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Car reviews - Nissan - Leaf - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
EV drivetrain – strong, smooth, near-silent, refined styling, packaging, running costs, front seat comfort, safety, originality, trailblazing
Room for improvement
Range anxiety that afflicts all EVs, no reach adjustability for steering wheel, steering on the light side, no proper ratchet-style driver’s seat height adjustment, steep asking price, rear-seat backrest too upright

22 Dec 2011

IS THIS the Compact Disc moment in motoring terms?

The Nissan’s Leaf – the world’s first purpose-built mainstream pure EV electric vehicle – is not a car with an internal combustion engine or range extending powertrain, like every hybrid out there, from the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius to the upcoming Holden Volt. Instead, electricity rather than fire ultimately makes the wheels turn around.

Back in 1982, digital data suddenly made analogue sound storage LP records and magnetic tape cassettes seem like they were from bygone age, and by the end of that decade it totally eclipsed such formats.

EVs are likely to do the same to IC vehicles, although like with CDs initially with their limited availability, prohibitive price tags and even exxier players, it will all take time.

Price is the first obstacle. At $51,500, the Leaf is not the cheapest EV on the market. That accolade goes to the $48,800 Mitsubishi i-Miev – a significantly smaller four-seater city car that started life as a regular petrol model in Japan.

On the other hand, the early adopters that are expected to account for a sizeable slice of the Nissan buyer base are not as price sensitive as more conservative buyers.

Plus, the Nissan costs only a bit more than a similarly equipped Audi A3 TDI Sportback, BMW 118d or Lexus CT200h F Sport.

And then there’s the issue of range and related charging infrastructure.

Driving a Leaf as frugally as possible, with a light load, and probably no air-con on, should yield in excess of 200km from an eight-hour, empty-to-full charge. Most Australians travel almost one quarter of that mileage daily many also live in a multi-vehicle household, so there is an IC vehicle option for longer distances.

Furthermore, until now, there’s been a ‘chicken and the egg’ scenario as far as what was to come first – the car or the charging infrastructure. Obviously, with no EVs, there was no incentive for the government and private enterprise to rollout electricity top-up stations.

But by the end of next year we are expecting to see the number of EVs available in Australia to multiply, with a veritable armada of them close behind.

Infrastructure specialists such as Better Place are installing private and public charge points in most capital cities.

In GoAuto’s case, the Israeli company has fitted a Two Phase charging unit (to up the amperage from 10 volts to 15V to cut the charge time from 12 to eight hours), courtesy of the Victorian government.

We are part of a three-year EV trial designed to assess peoples’ reactions and behaviour to this sort of car. According to a state government spokesman, the infrastructure fees have been paid so the early high cost burden would not cloud the judgement of the EV ownership experience.

Which brings us to why we are driving a Leaf six months before the model’s Australian market debut, and why we will continue to do so for three months.

So this is the first of two Leaf reports – a first-week drive, followed by a long-term review later. Stay tuned.

First impressions are positive all round, with the Nissan walking a fine line between small-car design orthodoxy and avant-garde styling flourishes.

The former is bound by a typical two-box five-door hatchback shape reminiscent of recent Renaults (Nissan’s parent company), while bulging headlights with wind-cheating airflow control detailing, an extended cab-forward passenger cell and an almost flat underbody for improved aerodynamics pay homage to the latter.

Harmonious and confident, it is clear the Leaf is, ahem, charged with standing out without being way out.

About the only surprising thing is just how large this car is. Sitting on a 2700mm wheelbase, the cabin is not much smaller than a medium sized offering of just a few years ago.

Speaking of inside, it is clear Nissan took a page out of the existing Honda Civic handbook for the dashboard design and presentation.

Sited immediately ahead of the driver is a two-level instrument pack, with a large digital speedo, ‘economy’ gauge, time and outside temperature readout sharing the upper part, while a colourful menagerie of battery temperature, range and other electrical and vehicle-related information data is located below.

There’s no escaping it: familiarisation is necessary to fully understand what’s going on, but the important info, such as speed and battery range (included in a clear and concise kilometres-to-empty display) is immediately obvious, even to a novice.

Our Leaf is a pre-release, Irish-market specification example, so a number of other important driveability and range-enhancing aids was not available due to the unavailable GPS mapping data.

So the large central touch screen that controls the (non functioning) sat nav, as well as the effective Bluetooth telephone, CD/radio audio, and vehicle energy information systems could not be employed to its full potential in our car.

Basically this means that the extremely helpful charge point locations and range diameter located on a sat nav map to help alleviate range anxiety could not be tested here. But rest assured that Oz-market models will have these useful functions – as well as a superb reversing camera that counters the fat rear pillars.

Other than that, the rest of the Leaf’s interior is pretty much standard Nissan fare – except that it is finished in a light beige mouse-fur flock that is both sumptuously inviting and easy to mark.

In terms of storage, seat adjustment, comfort and support, ventilation, forward and side vision, and driving position, there is nothing here that a capable IC vehicle wouldn’t have.

