On the charge

Nissan LeafIt’s been a long time coming, and in actual fact there’s a little bit longer to wait for us in the UK at least, but it is finally here: the electric car has arrived. Before the arguments begin, you can already buy electric cars, except that the Tesla Roadster isn’t going to suit everyone with two seats and a £100k price tag. And the G-Whizz is technically a quadricycle, and therefore not a car.

No, it is the honour of Nissan to bring the first mass-produced, purely electric and to all intents and purposes, conventional car to market. The propulsion system may be completely different to almost every other car on sale today, and the design itself contains numerous innovations, but in essence it is ‘normal’: there are five doors, a boot you can put things in – this is not an electric car that shouts.

This of course is the most crucial element in the future of the electric car. There are always people who want the latest new gadget, ‘early-adopters’ in marketing lingo, but these groups are limited in their buying power. It is the plump middle of the market that the electric car must appeal to, because this is exactly where most people sit and for it to be shunned by this group would turn it into a failure overnight.

The Leaf really does have all the right ingredients. The exterior design might raise the odd eyebrow, but it is not intimidating or aggressive, and the unusual elements are there to improve aerodynamic efficiency, a crucial element for saving battery power and keeping noise levels low. Once inside there is very little adjustment required, and even driving the Leaf is a cinch once you get your head around the idea that braking is just as important as acceleration when it comes to getting maximum range.

Ah yes, range. The word that an electric-sceptic will bring up in the first 30 seconds of the argument. Of course, current electric cars, and even those due in the next five to ten years will not match the range of the most efficient diesel cars of today – 600 miles plus on a single charge is a way off yet. But ask yourself the question: when was the last time you drove 600 miles without stopping?

Right now the electric car’s hardest task is convincing the doubters that the concept isn’t fundamentally flawed, and it isn’t: there are more plug sockets that petrol stations, and petrol will eventually run out, so get over it. But the most interesting part is that it won’t be until the electric car starts to become a regular sight that we will really start to see the big advantages.

After driving the Leaf over 100 miles around Portugal, the biggest disappointment was that there weren’t more electric cars in the traffic queues around me: all the combustion-engined cars were spoiling the silence created by the Leaf’s noiseless power train. Imagine sitting in a traffic queue, with no-one emitting and fumes and nothing assailing your ears but the sounds you choose through the stereo. You could even start chatting to the person sat in the car next to you without anyone having to raise their voice. Never mind greener, I’m all for a quieter world.

By Matt Joy

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