Nissan has unveiled the second generation of its electric Leaf hatch, but this time instead of the sci-fi influenced styling of its predecessor, the new version looks a lot more like a regular small five-door.
That first model needed to make a splash as Nissan relied on influential early adopters to boost the profile of its first production EV. That changes with this model, where Nissan has targeted a wider audience.
Nissan predicts that by the middle of next decade electric vehicles will overtake the sales of traditional petrol and diesel cars, but to reach that target current cars like this Leaf and other coming EVs will need to start swaying buyer opinions now.
Vehicle Style: Electric small hatch
Price: $51,990 (estimated) plus on-road costs
Engine/trans: 110kW/320Nm electric motor | 1spd automatic
The acceptance of electric vehicles varies greatly by region. Some markets have embraced the EV, others have pushed the category along with generous incentives, and some, like Tesla have somehow made the technology desirable.
Can the new Leaf, from firmly mainstream Nissan, generate the same level of buzz as relative newcomer Tesla? TMR was given a short drive of the new Leaf in Japan last week but it left a mixed first impression.
On the plus side the Leaf features a more powerful electric motor and improved lithium-ion batteries that extend the range between charges.
Less positive is the decision to retain the underpinnings from the previous model, a decision that detracts from the presentation and polish you expect from a new car that is likely to cost more than $50,000 when it arrives in Australia.
Thanks to a sharper exterior that moves towards a more conventional design, the Leaf is sure to increase its appeal - but in making the Leaf more mainstream Nissan has diluted one of its standout features: The interior.
In its first generation Leaf had a cabin that followed the design guides of consumer electronic from earlier this decade - packed full of glossy white plastic and considered cutting edge at the time.
The new model has a more conservative design and looks more like a Pulsar than an iPhone, with grey plastics dominating inside. The only nod to its electric powertrain is the small, stubby and blue-lit gear selector and the digital display on the dashboard; albeit next to an old-fashioned analogue speedo.
A cool, hi-tech inclusion in the cabin is the rear view mirror that doubles as a display screen for a rear mounted camera. While it can take some adjustment getting used to the image on the mirror, it offers up improved rear visibility because it avoids having the rear seats and any passengers blocking your view.
There are some signs that the Leaf is still riding on the old underpinnings, that now date back to the mid-2000s. There's no reach adjustment on the steering wheel, for example, and rear passengers only get modest accommodation. While there's plenty of headroom the kneeroom is tight, and there are no air-conditioning vents.
ON THE ROAD
One of the trademark attributes of electric vehicles is their almost complete absence of mechanical noise, and it's here that the Leaf impresses with whisper-quiet running that a petrol powered hatch can’t match.
The new powertrain produces 110kW of power and 320Nm of torque, a notable improvement over the previous model's 80kW and 280Nm.
On the road it feels sprightly off the mark, almost quicker than the 8-second 0-100km/h time Nissan claims. The near-instant torque of the electric motor means it has strong pulling power as soon as you push the accelerator.
Nissan has even rethought the way traditional pedals operate a car, renaming the accelerator the 'e-pedal' allowing most of the driving to be done via a single pedal.
Unlike other electric cars which use regenerative braking to slow the car as soon as you release the accelerator, the e-pedal is connected to the entire braking system. The result is a stronger braking sensation when you ease off the pedal and if you step off it completely the car comes to a halt and stays stationary, even when it is on an incline.
It's a clever extension of the regenerative braking system used by EVs, and while it takes some adjustment to the way you drive, it quickly feels normal.
Another improvement for the new model is its extended driving range, rated at an impressive 400km based on calculation using the very generous Japanese JC08 test cycle, twice that of the previous model.
In theory that is a huge step forward that will make the Leaf an appealing alternative to a regular hatchback. In practice though, the true range of the Leaf is uncertain.
The cars we drove were displaying an estimated range of 221km after our 21km test drive from Nissan's Yokohama headquarters, with 92 per cent of the battery charge remaining.
While Nissan was quick to explain the 400km range is a theoretical figure calculated from the Japanese regulations, a spokesman also claimed the cars were still new and the batteries will learn and improve the range estimates over time.
One thing that did become clear though during the brief test was Nissan's ProPilot system is far from an autopilot system the name implies.
Nissan claims the system allows you a more relaxed drive on motorways, where ProPilot can keep the car in the lane and maintain its speed. But far from an autonomous system, like that offered in the latest Mercedes-Benz E-Class or Tesla, ProPilot is closer to an adaptive cruise control system combined with lane keeping assist.
That's largely because the autonomous steering only works for five seconds with the driver's hands off the steering wheel before an alert tone sounds. While keeping your hands on the wheel is the obvious safe choice, those considering ProPilot should be aware of its limitations.
Despite considerable driveability gains compared to its predecessor, the new Nissan Leaf still doesn’t provide a one-for-one replacement solution for the petrol and diesel hatchbacks it seeks to replace.
Criticisms would be easier to accept if Nissan were able to bring the Leaf to Australia at a price to rival traditional hatches, but the Australian arm admits the new model is likely to start at a price point much like the original Leaf, which was launched at $51,990 plus on-road costs.
Although that gives it a price advantage compared to the $68,100 BMW i3 and $62,490 Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid it's still a lot of money for a small car wearing a Nissan badge - even if the brand gets to claim the title of Australia’s most affordable EV.
While EV enthusiasts will no doubt be excited for its arrival, it's still going to have a hard time convincing mainstream buyers out of conventional small cars that can justify premium price tags with better presentation and, in most cases, more gear.
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