When you glance at the Nissan Leaf, it looks relatively normal. It has striking styling, space for an engine at the front, seats for five passengers and four doors. It even has a large boot thanks to the big-bum principle exemplified by Nissan’s sister company, Renault, on the old Megane.
Underneath that bonnet though is something a bit special for the car world anyway. There isn’t any form of internal combustion taking place in there and instead, the Leaf uses an electric motor. No petrol, diesel, LPG or bio-gas, you just plug, charge and play.
This isn’t a first. In fact Porsche will be happy to tell you that it made an all-electric car back in 1898. But this is the first concerted attempt to produce an electrically powered family car and aim to sell it on a wide scale. The Leaf is mass produced and for sale around the world and Nissan is taking quite a gamble in making the Leaf a reality.
Few believe the battery powered electric car is the future of the automotive world but it can potentially provide a good bridge between the internal combustion engine and whatever system is ultimately developed to work with the electric motor and provide significant range probably the fuel cell.
With no emissions coming out of the exhaust pipe (partly because there is no exhaust pipe), the Leaf is very green and will cost almost nothing to run when compared to normal family cars. With zero emissions, there is no road tax or congestion charging depending on where you drive it. Your fuel bill will also be tiny with electricity from the mains costing a fraction of petrol or diesel, especially when you charge the Leaf at the right time of day.
So what’s it actually like to drive especially considering Nissan is pitching this a practical and usable family car?
It’s pretty normal and I mean that in the best possible way. To start with, inside the cabin, the visibility is good, but the airiness is better. The cream seats and dash obviously help but there is masses of light coming into the Leaf and it makes it a pleasant place to sit. The rest of the dashboard looks great with everything you need in a dark panel consisting of simple and easily usable buttons to control basically everything. And there’s plenty of information available to the user including the location of quick charging points thanks to the CarWings service Leaf buyers get five year’s subscription with the car. The only downside of the interior is unavoidable with current technology. Because the battery packs are under the floor, it raises the passenger footwell and leaves little space for toes to fit under the driver and passenger seats.
There is a small bonus to the low slung batteries though it gives the Leaf a low centre of gravity and it helps the ride and handling which are good. There is nothing sensational about them but then it is a practical car. The steering is accurate and progressive when you’re pushing along but easy to use about town. The lightness of the steering, linked to the good visibility – improved yet further by the reversing camera and massive wing mirrors – makes parking easy. The ride fits the handling too, being comfortable about town but settling down well on the open road.
The rest of the driving experience takes a little getting used to but when you do, you can really make the most of the Leaf. The brakes are odd to start with because there is little pedal travel needed to brake hard to the extent that it is close to being an on/off switch. You learn that by braking early and with a tiny fraction of the brake pedal compressed, you can gently cruise up to where you need to stop, recuperating as much energy as you can. In fact, you start to realise that in-town driving suits the Leaf best and that taking it out on the open road, driving at a constant speed, shrinks its range dramatically. With limited opportunities to brake, there is no harvesting of energy and no chance to boost the battery life.
Keep the Leaf to its natural environment though and you can travel a decent distance certainly far enough to cover most distances. Many journeys cover short distances like popping down to the supermarket, dropping off the kids at school or commuting to work, and the 110 mile range will easily cover these common trips. For longer journeys, you either hire a car or have the Leaf as a second vehicle, as an alternative to a conventionally powered car.
When analysing performance, the Leaf is pretty surprising. The electric motor has quite a party trick, it has plenty of torque and you can access it all very quickly. Acceleration, when you through the range to the wind and really go for it, is sprightly and the 0-62mph time of 11.9 seconds sounds too slow. It is the in-gear acceleration (if such a phrase is possible when describing a Continuously Variable Transmission) that is very impressive giving a strong shove in the back in the same way a mid-sized diesel does. To put it all in to figures, they translate as 109bhp and 206 lb ft of torque which allows the previously mentioned acceleration time and a top speed of 90mph.
The eco-performance is where the Leaf really performs though. The regenerative braking helps add to the overall range and a number of other features help save the drain on the batteries. There is an option for a small solar panel on the roof, a display on the dash which not only shows the amount of power being used but also works in negative and shows how much you’re saving too. There is a small display which grows trees the more environmentally friendly you drive which works as a surprisingly useful incentive and finally, there is an eco setting in the gearbox.
This is one of the best features of the Leaf and limits the amount of power put out by the motor. It allows enough to cruise about but severely blunts acceleration. I discovered that you can drive about with the Leaf in eco mode most of the time and knock the gearbox into normal whenever you want a burst of power in a similar way to a supercharger you can turn on and off. This strategy extends the range significantly and still allows you to pull out of junctions in a hurry or power up a steep hill.
In short, the Leaf is an admirable attempt at a green family car with eco-friendly credentials that put the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight to shame. It’s expensive to start with but has low running costs and hopefully there will be enough people out there to take a punt on the Leaf, helping to develop the efficiency of the electric family car.
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