Car reviews - Nissan - Leaf
Smooth performance, neat styling, excellent cabin space, one-pedal driving, strong safety list, great convenience features
Room for improvement
Expensive, range is still so-so, long recharge time, poor infrastructure support
Nissan perseveres with electric Leaf in a disinterested Australian market
7 Nov 2020
By NEIL DOWLING
RAY Kinsella never heard the voice in his head say: “If you build it, they will come”. But a flurry of car-makers and start-ups must have woken to the misquoted line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella.
The actual quote was “If you build it, he will come” a reference to his dead father. The build was a baseball field for other top-ranking, but dead, players within Kinsella’s corn field.
There’s nothing dead about the idea of building a global overhaul of a century-plus transport system based predominantly around personal mobility.
Now, car-makers, governments and a fresh list of industries are trying to convert personal transportation from internal-combustion engines (ICE) operating on carbon and nitrogen-emitting fossil fuels to electric vehicles (EVs) seemingly powered by the emission-free means of a cord plugged into a wall.
It’s a big change for consumers who grew up with ICEs but EVs are gaining ground with supporters including people who enjoy fresh air, the EV industry and Mother Nature. And it looks like EVs will win, certainly in the long term.
But spend an afternoon with your calculator and a passenger-car EV doesn’t make much sense. Sorry.
The purchase price of any EV is well above that of a comparable ICE equivalent and that difference, when converted into a petrol account, will last for years.
There’s also little incentive when it comes to charge up. Charge stations are yet to grow to anywhere near the status of LPG outlets and finding them is – from experience – very hit and miss.
Then there’s the time you spend waiting for a charge, knowing that if you risk crawling to your destination under the glowing orange threat of a decaying battery, you could finish the journey only one way – on the back of a tilt-tray truck.
But drive an EV and these become annoyances rather than impediments. There’s lots to love about an EV and it’s not just for the driver. Passengers remark repeatedly about cabin comfort and quietness, the clarity of the audio, the relaxation of the ride and the warmth of knowing that there’s nothing nasty coming out of the exhaust pipe. If there was an exhaust pipe.
Nissan sells the single-model Leaf at $49,990 plus on-road costs or, for better value, $51,190 driveaway. You get a vehicle the size of a Nissan X-Trail with a cabin and feature package equating to the ST 2.5 version that costs $32,040.
The $17,950 difference will, according to my calculator, give you enough petrol to cover 172,600km.
That’s for “free” and without frequent and time-consuming plug-ins to charge up and with the ability to go up to 750km on one tank of petrol.
But of course the X-Trail will be seen as a polluting car which, if it’s not the point yet, it could soon become an important issue, particularly with future resale values.
Forget the electric equation and the Leaf is a smart car. It looks edgy, a bit different to make it distinctive but not weird enough to frighten potential buyers.
There’s a cleanliness to the styling that continues inside, with an inviting and open cabin boasting lots of glass and pastel colours.
The dashboard isn’t from the pages of a science experiment with great clarity of instruments and switchgear.
Up the centre is an 8.0-inch touchscreen with satellite navigation and a Bose audio system pumping seven speakers. The system has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, voice recognition and a digital radio.
The upholstery is leather and Alcantara with – surprise – heated seats front and rear and if that’s not warming enough, a heated steering wheel.
There’s ISOFIX anchors and tethers for two child seats, with a big boot noted for its wide opening and 405-litre capacity (Volkswagen Golf is 380L) with the ability to stretch to 1176L (Golf is 1270L) with the rear seats folded.
Safety equipment is sharp, opening with the autonomous emergency braking (AEB) system and then padding it right out with lane departure warning and monitor, blind spot alert, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, the excellent surround-view camera set-up, traffic sign recognition, six airbags and tyre pressure monitor.
The mirrors are heated, there is a space-saver spare (basically a token but better than a repair kit), LED daytime running lights and automatic wipers and lights.
The motor is the most interesting bit because it acts like a human heart by being a single component that provides power to a diverse list of utilities including the steering and brakes.
Included is the fascinating e-Pedal – a one-pedal operation that makes the Leaf much like a fairground bumper car. Press the accelerator and it goes forward, release and it brakes.
The mode is optional. Just flick a console switch and you’re in, making driving a lot more exciting while returning a longer range from the battery.
If it sounds scary, it isn’t. Sudden brake demands can be supplemented by jumping on the foot brake. It also feels like you – the driver – is more in control of the car and makes all its functions sharper, including enhancing the ability to perfect fast cornering.
The AC synchronous motor drives only the front wheels without a gearbox, spinning from zero revs through the potential of around 9000rpm, limited because there’s not much need to go faster.
The 350-volt motor also has 110kW which is sufficient for the 1594kg Leaf to get to the 100km/h sprint in a decent 7.9 seconds. The car is made to meet, but not necessarily exceed, the driving experience of an average ICE in the Leaf’s class. Behind that is the need to provide sufficient performance balanced with maximum range from the lithium-ion batteries.
Australia gets a 40kWh battery system good for a claimed 270km range, though Nissan offers a 60kWh system in the US to offer up to 360km.
It’s in the US because it allows the Leaf to compete with the Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt with similar battery outputs.
Nissan told GoAuto that the 60kWh is coming to Australia but there’s no timetable. It should hurry – the Hyundai Kona Electric is already at 64kWh and has a 450km claimed range.
That battery option would certainly make the Leaf more attractive. On test it was topped up every two days and then left for four before a full charge. A full charge using home PV rooftop panels took 10 hours (during the day because that’s when the sun shines) which meant the car wasn’t driven that day.
Overnight charges to top up were generally given about four hours of grid power. Good news is the Leaf has two plugs in its nose to suit different chargers – Type 2 and DC CHAdeMo – and two cords and plugs in the boot.
Annoyingly, there’s not a lot of public charge stations around. This is the stumbling point where we came in as building the field has to happen before anyone’s going to play in it.
One trip to a station in Fremantle for a top-up found that the chargers had been removed some time before and they were now on-street but the local council’s fanfare failed to confirm where they were on the 10km-long street.
Perhaps this, along with the high purchase price, is what is keeping the sales low. Nissan has sold a mere 291 Leafs this year to the end of September.
Warranty and service
Nissan provides the Leaf with a five-year, unlimited distance warranty which is common across the Nissan line-up. The Leaf also has an eight-year/160,000km warranty on the battery to give cautious EV buyers a bit of comfort.
There is five years of roadside assistance and the capped-price service program for the Leaf will cost $801 for the first three years. This program goes for a generous six years and will cost $1731 for the whole period, well down on an equivalent ICE car undoubtedly as the Leaf has far fewer mechanical components.
The Leaf does what an EV is expected to do and is backed by the size of Nissan. One can get obsessed with saving every possible amp on the way to economy motoring as its finest but at the same time, it’s a fun car.
The practicalities come back to how and where and how often you need it charged, with a definite need to research where public charging stations actually exist. While it is definitely a worthy garage filler, we’d have an ICE alongside in case of emergencies.
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