2013 Nissan LEAF First Drive

Nissan made quite a statement by launching the new, second generation LEAF in the battery-sapping cold of Oslo. Surprisingly, Norway is the biggest market for the LEAF in Europe, where Nissan’s halo EV is even the sixth best-selling car. The country encourages its citizens to buy electric vehicles with the exemption of tax on purchase, as well as offering free parking and free charging in city centres. EV owners are also allowed to use bus lanes, which turns out to be very convenient especially during rush hour.

Taking all of these factors into account, then, it makes a lot of sense for Nissan to launch the new LEAF in the Norwegian capital.

Nissan claims that it made over 100 changes to the new LEAF - relying heavily on customer feedback - and proudly states that 93% of European customers are fully satisfied with their product. The changes to the LEAF are not very obvious from the outside, as the grille was only slightly modified and the car now sits on 17“ ‘Tekna’-spec alloy wheels, which give it a much better stance.

Changes underneath the skin, however, go much deeper. One of the biggest changes in terms of vehicle packaging is the power delivery module (charging unit), which has been moved from the boot to the front of the vehicle, increasing the boot space to 370 litres (330 litres before). The power delivery unit has also been reduced in size and weight, and now combines with the inverter and electric motor to save 32kg over the old setup.

One of the biggest problems with EVs is the heating system. Traditional EVs ‘burn’ precious energy keeping occupants warm; whilst in traditional combustion vehicles the hot air for heating the cabin is just a by-product of the engine. To tackle this issue, Nissan has introduced a heat pump system that they claim is 70% more efficient than the current heating system in the original LEAF. On top of that, driving range has been extended from 109 to 124 miles, which does not seem like much on paper, but in a real-life scenario 15 miles could make all the difference, especially when you are getting lost or stuck in traffic.

Through introducing two new driving modes (ECO and B-mode), Nissan also claim that the new LEAF is much more efficient than before. ECO mode alters the throttle mapping to discourage rapid acceleration, whilst B-mode introduces regenerative braking. As the first generation LEAF was only available as one standardised version, customers can now choose between three different versions: Visia (entry level, starting from £ 20,990 incl. battery), Acenta (medium spec, starting from £ 23,490) and Tekna (premium spec, starting from £ 25,490). For the first time Nissan also offers battery leasing, which cuts £ 5,000 off the original purchasing price. Like Renault’s ZOE, battery packs can be leased from only £70 pounds a month, depending on monthly mileage.

These are the facts, but how does the car perform?

The LEAF is very popular with families, and when you sit in it, it becomes obvious why. The driver and front passenger sit nice and high in the new LEAF, feeling very calm and protected. The rear seats are higher than the front seats, as they are placed above the battery pack whilst still offering sufficient leg and headroom. With the introduction of the new Tekna model, the Leaf can now also be ordered with a black interior and black leather seats, which are very comfy and ergonomically sound. The dials are clear and condensed, telling you exactly how much battery power is left and which mode you are in, whilst not bombarding you with any unnecessary information. What hasn’t changed is the ride, which is still extremely smooth and quiet, making for very pleasant driving experience. When the car is not in ECO-mode you can really feel the re-engineered steering, which is direct and made the LEAF really fun to drive, especially on snaking Norwegian mountain roads.

Sounds too good to be true.

Maybe it is, because interior quality is something of a letdown.  The dashboard is made from roughly textured cheap plastic, with crooked split lines. The big central touchscreen appears to be stuck on and is not integrated well into the dashboard’s overall shape. The worst thing is that you can see the edge of the two materials meeting around the touch screen which is an absolute turn off, if you’ll forgive the pun.

Nissan decided to paint some interior parts in gloss black and sometimes even gloss blue on a smooth plastic surface, which makes the interior look even cheaper. This is, of course, subjective, but generally shiny plastics don’t exactly shout ‘classy’. The overall quality is more that of an early nineties Renault Twingo interior than something that is supposed to be a ’state of the art’ electric vehicle. With an expensive drivetrain taking up funds the LEAF is certainly built to a price, and perhaps it’s the interior that suffers for it.

The exterior styling has been discussed controversially before and it still seems like the overall design is not fully resolved. The low, more conservatively styled front with its long snout does not really merge with the unorthodox, concave rear, as those two sections look like they belong to two completely different vehicles. The shoulder line does not solve this problem, either, and its complexity and various direction changes seem to push all the weight of the car to the rear, leaving a lot of visual weight on the rear axle. This makes the car look too heavy, and weight is not an attribute that you want to be associated with an electric vehicle where lightness and efficiency means everything.

In general, the exterior styling looks like it was supposed to introduce a new electric form language but stopped half way along the way – it looks too different to be a traditionally styled vehicle but too normal to be something truly new and fresh. Having said that, this type of more conservative styling with a little twist might appeal to the family market much more than a more brave, conceptual styling would.

To sum up, it’s fair to say that the second generation LEAF is a very impressive achievement in terms of technology and engineering. Nissan are very proud and confident about their product and they should be, because it provides the driver and occupants with a very sophisticated and refined electric driving experience.

The general impression is that you’re driving a very safe, reliable vehicle that you can trust. It is just a shame that the unresolved exterior styling and poor interior quality really lets it down, especially with the cheaper Renault Zoe already breathing down its neck.

Nissan LEAF Tekna

Power: 109PS electric motor 0-62mph: 11.5s Top Speed: 90mph Range: 124 miles  Price: £25,490 with battery pack (incl. government grant) 'Visia'-spec is £15,995 + battery rental from £70 per month

Photography Olgun Kordal

You may also like...

Renault ZOE First Drive

In Detail: Renault ZOE

Detroit Electric Revived with SP:01

Nissan PIVO: The Perfect eMobility Device?