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Nissan LEAF

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Road Test

Nissan LEAF

Model/Engine size: LEAF EV
Fuel: Electric
Fuel economy combined: N/A

Beating Spirit rating: 10/10

The Nissan LEAF, the world’s first mass-produced electric family hatchback, is now rolling off the production line, and Beating Spirit has carried out its most extensive test of the car to date, both in the city and on the open road.

The big headline is that no-one should fear the electric car. As long as you go into a relationship with a Nissan LEAF knowing that a slightly different mindset will be required about the range limitations, then there is very little to fault the car on.

We drove the LEAF on a variety of roads in Portugal. The car is primarily designed for the city, and it certainly makes complete sense in this environment. Driving it is easy, just move the computer mouse-like gear selector to drive, and it’s like driving a car with automatic transmission – except that you don’t get the sensation the car is struggling to find the right gear, which is a feature of many automatics.

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As well as having no gears to change, the LEAF is quiet at all times, the drivetrain is silky-smooth, there is always enough power to accelerate when negotiating city hazards, the brakes work extremely well, the steering is light, and the suspension soaks up the vast majority of bumps and holes.

With its batteries hidden away underneath the car, the LEAF can also accommodate five people and a similar amount of luggage as a normal hatchback. The position of the batteries also results in a lower centre of gravity and less weight at the front than that of a conventional car, improving handling.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the LEAF is accomplished in the city environment, but what people may be surprised about is how capable it is on the open road. The same virtues that work in the city also apply out of city limits – there is more than enough power to get you up to speed (to a maximum of 90 mph), and acceleration happens in such a smooth and refined way that a petrol or diesel-engined car would really struggle to compete with. The battery and electric motor combination in the LEAF results in similar torque to a 2.5-litre V6 petrol engine. Yet the entire time you’re using this torque, you’re in an extremely quiet environment. Nissan even had to re-engineer the windscreen wiper motor to make it quieter, as you could hear it over the silence of the electric powertrain.

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Due to concerns about pedestrian safety, Nissan has had to create an artificial sound that is emitted from the LEAF to warn the visually impaired about the car. The sound is only emitted at speeds of under 20 mph.

If we were to be really picky, then the steering could benefit from being better-weighted at higher speeds, and the suspension is tuned for comfort rather than for flat cornering, but overall it’s a very comfortable package.

The interior is exactly what you’d expect from a car that shows the way to the future. It’s thoroughly modern, well designed, and with all sorts of technology. The dashboard shows the battery charge and the driving range that you have left, and a screen shows the location of public charging points. When you’re away from the car, you can use your Smartphone to tell the LEAF to start recharging or to find out the car’s current level of charge. You can even tell the car to warm up or cool down the interior before you get into it.

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So what about the range? Nissan quotes a 100 mile range for the LEAF. The company is not expecting to sell the car to everyone, and if you need a car that can drive over 100 miles on most days of the week, then you’re not in the audience that Nissan is seeking to target with the LEAF. If the vast majority of your daily journeys are less than 100 miles, then this car could be for you.

However the 100 mile range is similar to the range quoted for petrol and diesel cars in the respect that it can go up or down depending upon how you drive it. Drive slowly with lots of regenerative braking, then you’re likely to get more than 100 miles out of the battery – Nissan claims you could achieve over 125 miles. Drive at high speeds on motorways (when you can’t benefit from brake regeneration) and you’ll be unlikely to come anywhere near the 100 miles. You can select the Eco mode setting which can give up to 10% extra range in urban areas.

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So the LEAF is designed for short urban commutes, and when it does this, it has zero ‘tailpipe’ emissions – both from a CO2 point of view and in terms of emissions such as particulates that impact upon local air quality.

The electricity has to come from somewhere, and if you are on a renewable energy tariff then the electricity and car combination could mean zero emissions. If you get your electricity to recharge the car from the average UK energy mix, then this should mean that the CO2 of the LEAF is somewhere between 62-72 g/km.

Whatever this CO2 figure is, Nissan reckons that the CO2 of the LEAF will be at least 50% better than a conventional car if calculated as a well-to-wheel average.

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Any prospective LEAF owners need to ensure that they can park it somewhere overnight to recharge it. Nissan recommends a wall box to recharge the car from, and energy companies are currently working on plans to supply these – this will entail an extra cost. It will take 7-8 hours to recharge at home using a domestic power supply. This is best done overnight when the electricity tariffs are cheaper.

A public recharging infrastructure is currently being developed in the UK, with areas including London, Milton Keynes and the North East taking the lead through the Plugged in Places initiative. A quick recharge system allows up to an 80% charge of the battery in just 30 minutes – however there aren’t many such facilities around at the moment in the UK.

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The cost of electricity is around five times lower than that of fuel. As an average in Europe, electricity to charge the car for 100 km is likely to cost around 2 euros. Over a year (15,000 miles), this equates to 306 euros, compared to 1155 euros for a 1.5-litre diesel, or 1556 euros for a 2.0-litre petrol car, so the savings on running costs are clear. Of course it will also be exempt from the London Congestion Charge.

The LEAF will cost £28,990, which includes the battery. The government grant to incentivise the purchase of electric cars starts in January 2010, and this will provide a £5000 discount on the price, reducing it to £23,990. Nissan claims that when like-for-like equipment levels are taken into account, this is a similar price to a conventional hatchback.

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Nissan believes that one of the easiest ways to buy a LEAF is via PCP (Personal Contract Purchase scheme). This means a small initial deposit and monthly payments of around £401 for three years, when the owner can hand the car back and walk away; or pay the guaranteed future value of £9267 and keep the car; or trade in the LEAF for a new EV. Nissan will also offer a package which will cover all the vehicle’s running costs for three years – including access to a conventional car when the owner needs to travel longer distances.

The LEAF only comes with one option – a small solar panel in the roof spoiler. This helps to charge the car’s 12V battery system. There will be five colours available in the UK – blue metallic and pearl, white pearl, silver metallic, black solid and red pearl.

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The LEAF also comes with a three year (or 100,000 km) warranty for its standard components, but a five year (100,000 km again) warranty for its electrical system including the lithium ion battery. If the car runs out of charge on the roadside in its first year, it will be recovered for free.

The performance of the laminated lithium ion batteries, which can store twice as much energy as previous batteries, is likely to be sufficient for around 8-10 years. Nissan is not clear about exactly what happens when that point is reached, and prices of spare parts such as the battery have not yet been released, however the battery is expected to have a second life as a domestic energy storage device, and ultimately it is fully recyclable.

The LEAF is available to order now. Deliveries will start in the UK in February/March 2010.

Summary

The Nissan LEAF gets a Beating Spirit rating of 10 out of 10; it’s only the second car to ever get one of our maximum scores. It gets this score because it looks good, it drives well, the interior is well designed and thoroughly modern, and it can transport five adults and a decent amount of luggage – all with zero tailpipe emissions. Most importantly, as the world’s first affordable and mass-produced electric family hatchback, the LEAF is a pioneering car, and Nissan deserves to be rewarded for taking such a bold step and getting it right first time.

Paul Clarke

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Fuel economy extra urban: N/A mpg
Fuel economy urban: N/A mpg
CO2 emissions: Potentially 0 g/km (if recharged from renewable energy)
Green rating: VED band A – first year £0
Weight: tbc Kg
Company car tax liability (2010/11): 10%
Price: £23,990 after £5,000 government grant
Insurance group: tbc
Power: 108 bhp
Max speed: 90 mph
0-62 mph: tbc seconds

Keywords: Nissan LEAF review, Nissan LEAF road test