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Tony O'Kane | Jun, 18 2012 | 6 Comments




What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you picture an electric vehicle? Maybe something small, with not a lot of power.

Something that might have endless appeal to environmentalists but zero utility for the average Australian motorist.

That is not the Nissan LEAF.

Nissan Australia invited TMR to Sydney to test its newly-launched electric vehicle (EV) on crowded suburban streets. We were surprised to find it to be an ideal commuter chariot - but one with a sizable price tag attached.



It’s a C-segment car (that means ‘small’), and interior space is about par with cars like the Mazda3 hatch. A taller roof brings more headroom though, and the cabin’s light colour scheme promotes a sense of airiness.

The velour-like upholstery - partly made out of recycled drink bottles - looks a little drab, but feels durable. Recycled plastics also feature in things like cabin trim-panels and carpet underlays.

Cabin quality though is generally good and during our short drive there were no trim rattles.

The LEAF’s two-tiered instrument panel puts the digital speedo right in front of the driver, above the steering wheel rim.

An efficiency meter to the left of the speedo tells the driver whether they’re burning too many electrons, and a ‘power reserve meter’ in the lower instrument panel indicates how much charge is left in the battery - as well the estimated remaining range.

The LEAF’s infotainment system has a surprising depth to its capabilities. Not only will it overlay the car’s current range on the sat-nav display, but when integrated with your phone you can also check its charge status via mobile, tell it to turn on its heater while you’re still inside your house and set charging times to take advantage of off-peak power rates.

Those with range anxiety would also appreciate the LEAF’s sophisticated sat-nav system, which tells you if you have enough charge to reach a programmed destination before you set off.

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Should you need a top-up along the way, it will also display the nearest quick-charge station on the map display (although, admittedly, there are currently very few charge stations about).

The seating position is quite high due to the LEAF’s battery packs being stored beneath the cabin floor. As a result, outward vision is better than average for a small car.

Another advantage of having the batteries under the floor is that boot space is liberated. The LEAF’s boot is sizable, and it can swallow a generous amount of luggage. It’s quite deep though, so lifting anything heavy out of it could be a chore.


On The Road

Don’t be fooled by the LEAF’s eco-credentials: it’s far from slow. In fact, with 80kW and 280Nm produced by its electric motor, it accelerates smoothly and very quickly from standstill.

How? Well, despite weighing nearly 1.8 tonnes empty, the LEAF’s engine produces its peak torque figure at zero rpm, which translates into excellent off-the-line performance.

Just a small flex of the ankle is all that’s required to win the stoplight derby against an average six-cylinder Aussie sedan.

Eerily though, it achieves this feat almost silently. There’s a soft whine from the inverter and, as speed increases, some tyre noise, but it’s damn near silent - and that takes a bit of getting used to.

Nissan, being mindful of the potential threat to pedestrians, has fitted a speaker that emits a high-frequency noise when the car is travelling at less than 20km/h, to avoid foot traffic from wandering into the LEAF’s path in shopping centre carparks and the like.

In Eco mode, the LEAF’s accelerator pedal is softened substantially to help conserve power, the regenerative braking system’s strength is increased and the climate control is dialed back.

That said, we found that thumping the throttle hard off the line and reaching cruising speed faster seemed to get a more positive response from the efficiency meter than gently coaxing the car up to speed. Hypermilers may want to take note.

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On our short drive loop through Sydney’s Southern suburbs we didn’t have the opportunity to throw the LEAF through any corners, but we found the ride quality to be more than acceptable over the occasional patch of broken or potholed asphalt.

With Macpherson struts up front and a torsion beam at the rear, the LEAF’s suspension layout isn’t much different from your average light hatch.

However, we suspect the extra weight of the battery pack helps iron out the ride somewhat, and contribute to the car’s planted feel.


TMR First Drive Verdict

Granted, the LEAF won’t make a lot of sense to some people. No, you can’t take it on an interstate sojourn, nor is it terribly practical if you live in a regional area.

However, if you live in the suburbs and you commute to the city, the LEAF is the ideal vehicle to do it in. It’s easy to drive, has a small footprint, plenty of mod-cons and will cost you peanuts to run.

The fact that it doesn’t directly emit any carbon dioxide or other particulates is just another bonus (and if everyone drove to work in an electric car, we’d all benefit from clearer air).

Its maximum range of 170km may not sound like much given the average hatchback can travel more than three times that distance on a single tank; but the average city-dwelling Aussie commutes less than 50km each day.

However, there’s the cost.

At $51,000 the LEAF is far from cheap. At that price it’s one for the early adopters and avid environmentalists.

There’s also the cost of the wall charger that needs to be installed in your garage (that’s right, no parking on the street), which comes in at roughly $2750.

Until that pricetag falls substantially, it’s hard to see the LEAF making much of a difference in the market. Without the support of government subsidies, it's definitely a hard sell.

And that’s a bit of a shame, because we like the LEAF.

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