Nissan Leaf: firstdrive

Text and images © ecodrive 2010.  No reproduction without express permission.

Updated: 4th November 2010: Since our original review we have driven a pre-production model in real world conditions at the European launch of Leaf.

Never before has a new Electric Vehicle attracted such attention and anticipation; even more so than the adrenaline-inducing Tesla Roadster did before its launch and more than its nearest Japanese rival, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, even though many more, near-production-standard examples of the latter are already in use both in the UK and Japan. ecodrive got to drive one of these near-production examples at the European test drive event.

Nissan Leaf with rapid charger © ecodrive
As a 'C-segment' car (think Ford Focus or Volkswagen Golf) the Nissan Leaf is surprisingly conventional-looking, admittedly carrying contemporary design cues and clearly belonging to the Nissan family. It is a departure from the accepted norm of an EV, either as a conversion or an OEM model, where usually a large underslung battery dictates the body shape characteristics.

At this stage in the market's development, it seems that there is a place for both: those wanting an otherwise conventional (looking) car and those wanting an innovative vehicle which challenges more than just the drivetrain and energy source.

What is surprising is just how conventional it seems: the proportions are such that Nissan could easily drop in a conventional drivetrain from one of their other models and sell an Internal Combustion Engined (ICE) version - is it sacrilege to even suggest that this might be a contingency for a vehicle that was otherwise only ever supposed to be an EV?

Leaf carries its laminated lithium battery (developed with Renault) underneath the vehicle in a 'moulded' unit to fit in the voids underneath the front and rear seats, leaving a generous 330-litre boot space. This is perhaps the first EV in which it is not immediately obvious where the battery resides since it is discreet enough to remain unnoticed. The converse is that a larger battery could have been accommodated to improve range still further, but this is more an economic and demographic decision on the part of Nissan as to the marketability of the vehicle and to whom, rather than a technical challenge.

On the road

Getting going in a Leaf is not 'novel' by contemporary standards... it has keyless ignition, the transponder keyfob merely needing to be inside the vehicle, normally still in the driver's pocket. A round, translucent button with the 'operate' legend more familiar on consumer electronics hints at the experience about to unfold. This would be novel were it not for the fashion of push-button engine starting on every Ferrari-wannabe 'hatch.' On this car it actually seems appropriate!

A reassuring, calm 'bong' sound and some dashboard lamp activity convinces you that you have successfully activated/energised/booted-up the car: the distinct lack of any 'clunk' of a contactor (relay) or whirr of a pump in comparison to other EVs (the Leaf has air-cooled batteries and virtually silent electric, rather than electro-hydraulic, Power Assisted Steering) means that it seems inappropriate to say 'started!'

Nissan Leaf interior © ecodrive
Like most EVs, Leaf has driving controls most similar to a conventional, automatic transmission ICE vehicle, but the designers have chosen to get creative with the 'gear selector' mechanism. In the normal location in the centre console is a comfortably-sized, self-centering, joystick-like switch, pushed towards you and forwards for Reverse; towards and rearwards to select Drive.

A central, recessed 'P' button electrically engages a Parking lock as an additional reassurance to the electrically operated parking brake: again not a novel feature on a car in this segment, but a first on an EV. A pull-up, push-down switch on the centre console behind the gear selector, not dissimilar to an electric window switch, activates the 2-second process to engage/release the handbrake, accompanied by about the only functional (faint) 'whirr' you will hear. If you select Reverse or Drive and just press the accelerator pedal without releasing the parking brake, the car will release it for you, simplifying hill-starts.

Driving the car is fairly intuitive, the feel and ergonomics on a par with any new vehicle from one of the world's largest vehicle manufacturers, as one would expect. As with all EVs, I'm loathed to try to compare its performance against an ICE vehicle by simply citing a couple of motor-related statistics and a 0-62mph time, which are not directly relatable and not representative of the way in which the majority of these vehicles will be used. Whilst the 80kW (108hp) motor power figure is similar to the peak output of a 1.6 petrol engine, the near continuous torque of 280Nm is more akin to the peak of a 2.0 TDi.

Centre console on Nissan Leaf, range selector (left) and parking brake (right)
© ecodrive
Its weight of around 1,550kg (slightly heavier than a comparable ICE car) means that the high torque gives it acceleration which is more than adequate to cope with any junction exit maneouvre and the power is ample to handle motorway speeds and not just on the inside lane with HGVs and caravans - but not that you should be choosing a Leaf (or any EV) if the middle lane is where you spend most of your driving life since high speeds eat into the energy - it's just the laws of physics! But if your most convenient route to work/school/shops/home includes a few miles of 70mph motorway or dual-carriageway then fear not, Leaf won't let you down - neither will it make you perspire. Repeating the process of selecting 'D' toggles in and out of 'Eco' mode limiting the acceleration and improving the regenerative braking, but in intensive city driving the Eco mode feels a bit limited for pulling into traffic, but appropriate use should extend range, especially for novice drivers.

*Batteries included

The other vital statistic of any EV, the 'range' or autonomy on one charge, has not yet been officially published, but likewise is only the broadest of comparisons. Just like trying to quote an accurate Miles Per Gallon figure for an ICE vehicle, actual results may (will) vary and depend upon driver experience, style, speed, traffic conditions, weather, terrain, season and use of heating/cooling. The best approximation is that from moderately careful driving to obsessive hypermiling will give 80 to 100 miles on a newish battery. Factor in a rough guide of a 2-3% decrease in range year-on-year as the 24kiloWatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery capacity diminishes and that will be 70-90 miles after 4 or 5 years of average mileage.

