NISSAN LEAF REVIEW
Nissan's all-electric LEAF won't single-handedly save the planet, but if nothing else it proves that driving a zero-emissions car has more benefits than disadvantages.
At Nissan's invitation we spent some time behind the wheel of one of two LEAF's brought into the country ahead of its local market launch in mid-2012. Although our first taste was brief, it was certainly promising.
For starters, it's a production-ready car with proper small-car proportions. In fact, it's slightly bigger than both the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla hatchbacks, and has plenty of leg, shoulder and headroom for every seat.
It feels more spacious than a Prius, and there's plenty of luggage capacity in the deep boot (330 litres, to be exact).
Many of the LEAF's components are crafted from recycled materials. The seat upholstery is made from recycled PET plastic, the bumper casings are made from old urethane bumpers and the carpets and interior insulation are made from other recovered materials.
You'd never tell though. Despite being made out of old drink bottles, the upholstery feels just like the cloth trim you'd find in any other small car. Other interior fittings all have a high-quality feel.
Unlike the Mitsubishi i MiEV, the LEAF has a feature-rich spec sheet. There's sat-nav (which will be standard on all LEAFs sold in Australia), auto-on LED headlamps, a rear-view camera and air-conditioning.
The on-board computer will also sync up with a smart phone. This enables the charging state to be monitored and started/stopped remotely, as well as allowing the air-conditioning system to be fired up well before the driver enters the car.
Driving the LEAF is simple. After thumbing the starter button and using the mouse-like gear selector to slot the transmission into Drive, the LEAF moves off the line smoothly and quietly.
With 280Nm available from zero rpm, the LEAF also has plenty of off-the-line urge. Keeping with the traffic is not an issue for the LEAF.
Nor is ride comfort or handling. The suspension is compliant and comfortable, and the electrically-assisted steering is direct if a little too light.
In all, the LEAF offers a driving experience that's very similar to existing small hatchbacks – aside from the eerie lack of engine noise. Is the drive compromised by the all-electric powertrain? Not at all.
If anything, it's been greatly enhanced by the exceptional torque and near-silent characteristics of the electric motor.
It's packaged well and is more than a decent drive, but what of the negatives?
- Range: The LEAF is not for long-haul driving. Nissan claims a maximum range of 170km on the European test cycle, and Nissan Australia estimates that the average Australian driver (with average Australian driving habits) will get around 100-120km out of a full battery.
The LEAF is instead pitched as a commuter car, and intended to sit beside a petrol-powered or hybrid car in the average family garage.
With most weekday commutes being no more than 80km the LEAF should then have more than enough range between charges, but Nissan says it will emphasise the importance of trip planning to prospective LEAF buyers.
- Charging: Until the arrival of widespread public EV charging infrastructure, the only way to charge a LEAF is through a specialised plug installed inside a garage or parking structure. Currently, this plug requires a dedicated 15-amp circuit (which can be installed by any licenced electrician), but forget about using one if you park your car on the street.
Nissan Australia is currently working on a charging cable that can be used with a typical 10-amp household power outlet, and expects it to be ready by the LEAF's local launch in the middle of next year.
Charging on a 15-amp 240 volt power outlet takes between 7.5-8 hours from flat to full, and Nissan expects most users to charge their cars overnight to take advantage of cheaper off-peak electricity.
A quick-charge station can charge the battery to 80 percent full in 25 minutes, but the high cost of the unit means only charging station providers like ChargePoint Australia, Ecotality and Betterplace Australia will be able to afford them.
- Price: With over a year to go until the LEAF goes on sale in Australia, there's no definite answer on how much it will cost.
Indications are that the LEAF's retail price will be “north of current Prius [i-Tech] pricing”, meaning that a $60k-plus pricetag will be likely.
That may change if the Federal Government or state governments decide to introduce subsidies or incentives for electric vehicles, but expect the LEAF to carry a significant premium over other small cars when it launches.
The lithium-ion battery pack currently costs US$10,000, but Nissan says the life of the battery should exceed ten years.
It's too early to reach a conclusive verdict on the Nissan LEAF, but from what we've experienced it shows promise as a commuter car.
It will undoubtedly be expensive when it goes on sale here and the need to keep the batteries topped up will require an attitude change from owners, but it has many merits to counter these downsides. Not having to pay for petrol is just one of these merits.
From a environmental perspective, the LEAF will make most sense in states like Tasmania and the ACT, where a high proportion of electricity is produced by renewable resources.
In brown-coal states like New South Wales and Victoria, the environmental benefits are possibly marginal. But for the quality of the drive it offers, Nissan’s LEAF is a significant step forward for green motoring.