Nissan Leaf – it’s not the dEVil after all

The Nissan Leaf - irrelevant eco-smug-mobile? I find out from the passenger seat, as Autocar subject it to track testing at MIRA

By Tim Kendall | 10th April 2011

Petrolheadedness. A condition leaving one curiously attached to the internal combustion engine and its oily, noisy goodness. For sufferers, cars tend to be less about the rational, and more about emotional connection to a machine – engine sound, driving sensation, and other subjectives. And I’ll admit that the advent of the electric car has not made me want to embrace a bold new chapter in motoring history, but mourn the gradual decline of suck-squeeze-bang-blow. By which, I mean, internal combustion – be quiet at the back.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

So with a large chip atop my shoulder, I approached the Nissan Leaf on Thursday at the MIRA proving ground. A pure electric vehicle (‘EV’), Nissan’s foray into the world of zero tailpipe emissions has won a few plaudits, including European Car of the Year 2011. But when Autocar told me I’d be joining their road-test team who were figuring the Leaf at MIRA, I’ll confess to mixed emotions. On the one hand I’d get to see what it’s like to do, frankly, the best job in the world. On the other hand, I’d be experiencing it in a battery-powered blandbox. Confusing.

A few seconds riding shotgun in the Leaf around MIRA’s wet handling circuit, was all it took to convince me this EV isn’t the anti-christ. Yes, the silence is deafening, and disconcerting. When you’re accustomed to using engine revs as a sub-conscious aural reference point, hearing only the breeze tickling the window seals at 70mph, and a distant whine overlaid by the occasional knocking of crash helmet against door, it’s other-worldly. The only nod to the fact the Leaf actually moves via electric propulsion, as opposed to witchcraft, is a sound under hard acceleration akin to a washing machine just before it hits spin cycle.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

I can’t tell you ultimately what it feels like to drive, but from the passenger seat, it looked like a surprising amount of fun. Faced with too much juice going into a corner, it elicits safe understeer, which is fairly predictable behaviour from a front-driver. What wasn’t expected though, was the extent to which the Leaf gamely hangs on when being provoked, albeit at more and more comical angles of body roll. Perhaps something to do with the relatively narrow tyres and the weighty battery pack sat between the axles, it held it’s line for far longer than expected, before eventually scrubbing wide. On the whole though, body control felt pretty well-resolved, at least from the passenger seat.

Game handling wasn’t the only surprise of the day. When curiosity got the better of me, I popped the bonnet to gander at the propulsion system, and confusion again reigned. I’d read just enough about EVs to realise that I wasn’t going to see several thousand duracells, but to be greeted by something that does a very convincing impression of a 1.6 litre petrol engine, once again, confounded me. The Leaf’s lithium-ion battery pack actually sits under the floor, between the axles, to give better weight distribution, so I was, of course, staring at the 107bhp electric motor. It’s a motor that delivers 100% of its 206ib ft of torque from zero revs, which is why the Leaf feels  sprightly when you’re not sparing the ponies. I’ve so far described the Leaf as ‘sprightly’, and ‘game’ – not because I’ve got the vocabulary of a 1950s BBC announcer, but because words like ‘quick’, and ‘fun’ don’t fit the Leaf’s calm demeanour. Besides, 0-60 takes 12 seconds, but to judge the Leaf by such figures, is to miss the point.

Other plus points? It’s light and airy inside, feels well screwed together, and has a lot of space.

Judging by the Leaf, the electric car has arrived, and we can’t just scoff at it, tell it to go away and come back once we’ve drained the planet of petrol with our V8s. The concept is here to stay, but it’s going to need to make itself more relevant and everyday usable to the masses. The Leaf costs a hefty £25,990, after deducting the £5k government subsidy, and the £43 million grant fund will be reviewed in a year’s time, so that figure could rise. Of course, the other fly in the Leaf’s ointment is range – it’ll go about 100 miles depending on how sprightly you Leaf-about the place, before it needs plugging in to the national grid.

Yes, it’s an eye-opener, and signposts a sea-change in thinking for the car industry as it looks beyond conventionally-fuelled cars to EVs. But, like analogue vs. digital, or vinyl vs. MP3, there’s too much misty-eyed nostalgia about the internal combustion engine, for it to slip it’s clogs just yet. As I stoked up Autocar’s petrol-powered Ford S-Max, and departed MIRA, I’ll confess to a pang of smugness as the Leaf cowered sheepishly, on the back of a trailer. It seems EVs have a long way to go, before they can go a long way.

You can find out more about the Leaf and other EVs in this Electric vehicle FAQ guide, written by yours truly for What Car? online.

By Tim Kendall
10th April 2011

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