The Leaf prepares for impressive debut
The Leaf is about the size of a Volkswagen Golf, but feels airier because of a generous glass area and light interior
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Nissans Leaf looks set to try and start a motoring revolution when it goes on sale in Ireland early next year. But does it live up to its billing? Paddy Comyn travelled to Japan to find out
PERHAPS THEY really are on to something. We have all watched, with perhaps a little amusement, at the ongoing development of the electric car. Cynics suggest it is an environmental public relations stunt on behalf of the motoring manufacturers who could have built these cars in large numbers decades ago. But perhaps, and this is more likely, we’re getting them now because previously we didn’t really want them.
As much as statisticians and surveys might tell us that 80 per cent of the average motorist only travels up to 50km per day, the fact is that the gasoline engine gave us freedom, it gave us power and it gave us certainty. But it also gave us emissions.
We have had hybrid technology, where electric power gave the petrol engine a piggy back. It reduced emissions, but ultimately is already starting to look like it will be a temporary solution. Now electric power is being asked to do the job on its own. But is it ready? Nissan says that it is. However, the electric cars that we have driven up to now have been pretty awful. Success will require quite a leap.
There have already been lots of big leaps: from theory, to crude concept car, to driving around some cones in a car park. Now, the waiting is over. From next month, you can walk into a Nissan showroom, put down a deposit and in February next year you could take delivery of a five-seat, decent-sized family car that runs entirely on electricity and, thanks to a government grant, will cost €29,995. Science fiction will very soon be science fact.
We are in Japan, outside Yokohama, at Nissan’s Grandrive testing circuit, where Nissan is seeking to prove that the new Leaf isn’t a circus act. It is powered by a laminated compact lithium-ion battery and an electric motor. There are 48 lithium-ion battery modules, with four battery cells inside each module. These drive the front wheels, delivering 108hp and 280Nm of torque. That is the kind of torque you get from a V6 petrol engine.
You will be able to charge it up from a domestic socket in eight hours, or up to 80 per cent in half an hour from a fast charger, when they come on stream. Fully charged, Nissan says you will get 160km, but says that this could drop to 77km if you drive it hard on a motorway with the air conditioning on, but could reach 220km if you drive it slow and steady. They also say that the Leaf won’t be for everyone.
What the Leaf is, is a technological masterpiece. You can set the air-conditioning with your mobile phone, and it will send you an e-mail when the car’s battery is fully charged. You can also set it to draw down electricity when it is cheapest.
Leaf is about the size of a Volkswagen Golf, but feels airier because of a generous glass area and light interior. The gear shifter looks more like a computer mouse than a gear-stick and there is seating for five and a decent-sized boot too.
We sort of knew all this already. What we didn’t know was what it is like to drive. The closest we have got is a run in a mule car and a tame spin around a car park. Being honest, we didn’t expect too much. Start-up in Leaf is like starting up your computer. It chimes melodically and lights up like a Christmas tree.
Pull down the “mouse” into D and you are ready to go. It is silent, from the inside at least. Nissan have got around the problem of potentially running over pedestrians by adding something called “Approaching Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians”. On start up and at low speeds a sine-wave sound system sweeps from 2.5kHz at the high end to a low of 600Hz, loud enough for most people’s hearing range yet not loud enough to be disturbing. To test it we stood in the road facing the other way, while a Leaf drove towards us. We heard it just as soon as we did a petrol car.
Put your foot down in the Leaf and it goes. Hard. With an electric motor torque comes instantly compared to a gasoline engine. Nissan weren’t giving away 0-100km/h figures yet it felt like single digits or little more than that. There are no gears to shift, just a pedal to go and another to stop. The power comes smoothly and when you take your foot off the pedal there is none of the harsh kickback from the regenerative braking, but the electric motor acts as an electric generator, converting energy that would otherwise be wasted, into battery energy.
On the long main straight we reached 150km/h, quietly and quickly. The track had been laid with cones in a way that was intended to discourage out-and-out hooliganism, but it cornered much better than expected, even with the Japanese suspension set-up, which is softer than what we can expect next February.
With the battery located around the car’s centre of gravity there is a small yaw inertia, and Nissan has made the body very rigid and torque control on the wheels aids with smooth cornering. The steering feels pretty responsive too. A few laps later and it all feels very good. In fact, it feels superb.
Aside from plugging this car in instead of filling it with petrol, it all feels pretty normal. It is easy to use, easy to drive and has amazing technology. No, you won’t drive from Dublin to Cork in it without stopping and it isn’t that cheap either. But debates about where the electricity comes from aside, it does have zero emissions. Yes, they do seem to be onto something after all.
Nissan is coming with three new electric vehicles, following on from the Leaf. There will be a commercial vehicle, probably a mid-sized van. There will also be a car based on the small Landglider concept, which is a narrow two-door city vehicle which leans into corners. There is also set to be a premium EV, probably a compact Infiniti model.