Tested: World’s favourite electric car
TURNING over a new Leaf has never been easier. That probably explains why the first generation of Nissan's electric hatch is the world's most popular EV, having sold more than 400,000 vehicles since it launched in 2010.
Now the second generation has arrived with more power, better range and a relatively affordable price.
The new Leaf will go on sale next month for $49,990 plus on-roads, delivering up to 270km of range with no tailpipe emissions, thanks to a 40kWh lithium-ion battery pack and an electric motor producing 110kW/320Nm motor.
Beyond the absence of engine noise, the Leaf drives much like a conventional car, right down to seating five people and packing a decent boot.
The design is equally conservative, mimicking mainstream hatches on the roads today.
Price is the inevitable sticking point - you're paying about $10,000 more than a top-spec petrol hatch. That upfront hit is offset by much reduced running costs.
Nissan's EV infrastructure partner is ChargeFox, which estimates it will cost the average motorist less than $800 a year to fuel the Leaf against about $1800 for a four-cylinder petrol hatch of similar size.
Budget-conscious buyers can save cash if they plan well enough to recharge at a free public charging station such as those found in supermarkets.
Otherwise you can plug the Leaf into a standard wall socket or invest about $2000 in a home charger, which respectively take about 24 hours and eight hours to recharge.
Standard specification in the Leaf is impressive. The eight-inch screen is the best resolution display we've seen in a Nissan or Infiniti and includes satnav and smartphone connectivity. The front seats are heated, as is the steering wheel. Active safety gear includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, adaptive cruise control and alerts for lane departure and blind spots.
Up to 30km/h, sensors scan the Leaf's surrounds and the car sounds an alert if it detects a nearby pedestrian.
Hyundai's Ioniq electric car and the Renault Zoe are the obvious direct competition and the Leaf looks to have them covered.
The Ioniq starts at $44,990 and comes with a 28kWh battery pack and 88kW/295Nm motor. The Zoe kicks off at $47,490 and uses a 68kW/220Nm motor with a 41kWh battery pack.
On the road
The initial surge of acceleration is the only real indication the Leaf isn't a conventional car. It will outdo most vehicles off the line and then progressively build up the pace. The claimed 0-100km/h time is 7.9 seconds, which feels about right.
Many hybrids and EVs use skinny, low rolling resistance tyres to help improve efficiency. They manage that feat but inevitably aren't as grippy as regular rubber and tend to whine as soon as they're loaded up in a turn.
The Goodyear rubber on the Leaf stoically copped some decent curves at speed without groaning or breaking grip.
Flip the switch next to the transmission lever to activate "E-pedal" and the regenerative braking becomes aggressive enough for the Leaf to be driven using just the accelerator pedal.
It takes very little practice to get the hang of and makes the brake pedal redundant in all but emergency stops.
The rest of the package is typically Nissan - the plastics are well put together (though we'd like to see soft-touch textures on the door trims etc), the switchgear is common to the Nissan range and the seats are smartly cushioned and shaped.
Outward vision is good, the steering is reasonably responsive and the brakes don't have the sudden "grab" typical of many regenerative energy set-ups.
The only real bugbear is the absence of reach adjustment on the steering wheel. At this price it's something that would contribute to the premium impression.
On the test loop covered freeway, suburban and city driving, the Leaf acquitted itself admirably in every scenario.
The suspension is firmer than a normal hatch, largely to help offset the 1600kg kerb weight. As a result there's some jarring over big, sharp-edged lumps and dips at low speeds but the Leaf stays impressively flat during cornering and avoids the fore-aft pitching that can come from instant-torque takeoffs.
You can toggle through digital displays showing how much power the accessories are using - heated seats are more efficient than airconditioning, for example - but the average driver is going to use about 16kWh/100km, equating to 250km of range.
That's not far off the official 270km claim and we certainly weren't trying to drive economically.
The Leaf is the most compelling electric vehicle to date in terms of value and range. The price is still a touch high but the return is emissions-free motoring with no packaging compromises.
Nissan Leaf vitals
Price: $49,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/$1388 for 5 years
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, blind spot and lane departure alerts
Motor: 110kW/320Nm; 40kWh lithium-ion battery
Range: 270km; 16kWh/100km (est)
Fuel for thought
Have a look around the cabin and there are petrol bowser signs signifying recharging. The incongruous icons appear on the dash and buttons. The thinking is we've been conditioned to understand what the symbol means. Still, it looks more than a little out of place …
The winds of climate change have helped shape the Nissan Leaf. Nissan wants us to know the electric vehicle can be used to help lower household power bills and stabilise the electricity grid during peak demand periods.
The stumbling point is that the hardware needed for the "bi-directional" energy transfer hasn't been approved for Australia yet. That should happen next year, enabling owners to download power from the grid to their vehicle's battery during low-cost off-peak periods and then use that power to run the household appliances during peak times.
Nissan EV guru Nic Thomas says overseas Leaf trials have included using a fleet as mobile power generators, with a stockmarket-style approach to buying and selling power - prices fluctuate according to supply and demand.
"The Leaf isn't just a mobility platform," says Thomas. "It's also a fuel storage device and that opens up huge opportunities long-term with things like helping to smooth daily power peaks.
"If energy companies don't have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new station just to supply power for a few hours each day, then they'll consider it smart business to provide some form of financial incentive for Leaf owners to help deal with that peak demand."
Equally, a lot of renewable energy is wasted because solar and wind power is most productive during the day but there's no demand for that power, so it's effectively wasted.
"With EVs," he says, "that energy can be captured and returned to the grid when it's needed - and you don't need a massive stationary battery storage system to achieve it."