Actually, getting familiar behind the attractive three-spoke steering wheel is no chore at all despite the missing reach adjustment and no seat height lever, which is an unusual omission at any price point these days.

Another thing out of the ordinary is the ‘palm’ gear shifter – a drive-by-wire device that emulates the across-and-up for Reverse and across-and-down for Drive patterns of some rivals – namely BMW and Lexus. We reckon it works better than any similar system we’ve used, especially as it is exactly where you want it located. An electronic park brake behind that is a cinch to operate too.

Being a largish small car, there is ample space up front for even tall people, while the rear is easy to get in and out of, and a genuinely three-seater to boot. But we don’t like the upright backrest or lack of space beneath the front seat for large feet both conspire to make for an uncomfortably crouched-in feeling for taller occupants.

Nissan seems to have also scrimped in other ways – most notably with the absent rear vents, centre armrest and overhead reading lights. These are small but important details to passengers inside a $51,500 car.

The EV base is betrayed in the boot area due to a large (bracing?) bar immediately behind the rear (split/folding) backrest. But the boot itself is large and deep, with ample space for luggage and other items.

It is also worth noting that Nissan’s hard work in making the five-star ENCAP safety-rated Leaf’s cabin quiet – even on our course bitumen roads – seems to have paid off, with little in the way of external noise entering. Among the innovations are an acoustic windscreen, extra sound deadening, concerted airflow redirection around the external mirrors and that smooth underbody.

Whether you like the (changeable) start up noises that sound like a Japanese arcade game parlour is up to you. But we are certain the way this Nissan drives will go a long way to convincing plenty of EV sceptics that this is the future.

Driving the front wheels via a single-speed reducer gearbox is an 80kW/280Nm synchronous AC electric motor, drawing power from a 24kWh lithium ion battery pack, for upwards of 90kW.

What that means is a near-hushed drivetrain at start-up (save for a few clicks here and there), followed by a strong and seamless shove forward. If you’re not careful you’ll chirp the front wheels and possible score yourself a ticket from the fuzz. Nissan says this thing accelerates like a Maxima 3.5L V6, and up to about 80km/h we’re not arguing.

The way the Leaf glides along as it picks up speed is utterly remarkable, even if the power tapers off noticeably once freeway velocities are hit. A turbine-like noise hums always quietly along with a rush of air over the pillars and the inevitable (though not too intrusive) tyre noise, it’s one of the few giveaways at how fast the car is travelling.

How fast you drive has a directly affects range. Potter around at 40km/h might give you in excess of 170km – for up to five hours of driving crank that up to 100km/h and your range is likely to match that figure if the air-con is turned off and sit below 60km/h you might even crack 200km before a recharge.

We averaged about 17kWh/100km, which means we can expect to see a little over 120km from a full charge after a mixture of inner-city, suburban and (fairly brief) freeway dashing, costing under $3 per top-up.

Top speed is 158km/h – an indicated figure we saw on a track that also involved a 70km freeway schlep sitting between 80 and 120km/h, as part of a 105km total full-to-empty driving day.

Driving in ECO mode adds well over 10 per cent to the total range (but severely reduces acceleration times) so does cutting out the air-con/climate control system and being smooth with the power and moderate with the brakes also helps to eek out those extra kilometres.

Plus, the Leaf goes to some lengths not to run out of range, even when you’re down to a single digit readout.

Below 15km of range, the battery level indicator starts flashing, a signal to turn off climate control air-con is on permanently, and a couple of audible range warnings are fired out. Nissan says the electronic systems also scale back the available power to conserve voltage.

Tipping the scales at about 300kg, that lithium-ion battery pack is not light, but it helps to create a low centre of gravity due to its flat placement in the centre-rear floor.

This might explain why the Leaf has excellent levels of grip, for remarkably consistent road holding.

But while the steering is a little vague and feel-free, it weights up a little at speed, with a welcome lack of rack rattle across a variety of broken road surfaces. We believe most buyers will be happy with the dynamic set-up Nissan has dialled in.

And compared with some of the hard-riding German opposition, the Leaf floats on fluid, thanks to a generous amount of suspension travel combined with quiet suspension underpinnings. This, along with the ultra slick drivetrain, helps justify the premium pricing for what is essentially a C-segment Nissan hatch.

Finally, the brakes are up to the task of slowing the EV down, although we feel that there ought to be more than just gentle regenerative braking resistance when slotting the palm shifter into ECO.

So far, so good for Nissan’s game-changing global EV family car the 20,000 odd sales to the end of 2011 has already made the Leaf the fastest selling car of its type in history.

A week in, and we’re more than a little smitten as well. There is a genuine sense of driving something innovative yet democratic, especially after a century of unrelenting internal combustion vehicle growth.

Yes, there are many, many issues to be decided and discussed, ranging from high purchase pricing and the inevitable range anxiety to the question of how clean is an EV powered by electricity from a coal powered station.

But like the CD did back in ’82, the Leaf ushers in an electronic age for its industry. And its effect is likely to be as profound.

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