Our own empirical observations highlight that heavy traffic, heavy rain (and therefore drag-inducing surface water) and challenging terrain will rob you of no more than a few miles over the entire range; an agressive driving style or continuous use of the electrically driven heating or cooling considerably more. But the Leaf includes the desirable feature of being able to 'pre-heat' or 'pre-cool' the interior using mains electricity before unplugging the car, meaning that you don't lose so much valuable battery energy since you need far less energy to then keep the car at the desired temperature.

It is worth mentioning that the generally accepted industry norm for EV batteries is that they are considered 'end of life' when they are down to 80% of their nominal, published (new) capacity. When their capacity has diminished to this level, it doesn't mean that they are 'dead' and only suitable for recycling, but consideration will/should be given to replacing the battery pack and using the old one in a second life application, such as a backup power supply for a computer server installation which doesn't make such arduous demands of the battery. Nissan are expecting no less than 70% capacity after 10 years with the implication that it will still be usable. Nissan are following the model of selling the battery with the vehicle, rather than leasing the battery (as favoured by Renault and ourselves) not least because of pressure from the fleet industry for calculating Residual Values. An old vehicle with a 'failing' (low capacity) battery will be far less likely to be kept in good, productive service compared to one where the battery would be renewed for no additional outlay than the modest regular monthly lease payment as happens with the alternative finance model.

It also affects the pricing and influences the perceived overall cost of the car: what is essentially a circa £15,000 car becomes a £23,990 car (after the £5,000 UK government consumer incentive grant) The economics of the 'buy the vehicle, lease the battery' model are much more on a par with a conventional vehicle where the battery lease cost plus a fractional cost for the recharging energy equates (subject to covering a certain minimum mileage) to the fuelling cost on an ICE vehicle. But expected strong Residual Values should give purchasers the confidence to look beyond the 'sticker price' and consider the Whole Life costs, which could be less than a conventional vehicle.

Charging

How practical is Leaf as a serious contender for an EV novice or even an existing EV owner? Well, the first of the Leafs (Leaves?) produced in Japan will come with an 'on-board' (built-in) 3 kiloWatt (3kW) charger which equates to a full charge taking about 8-9 hours (typically overnight, benefitting from cheaper and environmentally friendlier off-peak tariffs) or, equivalently, repleting about 11 miles' worth of charge per hour of daytime 'topping up' or 'opportunity charging' whilst the car is sitting idle.

Rapid charging Nissan Leaf: also shows normal charge inlet (orange) © ecodrive

Whilst it will be possible (with provisos) to charge from a 'normal' socket occasionally using a special adaptor, this will likely be limited at about 2.3kW for various safety reasons meaning a full charge will require over 10 hours. To use the 3kW rate will require the use of a dedicated charging station in a public place or a 'wall box' at home. This is welcome by us as the first indication (in the UK) of a vehicle manufacturer appreciating that there exist issues with vehicles being treated as 'appliances' without additional precautions.

Following the Japanese convention from production EVs of the 1990s (e.g. Toyota RAV4 EV) and aiming to be a 'world' car, Leaf also features the ability to rapid charge from a large, off-board DC charger, pushing high current energy directly into the battery. A dashboard lever releases the panel on the front of car revealing the normal charge socket (with an orange lid) and rapid charge socket side-by-side. The same rapid charger and connector can be used on the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and other forthcoming vehicles, despite differences in the specification of the different vehicles (different types of batteries, of different voltages or capacities) since the whole process is controlled by an exchange of information between car and charging station.

At the extreme this will take the car from empty to an 80% State of Charge (it has to slow it down then to avoid excessively heating the batteries) in as little as 30 minutes, from the chargers touted for public places in pilot areas. More typically, as a private driver, you would generally use one of these chargers in a convenient location for, say, 10 minutes, to extend your range by about 30 miles, on the rare day that your travels take you further from home or the combination of your errands and journeys have left you a little nervous about getting back home or to your next destination (with a 'conventional' charging opportunity) It is a pity that, at least on the first generation vehicles, there will be no intermediate charging solution between the 3kW on board and an expensive, and thus far rare, 50kW off-board charger.

The sat-nav system will include the location of charging points as their numbers grow, alleviating range anxiety, even in unfamiliar areas and the map shows the reachable radius given the current State of Charge and driving style. This is just the start of the integrated interactive technology: when the car goes on sale there will be a smart-phone app(lication) that allows you to check the status of the car (or receive notifications of different situations) remotely - and to activate the pre-heating/cooling before setting out.

Verdict

It is obvious that the Leaf has generated more interest than other forthcoming EVs in the UK media not least because of Nissan's assembly plants in the North East and the employment and economic prosperity that the success of the Leaf could bring. A lot of this has been good PR management since the early cars, for the first two years, will be coming from Japan, so the immediate benefit to the UK economy will be limited. However, early commitment from purchasers (especially the fleet sector) will assure the success of the Sunderland factory producing the Leaf vehicle for the whole of the European market and the new facility producing the batteries for both it and the forthcoming Renault models through the Nissan-Renault alliance.

The Leaf is a taster of the first of the 'everyman' EV. Whilst it might still be 'niche' it will appeal to a much broader audience than any other production EV. The completeness of the car in terms of the styling, proportions, performance and technology really raises the bar for other manufacturers. If it had a higher power on-board charger, to use to full effect at charging stations, it would be much more appealing - although if used in an area with access to DC rapid chargers it will be less of an issue. 25% higher range would have been nice and is technically achievable.

The Nissan Leaf is available now from £25,990 including battery.

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