The Leaf is the car that heralds the start of a new generation of full electric cars that will hit the market over the next five years and Nissan is the first to bring its to market.
The Leaf’s fairly ordinary appearance hides a technological secret. Not actually powered by an engine in the conventional sense of the world, its power is drawn solely from a lithium-ion battery which in turn powers an AC electric motor. This is as electric as the milk floats from old, albeit updated for the 21st century.
The price for a slice of modernity is £25,990 however, this does include a £5,000 grant from the UK Government in a bid to encourage the uptake of such vehicles.
The price may seem steep but, you are getting the benefit of technology that has literally cost billions of pounds to develop and therefore you will always pay a premium to enjoy ‘early-adopter’ status of such new advances.
That being said, the Leaf is generously equipped with features available as standard that are normally only seen in luxury cars: satellite navigation with full touchscreen, reverse camera, cruise control, automatic headlights and wipers, multi-function steering wheel (allowing you to control the stereo, make and receive phone calls) and keyless entry (meaning you do not need to take the key out of your pocket to open or lock the car – as long as the key is physically on you and within range of the vehicle, the doors can be opened and locked).
This new ‘principle’ will explode in coming years with many car manufacturers launching their own version of fully electric vehicles, or EVs (Electric Vehicles) as they are known. With EVs, there is no petrol motor lurking in the wings to take over, as in the case of a hybrid, and what you get in return is zero emissions at the exhaust. Granted, you still get the emissions from the coal-fired power stations that predominantly provide the electricity in the UK (allowing you to re-charge your EV), but at least you can sit in a traffic jam feeling satisfied that you are not adding to the surrounding smog.
Highlighting the high level of features available as standard on the Leaf, there is only one option to specify at extra cost and that is the £250 solar charger which sits atop the rear boot spoiler and acts as a back-up charger for the 12 volt battery (powers items such as radio, lights, satellite navigation, rear heated window), on a clear day naturally.
Despite its world first status, the Nissan Leaf does not shout about with unconventional looks and that is a deliberate ploy. The Leaf was designed not to intimidate as Nissan wanted the car to appeal to the type of families who would ordinarily go out and buy a Volkswagen Golf or Audi A3. The key was to make this technology seem accessible and not in any way daunting.
That being said, the car has a sufficient number of touches to mark it out from the mainstream such as the clear LED (Light Emitting Diode – reach full brightness much quicker than standard bulbs ) rear lights which form an attractive vertical arc into the rear pillar, as well as the headlights that have been streamlined in such a way as to minimise wind noise by deflecting the noise away from the wing mirrors reducing cabin noise. The level of detail even continues down to the windscreen wipers that have been re-designed to operate much quieter than regular versions. You have to remember that with the absence of a combustion engine, this car is extremely quiet meaning that any unwanted noise/distractions for the passengers had to go.
Inside is where you come to realise that the Leaf is something above the norm and a bit special. Sit in the driver’s seat and you are immediately faced with a futuristic
dashboard that seems to come from the Starship Enterprise with a variety of
computer displays and what appears to be a computer mouse (gear selector).
The other impression you have when sitting in the car is one of air and spaciousness. This is helped by the light grey coloured interior of every Leaf; it feels clean, big, modern and relaxed.
In front of the driver, there are two main display panels, each in a different binnacle. The first (behind the steering wheel) gives the driver information on gear (either Park ‘P’, Drive ‘D’ or Reverse ‘R’), range to empty (that is empty charge, not empty fuel tank) and a charge metre to the right-hand side with the left hand side bar offering information on the
‘Kinetic Recovery’ (returns energy back to the battery when braking for example).
The second instrument binnacle on top of the dashboard:
This instrument provides information on speed, along with an indication of how hard the electrical motor is working (represented by the white arc to the left of the display), as well as the time and outside temperature to the right hand side.
To further emphasise the environmental aspect, in case you were still unaware, there is an Eco indicator displayed :
This is given by the ‘Fir Tree’ symbol as shown above; the steadier you drive, the more tree you will ‘grow’. A complete Fir Tree means environmental brownie points where no tree indicates that, perhaps, you should be contemplating a career in motorsport, or jail!
The Leaf is extremely spacious with more than adequate seating for five, an important requirement for any family car. It should be noted that legroom in the back of the Leaf is exceptional, supported by the fact that this is a long car at nearly 4.5 metres.
Despite the space-age appearance and the apparent complexity of all the systems, the Leaf is a car which is incredibly easy to operate once you familiarise yourself with all the major controls and it does not take long to get comfortable in.
Nissan have always enjoyed a solid reputation for reliability and build-quality and, despite the complex technologies used, I have no reason to doubt that this reputation will continue with the Leaf. Such is Nissan’s confidence in the quality of the Leaf that it comes with the 3 year/60,000 mile warranty that Nissan provides on all of its cars and, in addition, there is also a 5 year / 60,000 mile warranty for its Electric Vehicle (EV) components.
