incarnation of the prototype, the
EV-02
, the brakes didn’t have the energy recuperation function activated, so driving the real car is likely to feel much more like the experience of the
MINI E
, where there is a noticeable extra retardation of the car when both decelerating and braking.

The car was a relaxed and confidence-inspiring place to be at high speed on the test track, even though this was not a production-ready car. It showed that the LEAF, although designed for use in urban areas, with its top speed of 90 mph it’s not a slow car.

As well as being able to drive the final pre-production prototype EV-12 car, an actual LEAF was on display. Bearing in mind that the prototype drives very well, the LEAF adds to this impressive driving experience with good looks both outside and in. Before any designs for the car were made public, Nissan described the styling to us as “a car that would not look like one of today’s normal hatchbacks, but equally it would not be so radical that it would be unacceptable to people”. We would agree with this description, and in the flesh, with the car’s pearlescent-effect blue finish, the LEAF looks excellent.

The interior, with its sophisticated IT systems and digital displays that plot the car’s range on a map, is even more striking. You can even send a message to the car from your phone to tell the heating and ventilation systems to warm it up or cool it down before you get in. However while there is a definite sense of the future about this car, at the end of the day, this is a five-seat hatchback, and it feels very fit for purpose in terms of space in the five seats, and in the boot.

So what on earth has Nissan done with the electric bits? The largest component is the flat, laminated, advanced lithium-ion battery, and this sits underneath the seats, so it doesn’t encroach into the interior space. This compact battery technology, with safety credentials that Nissan is very proud of, is a key factor in how the company has come first to market with an electric hatchback. At the end of its life, the battery can be re-used or recycled.

The battery is of course one of the major items of expense in an electric car, yet Nissan is aiming for the LEAF to be similar in price to a top-of-the-range Prius. Prices of the LEAF have been announced in Japan and America; it will be another couple of weeks before UK prices are released, but this means it should be around £23,000 here. However this is before the government’s £5000 subsidy, which will be introduced in January 2011, just prior to the LEAF’s UK debut, so bringing the price down to an expected £18,000.

This makes the LEAF much more affordable than the £39,000 Mitsubishi i-MiEV. The main reason for this is, that unlike the i-MiEV, LEAF buyers will lease the batteries separately (which cost £6000 to produce) – just as you wouldn’t pay for five years of petrol up front when you buy a petrol car.

With this extra lease cost on top, some people may still be thinking that this is expensive for a car that can only go 100 miles before needing to be recharged. There is certainly truth in this argument, however a change in mindsets will help us all get through the transition to a low carbon economy. In reality, most journeys undertaken in the UK every day will easily be achievable within the car’s 100 mile range.

Of course the plan is to develop a network of recharging points, so hopefully there will be increasing opportunities to recharge while out and about, at locations such as supermarkets. Although it can charge to 80% of capacity in under 30 minutes thanks to rapid charging, an owner of a LEAF or any other electric car will really need to have the ability to safely recharge the car at home overnight, ie secure off-street parking.

Although the purchase price may seem high to some, when you take the significantly reduced running costs into account, it becomes a different story. To charge a LEAF overnight from your home electricity supply will cost around just £2 (remember that the electricity should be generated from renewable energy to be truly green). This equates to 100 miles. So it would cost around £8 in ‘fuel’ to travel 400 miles. An average hatchback may need around at least £50 of petrol to cover the same distance, so the potential savings are obvious.

Add to that the reduced maintenance costs, zero road tax and the lowest possible company car tax rates, and of course Congestion Charge exemption in London, and the figures start to stack up favourably. Nissan is expecting 50% of the LEAF’s sales to go to fleets.

The car will even be manufactured in the UK at Nissan’s Sunderland plant from 2013, along with production of the batteries. Prior to that, production of the LEAF will begin in Japan later this year followed by Tennessee, USA in 2012.

The model will be launched in late 2010 in Japan, the United States and selected European markets, with the UK sales launch of the LEAF in early 2011, ahead of global mass marketing from 2012.

Nissan also has plans to bring another three electric vehicles to market: the ‘Land Glider’ – best described as an electric motorbike with four wheels; a luxury model from Infiniti; and a light commercial vehicle.

So in summary? The ultra-low carbon car future is exciting. The LEAF offers thoroughly modern, zero tailpipe emission motoring, all in a five-seat hatchback form. The Nissan LEAF is right at the forefront of the future, and just as the Prius is still seen as the original hybrid, perhaps the LEAF will always be seen as the original ‘proper’ electric car.

As the LEAF is driven by more people, more people are likely to think that the low carbon future is a bright future.

Keywords: Nissan LEAF electric vehicle prototype drive, Nissan EV-12