Nissan Leaf - Range Against The Machine

The Nissan Leaf has odd-shaped headlights. It’s not much of a distinguishing feature but it’s a telling one.  With a car that is so very different in technology to the vast majority of those on the road, you would expect there to be something a bit more significant about the overall design than quirky lights.  Nissan says this is part of the education process; by making the Leaf look conventional it makes the very different way of living with it more acceptable.

The Leaf is the first mainstream pure electric car being delivered to UK customers.  We’ve had plenty of hybrids, like the Prius or Insight, and there are specialist EVs like the Tesla, which almost no-one can afford, and the G-Whizz, which almost no-one would want to be seen in.  The Leaf is aimed at the kind of person who would otherwise be looking at a Ford Focus or BMW 3 series but more closely compares to a Golf Blue Motion.  While initial deliveries of the car have already been made in Japan, the Leaf and its batteries will both be produced in Nissan’s UK factory in Sunderland.

One of the great things about being pure electric is that it can free designers from a lot of conventional design restraints. The Leaf takes advantage of some of these but not to the fullest of its potential.  For example, the batteries are down low to give a good, evenly distributed centre of gravity, but Nissan has failed to exploit these packaging advantages. Conventionally, the motor is still where you would expect an engine to be, not in the axles or hubs, which would allow for better space distribution inside, but under the hood.  Even the handling is disappointing, sprung for comfort rather than handling, despite having 280Nm (206 lb/ft) of initial acceleration torque, it feels more French than Japanese.

Put your foot down and there is a gentle surge of power, a little like a turbo coming on-boost but that fades at about 30 mph. This is a heavy car, at 1.5 tonnes with only 80kW (107 HP) of power.  By comparison a Golf Blue Motion 1.6 weighs 200Kg less, has about the same power but a bit less torque.  The Golf will do 0-60 in 11.3 seconds and a top speed of 118 while the Leaf is on a par with the Golf for acceleration but 28 mph slower at the top end. This may well be restricted for the benefit of range.

And of course, being an electric car that is the rub. While the Golf has a 12 gallon tank, its 74mpg will take it over 800 miles before a refill. Nissan quote 100 miles for the Leaf range but my experience on the test drives around Milton Keynes was that the quoted range was much like the “up to” on broadband speed.  With some spirited country road driving the range was around half that indicated at the start of the journey.  On a more cautious drive, using the Leaf’s Eco mode I started a trip with 77 miles of range showing, travelled 20 miles and ended with a range of 47 miles.  A set of lights on the dashboard show if you are taking power from, or adding to the battery with regenerative braking.  The most seemed to be added when braking gently from speed once you are slowing down; braking quite hard didn’t light up many blobs. The Leaf has an opinion on how green your driving is and builds patronizing little tree icons to reward you for careful driving, this is Japanese.

Nissan says that the great advantage of the Leaf is the amount you save on fuel, but unless you are in a position to charge it regularly you won’t be able to take advantage of this.  Nissan cites the average mileage of a city-dweller as being 25 miles a day.  That removes a lot of the advantage in fuel savings.  You’d have to have a home with a garage or drive where you could reliably park near a mains socket at home, and ideally something similar at work.  Charging from a domestic socket takes about eight hours.  With a public fast charge this drops to around 45 minutes for an 80% charge.  The car has sockets in its nose for both types of charging leads.  The discreet solar panel tucked into the roof only charges the battery that powers the radio, windows and the other things which would similarly require electrical power on a petrol-engined car.   Unfortunately the panel doesn’t directly provide any motive force.

While the Leaf is akin to the Golf on practicality and performance, it’s not on price.  The Golf is around £10,000 cheaper.  Nissan quotes a Personal Contract Purchase plan price of £399/month.  The Golf is about £100 cheaper.  Even at £6 a gallon that’s 17 gallons of fuel, enough to drive you over 1200 miles a month in the Golf.  There are however some financial aspects which level the playing field.  The Nissan qualifies for the government’s £5,000 incentive payment for electric cars; while this is a limited pot of money there is no sign of it running out just yet.  You don’t pay Vehicle Excise Duty (what we used to call a Road Fund Licence when it was used to fund roads and not bankers bonuses and wars), and you don’t pay the congestion charge.  Even with all of these it’s still hard to make the numbers add up.  There is however one particularly juicy incentive. The Leaf is exempt from Benefit In Kind taxation. If you are a 40% (or even 50%) tax payer, this makes the Leaf very attractive as a company car.

Whilst the exterior and interior design lack in innovation the Leaf is packed with digital connectivity that has been the trend with cars at auto shows lately.  You can monitor the state of charge of the car remotely using an iPhone application linked to the onboard telematics called Carwings.  The system shows battery capacity and range, and the location of the nearest charging station. Navigation information is continuously updated giving drivers the latest accurate traffic conditions en route.  You can use a computer or smartphone to set charging functions and to monitor the car's current state of charge and the remaining battery capacity.  Drivers can set the Nissan Leaf's air conditioning while charging via remote control, so the car is ready and comfortable for the driver. Cooling the car, while it is still plugged in and before you start won’t do the range any harm either.  The on-board timer also can be pre-set to start charging the Nissan Leaf at night, taking advantage of lower electricity charges.

One of the best things about the Leaf is also a problem: it’s quiet. Switch it on and there would be nothing to tell you that it’s ready, nothing except the power switch glowing, the dashboard lighting up like Piccadilly Circus and a chime that sounds like a 1990s Samsung mobile switching on (see video). But that’s not all.  So that pedestrians can hear it coming it plays a noise, a sine-wave sweeps from 2.5kHz  to 600Hz and changes as you accelerate or brake. It’s not a pleasant sound, but you wouldn’t want anyone to miss out on being annoyed by it.  It switches off at 17mph and engages again at under 15mph, unless you deploy the manual over-ride or a pair of wire cutters to the speaker.

Being quiet posed other problems for the designers. They had to source a particularly quiet wiper motor.  They found that wind noise around the wing mirrors was too intrusive. In a petrol engine car this would be masked by engine noise at speed, so on the Leaf a solution had to be found to redirect the airflow. The air which hits the front of the car is channeled by the protruding headlights, this is why the Nissan Leaf has odd-shaped headlights.

Simon Rockman, when not contributing to GCD, is a Mobile Money Consultant!