As some of you may know I have quite the reputation for being extremely hostile towards eco-friendly cars. It is not due to a hatred of the polar bear but because they offer very little in turn for the compromises you make. The quality of the materials have been downgraded to save weight, the power levels bound in electronic shackles to save fuel, they are made numb and unpalatable all in the name of equaling the MPG of a diesel Golf. Owning a car is a convenience, I don’t want to be nagged by the communist display that the way I’m driving has cause 32 seal deaths. The only way manufacturers will get me and many others to save the environment is by producing a car that is as at least as good as a conventional petrol engine and cost roughly the same. I can’t review a car and make an exception for faults just because its a Hybrid in the same way I can’t make exceptions just because a car is blue. They all have four wheels and a motor so are dealt with in equal measure.
Nissan has recently produced Europe’s first all-electric family car named the LEAF. I have no doubt you will have heard of it as the pro’s and con’s of ownership have been batted about the media a fair bit of late. Regardless of various facts and figures the key thing is that it is being aimed at everyone meaning that it has the opportunity to make or break the electric car through its first impressions. If its great then people who would have bought a Focus for example could see that traveling 100 miles for less than £3 is worth the investment. However if it turns out to be a reincarnated Micra with the power of a pencil sharpener then that will become peoples first thoughts on future EV’s. Sallyann Tanner EVRM at Westover Nissan Bournemouth has very kindly provided us the opportunity to test one of the first LEAF’s in the UK to see if an electric car could ever be a viable alternative to combustion.
Seeing the LEAF for the first time did make me raise an eyebrow. The comically bulging headlights and protruding rear end don’t necessarily make a feast for the eye yet viewing them as a whole, and not just in isolation, the car could appeal to those wanting a quirky take on the conventional. Stepping inside the car is much like visiting Switzerland in that everything is very cleanly designed and ergonomic. You would have a hard job spotting astraight edge as even the dashboard begins to curve long before the instrument panel. The seating is fantastically comfortable and the entire cabin with its aluminum buttons, futuristic LCD screens as well as large quantities of space gives it a very premium feel. The boot is exactly the size you would come to expect from a hatchback of this size meaning good news for shopping mums.
Starting the LEAF has more in common with turning on a digital camera than a car; you push a button, a series of tones are heard followed by the screens illuminating, and then you are ready to take a picture or in this case drive. There is 0% noise and had I closed my eyes I would not have believed for a second the car had been started. The dashboard offers an array of telemetry from everything battery related to a very subtle “tree” that grows in the corner of the display to reflect how environmentally friendly your driving is. That is the key word there “subtle” as unlike other eco-worriers the LEAF does not brand you as a barbarian for turning the air-conditioning on, it just behaves in a very unintrusive manner and calculates how much battery it is using. Driving this car is exactly the same as driving an automatic, just take your foot off the break and away you go. In motion it is as silent as it is when stationary due in part to its exterior architecture. Nissan have gone to extreme lengths to eliminate any sound that could irritate passengers such as wind against the mirrors, all of a sudden those sculpted lights make sense. It is like driving a church but with the wooden pews replaced with some of the most comfortable seats in the class. The car corners surprisingly well giving the driver good turn-in thanks to a low centre of mass and firm but not uncomfortable suspension. The steering is light to cater for the vast variety of customers who will purchase a LEAF but it is far from unresponsive. Yet the best thing about driving this car is the way it accelerates. The electric motor provides the cars torque instantly making it feel as if you are being pushed along by a wave of air. The sensation is almost indescribable as there is literally no other car on sale today that can achieve this feeling of weightless velocity. Using the resistance in the electric motor to charge the battery whilst coasting or breaking may not be anything new for Hybrids but in an EV it is a tool that if use well could extend the range drastically. With all these hugely positive traits “range anxiety” soon dissipates in the LEAF.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty the Nissan LEAF will, according to Nissan, cover 100 miles, though in real world conditions that only drops to a very respectable 96. Charging the cars 48 laminated lithium-ion batteries from empty with a standard 240 Volt socket in your house will take around 10/12 hours. However Nissan can arrange for a 16amp Home Charger can be fitted and this will charge it in 8 hours! There will be ‘Rapid chargers’ appearing all around the country at commercial sites and this will allow an 80% charge in 30 minutes. The Rapid Charging units will be available at all the 25 EV Nissan Dealerships and will be rolled out to others dealerships in the future. Large stores such as John Lewis, Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer have also indicated that Rapid Chargers will be installed outside their stores soon.
The cost of buying the car is a top-spec Focus rivaling £26,990 with a government grant of £5,000. However 60,000 miles of driving according to our maths would save you a further £5,000 in fuel bills. The purpose built lithium-ion batteries are also a breakthrough in battery tech as Nissan say that 5 years of use will only result in the pack being at 80% health. Servicing cost are also much lower than those of combustion engined cars due to the lack of moving parts.
SO whats the verdict? Well being absolutely honest, before I tested the LEAF I was extremely skeptical about electric cars and saw them as an environmentalists hobby. I wasn’t expecting the Nissan to change that but due to this car being the opposite of every other eco-wagon and more like a normal car, I can now see that in the coming years electric will become just as prominent as petrol and diesel. I am completely sold on the LEAF and urge each and everyone of you to try it for yourself because no matter what you read here you will still have doubts until you experience it for yourself. A very interesting claim from Nissan saying that so far everyone who has taken a test drive has purchased a car. over 30,000 pre-orders can’t be far wrong.