It’s hard to believe that the reality of a mass-produced electric car that you or I can go out and buy is just a matter of months away. The electric car as a concept has been around virtually as long as the internal combustion-engined version, but where the latter has been an immeasurably successful the former has never really left the starting grid.
But the Nissan Leaf is different. Production has already started, dealers are all geared up and customers have laid down deposits: there’s no going back now. For the first time before the early vehicles reach their new homes, Nissan has allowed journalists to drive the most up-to-date production versions in a completely normal environment – not on a test track or closed road but in the heart of the city.
The Leaf is instantly recognisable by its unusual styling. It’s not hugely controversial or radical, but there are some curves and hard edges that are untypical of a regular-sized family hatch such as this. There is sound reasoning behind this though, as firstly anything too radical may alienate potential buyers but more importantly the need to make the Leaf as aerodynamically efficient as possible. The lack of an internal combustion engine means a dramatic reduction in noise, which therefore makes any road or wind noise much more noticeable. The sharp creases at the front and the rear cleave the air more cleanly and so minimise wind noise.
Climb inside and the Leaf is a little more conventional. If you ignore the instrument display for a moment, you have a five-seat family hatch with a typical dashboard layout. It is worth mentioning however that the light cream colour of the cabin is refreshingly bright and suits the car’s alternative ethic, and quality is very good too: it feels a cut above the standard fayre in this segment. It’s also very well equipped: the single model gets climate control, sat-nav and a good quality audio system.
Where the Leaf starts to differ from a regular car begins with the instrument display. At the top there is a conventional digital speedometer and clock, but below that there is no rev counter or engine temperature gauge. Instead there is a battery temperature gauge – in the middle is ideal for best performance, and on the opposite side there is the equivalent of your fuel tank: the remaining charge. Alongside the range display, this is the crucial bit of information that tells you how far you can travel without plugging in. For sceptics this is the key issue with electric cars, but Nissan has clearly worked hard to deal with this so-called ‘range anxiety’.
Firstly the battery charge meter is backed up by a range-to-empty display which is constantly updating to give an accurate picture. There’s no physical gearbox although you shift between P, R and D for forward, reverse and park, but there is the option of a an Eco mode which puts the air-con into a more frugal mode, ramps up the energy regeneration and softens the actions of the accelerator. Punch a button on the sat-nav and it will instantly put two circles around your current location, giving you a conservative and a more optimistic radius of how far you can travel on the remaining charge, plus all the nearby charging points.
You as the driver can also have a good deal of influence on how far you can go. For starters, before you even leave the comfort of you charging point you can communicate with the car via smartphone, allowing you to check the charge status, set it to charge at a specific time or even set the air conditioning working to cool or heat the car before being unplugged – therefore saving a little more juice for driving.
Once on the go, the Leaf encourages you to eek out every extra mile. The top of the display indicates the power demands according to the actions of your right foot, and coasting or using the brakes activates the regeneration. With the electric motors harnessing the car’s motion rather than providing it they can actually add charge back into the battery pack, extending the range by many miles. The Leaf even indicates how well you’re doing on this front by awarding you ‘trees’ in the instrument display as you go.
FACTS AT A GLANCE
Nissan Leaf, £23,350 (after government incentive)
Engine: AC electric motor delivering 107bhp and 205lb.ft of torque
Performance: Top speed in excess of 90mph, 0-62mph 10 seconds (est)
Economy: 100 mile range on a single charge
Emissions: Zero tailpipe emissions
By Matt Joy