My only slight niggle in quality is that some of the plastics used on the main console and surrounding the front twin cup holders is below the standard I would expect for what is essentially a £29,000 car (before Government grant). Something for the facelift then!
I have been fortunate enough to drive many different cars in my time but this was a completely new experience for me; Swift, Silent, Progress is the order of the day. Without the noise of a combustion engine you really appreciate the surge as the scenery rushes by you. The quietness is surreal at first, especially on initial start-up, but you quickly get accustomed to it and appreciate not only the lack of noise but complete lack of vibration too; something that is a given in a standard car powered by something as ‘old fashioned’ as petrol/diesel.
The Leaf accelerates strongly up to commuter speeds and being an electric car, it provides instant torque (pulling power) to the wheels. The engine does not rev like a conventional engine to provide power which means there is no time delay between putting your foot down and the car reaching maximum pulling power.
The Leaf also benefits from keen handling which is helped by perfect weight distribution. That is to say, the car’s mass is evenly distributed across the car, helped by the lack of a heavy combustion engine upfront, which provides enthusiastic and balanced cornering. Not that spirited driving is to be encouraged if you want to maximise your driving range on last night’s charge.
This worry about how much distance you can cover before the juice in the battery dies gives rise to a term known as ‘Range Anxiety’, meaning “Can I make it home or to a charger in time before the lights and everything with it goes out?” When you drive an electric car you start to consider things that you wouldn’t give a second thought to in a normal car, for instance, whether to switch the air conditioning on as this will drain the power and WILL impact the range you have to travel.
Discussion on the various charging options available is given within the ‘Ownership’ section of this review.
That being said, if your journey is well within the remaining range, you get a warm glow inside knowing that petrol prices are now irrelevant and that you are driving something genuinely futuristic after driving a ‘normal’ car. My contact, Sallyann Tanner (Westover Nissan), commented that you get an ‘EV Smile’ when driving as you are immediately relaxed given the surreal silence but also because you never need to worry about petrol prices again and can fill up for an electrical cost of approximately £1.30.
I am normally, at best, described as a ‘progressive driver’ but the Leaf genuinely changes your driving style. You learn to relax and de-stress when behind the wheel, encouraged by the serene silence and the effortless instant power. It is a mobile chill-out zone.
The Leaf is a car that made the most impact on me in terms of driving delight than any other just because it is so different to anything else I have driven; it makes combustion engines seem positively antique. Now, if they could only get it to emulate the sound of a Porsche Carrera GT, it would be the icing on the cake!
Speaking of noise, a lot of people have pointed out there is real danger for pedestrians with the onset of electric cars. After all, one of the biggest clues of when to cross the road comes from listening out for cars. To try and alleviate this problem, the Leaf emits a small “whine-like” noise at low speeds up to 16 mph and stays on until the Leaf accelerates above 19 mph, but it is still extremely quiet in comparison to your normal cars. Watch out jay-walkers!
As is typical with modern cars, the Leaf is packed with airbags, numbering six in total, ensuring that there is both front and side protection. The airbags also include a ‘curtain’ airbag which drops down from above the doors to protect the occupants’ heads.
Also, given the fact that the Leaf runs solely on electricity, there is no risk of fire from fuel spillage.
The Leaf benefits from a host of electronic programmes: ESP (Electronic Stability Programme – improves vehicle stability and reduces risk of skidding), EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution – ensures equal braking power is provided to all four wheels improving stopping power) and, finally, ABS (Anti-Lock Braking System – prevents the wheels from locking under hard braking ensuring traction and stopping power throughout).
All in all, a safe car to be in should the worst happen.
As mentioned above, The Leaf is a credible family car and as such offers ample space both in the front and the back.
Special mention should also be given to the size of the boot, which is perfectly large for a family car. Previous environmental cars, notably hybrids, have suffered with a reduced boot space because of the storage of batteries. However, in the Leaf, the battery is stored underneath the car so as to not impact on space. Clever thinking!
The biggest questions associated with EVs are how far will they travel realistically between charges and how long will they take to recharge?
To take the first point, the range of the Leaf is 109 miles between charges for regular driving. However, to be comfortable, i.e. to not worry about NOT making it home, to enjoy items like the air-conditioning and to take advantage of mixed driving conditions, I would say 75 miles is a more realistic range.
Charging from home
When it comes to replacing the juice you have just spent from home, Nissan recommends what is called a ‘dedicated home charging unit’. This is a fixed charging system that cuts the full re-charge time by 4 hours down to 8 hours from zero to hero (full) charge. It is all weatherproofed so can be left outside and overnight in all weathers. The cost of such an upgrade will depend upon your home and it is recommended that you get a no-obligation quote from British/Scottish gas to determine this.
