Car reviews - Nissan - Leaf - 5-dr hatch
Pioneering EV that’s simple to master and easy to love, zero tailpipe emissions, terrific torquey acceleration, comfortable and spacious interior
Room for improvement
Dull and overly light steering, high price, unnatural brake pedal feel
18 Jun 2012
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS, June 20 2012
BUYERS are only now able to access the Leaf while most motoring journalists in Australia have yet to experience it beyond a few kilometres under heavily controlled conditions.
But not us.
Instead, GoAuto spent 16 weeks and almost 3500km behind the wheel of a pre-release, 2010-built example of Nissan’s pioneering electric vehicle.
Over two seasons, we basked in its green-tinged glory just as surely as we baked beneath the sweltering sun waiting for a flatbed truck to tow it away when we purposely ran the battery down, just so we could truly wrap our minds around what the Japanese company is trying to achieve with its $51,500 zero-emission hatchback.
We didn’t exactly ‘earn’ our Leaf as much as win our time with it, courtesy of a competition run by the Victorian Government back in July last year, as part of a three-year EV trial that’s designed to ascertain how people might use such cars in daily life.
To avoid colouring the experience with uniquely high initial home-infrastructure set-up fees, each household – including your reporter’s – received a taxpayer funded 15-amp (Level Two) charge outlet (courtesy of Better Place in this case), at no cost to us. These can vary upwards of $2000, by the way.
After a brief walk around the EV, the government representative handed over a key and a number of different swipe cards that gave us access to the handful of 15A public charging stations sprinkled around Melbourne.
Initially, the thing that stood out most is how conventional the Leaf is – in terms of styling (Japanese contemporary), size (slightly larger than a Mazda 3), and packaging (Camry-like space).
No weird doors, central seating positions, or Star Trek Enterprise interfaces, just a regular steering wheel with indicator and wiper stalks, headlight switches where you expect them to be, and a centre console featuring everyday audio and climate control switches. Consumers expecting sci-fi futurism may be disappointed.
Yet you wouldn’t call the bright and airy interior conservative – not with the fascia’s (very Honda Civic-esque) bi-level instrument pod featuring colourful luminescent readouts and charming (or annoying) arcade game-like chimes.
Familiarisation is essential of course, but soon it is the sheer ease, simplicity, and lightness of all the major controls that impresses – particularly the toggle transmission lever that couldn’t feel more natural.
Nissan has set all the seating positions deceptively high so entry and egress via large doors is another bonus – though very tall people will find the elevated rear bench (as a result of the Li-ion battery pack lurking underneath) a bit too lofty.
The upshot, obviously, is commanding all-round vision, while the deep side windows, large reversing camera screen, and very tight turning circle really help with manoeuvrability.
Yet it is in its forward motion that the Leaf really stands apart.
Utterly silent at ‘start up’, a quiet whir accompanies what can only be described as heady acceleration right beyond 90km/h. We are talking pinned-back step-off-the-line performance, for countless (and unexpected) traffic-light GP victories.
Though we never grew tired of this, the 110km range-maximum we averaged prompted us back off the throttle as time wore on using the Eco mode that blunts acceleration (and air-con performance) most of the time upped the available distance to over 150km, while we are confident that 170km is possible if we really tried to eek out every last ounce of electricity.
Not using the air-con at all can also increase range by up to 25km.
Conversely, one 70km/h freeway blast reduced range from 96km to under 5km in only 50 minutes, with visual and audio warnings chiming away when the display flashed 15km of range left. After that there was a gradual shutdown of power-draining ancillaries like air-con strength.
For your benefit, we decided to deplete the Leaf of electricity during a peak-hour traffic scenario.
Below 5km of range the readout flashes nil kilometres, while the last 500 metres to empty sees your speed fall markedly until the car rolls to a dead stop… in our case through a busy Carton T-intersection.
