A short review of the Nissan Leaf has been written by me already, and published at NextGreenCar.com. What now follows is a more in-depth review of my week with a brand new electric car. Bear with me. It’s quite lengthy.
Electric cars are certainly not new. They’ve been around for almost as long as internal combustion-powered ones. The BBC is about to screen a show looking at one from the 1960s – the Enfield 8000. Like most electric cars, the Enfield suffered from a short range, much slowness and great heavyness. Heating is minimal, though the cars did include a heated windscreen, so you could at least see where you were going. Few were sold and sporadic attempts at electric power since have not come to much.
So, when Nissan decided to mass produce an electric car, launched in late 2010, it was a bold step indeed. I was curious and decided that now production was UK-based for the European market, it was about time I tried one. Who said us Brits don’t make anything these days?
The car was delivered early one winter’s day. If I was going to test an electric car, I wanted to do so in the most challenging conditions. There’s no point owning a car that’s only good in summer. Hopping aboard, it felt like pretty much any other modern car. There were lots of buttons, precious little visibility but the usual steering wheel and some pedals that we’ve come to expect from a car.
I put my foot on the brake as instructed and pressed the On button. An ‘intelligent’ key means you can clamber aboard and start up without removing the key from your pocket. Rather than growl into life, it played a little beepy tune that I feel could cause insanity after a few months of ownership. It was like turning on a smartphone. Then it was a case of selecting D with the nifty gearlever, releasing the foot-operated (and thankfully not electronic) parking brake and beginning the oddest driving experience of my life – this coming from someone who has driven a Scootacar.
A quiet, high-pitched whir is all you get by way of sound as the car creeps away. Throttle response is instant but easily moderated. The brakes are super-sharp, the electric power steering surprisingly pleasant. Coming to a halt is particularly odd as it all just goes very quiet indeed.
Over the next week, I drove over 250 miles in the Leaf, using it as daily transport. The range was typically 50-70 miles before charging was needed, though I never left it perilously low on ‘fuel.’ The ambient temperature was very low, so the climate control saw a lot of use, as did the heated seats and steering wheel. I also live in a very hilly part of Wales, so the battery pack really had its work cut out.
Being a top-spec Tekna model (with an eye-watering £32,000 list price) the Leaf had a B-mode as well as D for going forward. B gives more ‘engine’ braking, generating more power as you ease off the throttle. This gives the sort of lift-off retardation that you just don’t get with a conventional automatic, boosting confidence on twisty roads as well as generating power to keep the main battery topped up. I left it in B mode for almost all of the time. I also kept it in Eco mode a lot too. This gives you a ‘lazier’ throttle pedal to help stop you burning volts and restricts power to the heater. I would occasionally drop it out of Eco mode which to me felt like giving it a burst of nitrous oxide! Great for overtaking.
I was absolutely amazed at how quickly I got used to it. The car had clearly been very well thought out and the comfortable ride was something I really didn’t expect from a Japanese car. Well, a modern car to be honest. Most are hopeless. But I found myself soon loving the seamless power delivery, the ease of driving around town and how relaxing and pleasant it was on the open road. Sure, it’s not engaging in the way a 2CV is, but it was quick, efficient and so simple.
Sure, it wasn’t all good. The automatic wipers were hopeless and the clever reversing camera – with four cameras all-around the car to give a view akin to Grand Theft Auto – was only good until the lenses got dirty. Minor switchgear was carelessly placed too. There’s that range too. When I needed to get to Birmingham and back, I was forced to use a petrol-powered car. It was the only realistic option.
But I don’t drive to Birmingham and back everyday. For pottering (or even blasting) around my local area, it was ideal. I was genuinely sad to see it go. I love quirky cars, and they don’t get much quirkier than one without a conventional engine. I was astonished at how competent, comfortable and enjoyable it was to drive. Even with its range limitations, it did feel like a car I’d be very happy to own.
Nissan has been working to address other concerns too. Battery life is the elephant in the room for electric cars, but you can now lease the batteries, so they’ll be replaced if their efficiency drops below a certain level. No-one really knows how long that will take, but the new breed of fast chargers will certainly eat into battery life. Trickle-charging overnight is still best.
And I found that no problem. I’m fortunate to have a private driveway and a power socket within easy reach of the car. A full charge cost me a few quid and got the car 70-ish miles. Of course there is no fuel duty to pay, no road tax (it’s free) and servicing should be cheaper too (every 18,000 miles). Sure, there are concerns about the capacity of the grid to supply enough power for electric cars, and other environmental concerns too – where does the electricity come from and what about the chemicals in those batteries? For sure, the electric car is not the absolute answer to environmentalists’ concerns.
But the Leaf does feel like an answer. Sure, it’s not perfect but it is a really nice car with genuine benefits. It is the first British mass-produced electric car and perhaps the first electric car that can be taken seriously.
What I really love though is that other manufacturers have joined the race to go electric. Hybrids have been around for a while, but the latest breed use petrol engines purely as generators. Some still use battery power to boost performance and efficiency – like a Formula One racing car. Others use the petrol engine purely to extend the range as battery power drops – the BMW i3 being a key example of this.
For the first time in decades, the new car market is awash with variety and I’m starting to take interest again. It raises some very interesting questions about the classics of the future and I feel genuine excitement about where the future will take us. Electric cars make more sense than they ever have done. Will they start to take over from petrol? Only time will tell.