Charging on the move
There are two options with this scenario which are both conveniently displayed on the Leaf’s satellite navigation system (it highlights the nearest charging stations and provides information on what type they are):
- Public charging stations: These are the units found in public areas like on-street, parking and shopping centres. As the Leaf will be returned from zero to full charge in 12 hours, these are more useful as top-up chargers.
- Rapid chargers: This is a fast charge that returns the battery level to 80% of full charge in 30 minutes but, given the intense electrical power used (50 kW), can only be used once a day.
The aim is to have a rapid charger at every Nissan dealership in the country so that you are never far away from a charging unit.
Should you ever find yourself embarrassingly caught short, you could always try your charm at knocking on a stranger’s door and ask to borrow a plug socket in their house for a few hours as the Leaf’s charging cable is able to be charged off a domestic plug. Good luck with the polite small talk though as it would take a number of hours to drip feed a small charge back into your battery.
To be fair to Nissan, they are working extremely hard on making public charging more widespread, especially at service stations. So the worry of range anxiety will get less and less as more charging units appear.
However, the biggest barrier to widespread take-up of electric cars is not the range but the time needed to re-charge a battery, for example, if you wanted to make a long journey you would have to plan in wait times whilst your Leaf is being recharged. Something that will not be feasible or desirable for a lot of people.
I often commute between Bournemouth and Birmingham, and although I immensely enjoyed driving the Leaf, I could not complete the journey (155 miles) on a single charge and nor would I be prepared to interrupt my drive with recharging breaks.
That said, Westover Nissan (provider of my test car) does offer anyone who purchases a Leaf from their franchise, use of a free Petrol or Diesel car for those long journeys up to a maximum of 7 days (subject to terms & conditions).
Another question regarding potential ownership relates to the uncertainty of future second-hand values. The problem relates to the life-expectancy of the battery, which Nissan says will last between 5-10 years dependent on charging cycles. When it comes to replacement, the battery, in its current form, is prohibitively expensive with estimates at c. £12,000. So if in 3 years you see a Nissan Leaf for sale, the biggest question will relate to how many years of life are left in the battery as you will certainly not wish to replace it. The worry is what impact this will have to the value of a 3-year old Leaf.
Putting the question of future value to one side for a moment, let us not forget that this is a car that can travel the best part of 100 miles on an electrical cost to you of £1.30, there is no road tax to pay, no congestion charge (for all you London commuters) and petrol prices are irrelevant. A nice feeling.
As a company car, the Leaf also makes a lot of sense for both the employee and employer. For the employee, there is no associated Benefit-In-Kind (BIK) cost meaning there is no tax cost in driving one and, for the employer, the tax cost of the Leaf can be fully written off in the first year.
The Leaf represents a huge step forward in ‘normalising’ electric vehicles and Nissan have not only succeeded in creating a genuine alternative to the mainstream, but have also succeeded in making combustion engine cars feel incredibly antique. If you use a petrol/diesel for your 70 mile or under commute and have a budget of £25k, try the Leaf, you will be immensely surprised by the ‘Swift, Silent Progress’ of the drive.
The worries about battery life or future value are not an issue if you normally lease your cars over, say, 3-4 years and that lease features a guaranteed future value (where your car is guaranteed to be worth a certain amount at the end of the lease, subject to set criteria).
That said, the Leaf, with its 109 mile range and with its re-charge times, will only ever be a compliment to your petrol/diesel powered car, not a substitute. An amazing leap
forward for commuting/school runs but keep your faithful petrol car for those long journeys.
Renault Fluence From £17,850 – £22,850.
Pros: Strong performance with great refinement thanks to cushioning ride and near silence of operation.
Cons: Dull looking & although cheaper than Nissan Leaf, you have to lease the battery as an additional monthly cost, bringing costs in line with the Leaf.
Lexus CT200h From £23,750 – £30,950.
Pros: Lexus has top reputation for quality and after care service. High quality interior.
Cons: Poor ride quality which does not sit well with Lexus brand values and can be lacking in power.
Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion From £18,845.
Pros: Very attractive headline figures, huge range of 899 miles on a single tank of diesel, 74 mpg and sub 99g/km CO2. Standard Volkswagen quality and drives as a standard Golf.
Cons: The change up indictor advising when to change gear illuminates too early meaning that you change up and then are met with no power as the engine struggles at low revs.
Not much else to moan about though.
A big thank you to Sallyann Tanner of Westover Nissan Bournemouth who supplied the Leaf for me to review.
Please do contact me if you would like to discuss any of the above in greater detail or would like to enquire into purchasing options. As ever, let me be your personal guide to choosing your next car.