Passers by helped push the car out of danger, but after that, Nissan’s roadside assistance – claiming to never have had to deal with this sort of situation – kept us on the phone for 14 minutes while it pondered the next move, before deciding to dispatch a tray truck “within 20 minutes”.
More than 70 minutes later the hapless driver arrived with little idea of how to load up an EV onto his flatbed.
Unfortunately all that waiting drained the 12V battery (since the lights, hazard flashers, fan, and Bluetooth audio system were inadvertently left on during that time), so when the Leaf was returned home, the electronic park brake could not be deactivated, stranding car on truck.
We also learnt that a depleted 12V battery won’t allow the Li-ion battery to be recharged (we tried to connect the Leaf into the 15A mains while still on the flatbed), so in the end the car was then trucked back to Nissan Australia and a new 12V battery was fitted the next day. Almost 40 hours passed before the Leaf reappeared in full working order…
Nissan assures us this will never happen again. We were the guinea pigs so owners don’t have to suffer a similar fate from now on.
It’s quite amazing how quickly we became used to charging the Leaf every second or third evening for its overnight juice-up, just as you do with mobile phones and laptop computers. Never having to visit a service station for fuel was another plus point.
During our time with the Leaf your reporter ended up on crutches thanks to a broken foot, but the Nissan continued to shine as an electrified wheelchair due to its seamless power delivery and loping suspension. Those wide door apertures also came in handy.
So what didn’t we like about our EV?
The steering is too light and lacks sufficient feedback for our tastes – and this is something we never learnt to accept. Why couldn’t Nissan dial in a bit more feel? It’s a bitter disappointment.
“Wooden” is how many people described the unnatural brake pedal feel, even though the stoppers themselves work just fine.
There wasn’t much love for the Leaf’s secondary ride quality either, since smaller road irregularities somehow found their way into the cabin while the larger bumps and stuff were pretty much smothered over.
The Japanese ought to call up their gifted Renaultsport colleagues and get the suspension and steering issues sorted.
As the weeks wore on, we found that the much talked-about ‘range anxiety’ never really vanished, but instead subsided into ‘range awareness’.
We got to know the car well enough to work out how far we could travel even with just a few kilometres of range up our sleeve, and learnt that even changing our driving style mid-journey could radically alter the outcome for better or worse.
Yet even living just 4km from the Melbourne CBD means that another vehicle is necessary for longer journeys because the charging infrastructure just isn’t in place as yet. There was always another press car to rely on in our case.
And then there’s the price. $51,500 – it buys plenty of premium and luxury prestige (think Audi A4 2.0 TDI, BMW 118d, or Mercedes B180). Of course, none radiate the supreme eco glow of the Leaf – which was like hanging out with a celebrity in our early days with it, since people would constantly stop and ask questions.
Additionally, the payback period is quite long.
Compared to a Mazda3 Maxx at half the price and averaging 7.0L/100km of petrol costing $1.50 per litre, a Leaf owner travelling 30,000km annually would have to wait about 10 years before recouping the difference – even at just $3 per recharge.
For us, however, the Nissan proved rather more viable.
At 20.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, our 3463km total mileage cost $105.40 – though in our case, solar panels cuts almost 60 per cent off our bill, for a grand total of just $44.16.
To put that into context, the same mileage in a 118d averaging 4.5L/100km of diesel at $1.50/L would come to $233.70 while a Golf 77TDI at 6.2L/100km equals $322.05.
Plus, Australia’s top seller – a Mazda 3 auto returning 8.2L/100km – would have lightened our wallet by $425.95.
So, yes, we do recommend the Leaf… but only as a second vehicle alternative to a similarly priced premium hatch like a 1 Series or Lexus CT200h – that is, only if you can afford $51.5K.
And you’ll need to commute less than 100km in total daily, or make sure there is sufficient Level 2 charging infrastructure (and about six hours) available to connect at or near your place of work.
But as the Leaf ticked all of the above boxes for us, we loved the effortless way it slid into our lives, and revelled in its refined smoothness and tailpipe-emissions-free ways.
We miss it already.
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