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First drive: Nissan’s Leaf a quiet achiever

Important step: Nissan's electric Leaf is no fireball, but will see off many hatchbacks.

Electric dreams come true for Nissan as 140km/h Leaf hits the road

Nissan logo15 Jun 2010

By MARTON PETTENDY

DRIVING Nissan’s Leaf is a surreal experience. Finger the illuminated starter button that’s well hidden on the lower right side of the dash and the first indication this is no conventional hatchback comes in the form of one of three selectable start-up chimes.

Then, pull the computer mouse-like shift-by-wire transmission selector knob on the centre console towards you and back, brush the accelerator pedal and the electric parking brake automatically disengages (if your seatbelt is on) before the Leaf leaps into life with silent but effective alacrity.

There’s an initial wave of torque that soon dissipates, but back off and press the throttle again and you are greeted with another solid helping of satisfying urge, accompanied by a quiet, high-pitched electronic whir that’s never distracting but ever-present.

Throttle response is instant and we easily managed to see 140km/h on the 1.7km main straight of Nissan’s Oppama test track – despite the stated 100km/h speed limit. The Corolla-sized five-door Leaf is no fireball, but easily a match for most sub-2.0-litre small-cars in terms of standing-start and roll-on acceleration.

Nissan will not reveal 0-100km/h acceleration or total weight figures, but says the Leaf’s standing-start performance will outstrip most of its rivals. Certainly, the Leaf feels at least as quick as the Toyota Prius, but in the total absence of any engine noise, the Leaf’s linear power delivery probably makes it feel slower than it is.

The floor-mounted lithium-ion battery pack weighs about 250kg, giving the Leaf a kerb weight higher than most small cars, but at least its heaviest single component is positioned as low and centrally as possible.

At speed and under hard braking, the Leaf feels super-stable, and the overriding noises come from the tyres and wind around the thick double A-pillars, leaving a lasting impression of accomplished refinement.

The pedestrian-friendly sound that emanates from under the Leaf’s snub bonnet is inaudible from within the cabin, even with the windows down, but sounds a little like a quiet jet engine from the outside.

12 center imageDisappointingly, however, the Leaf doesn’t sit as flat in corners as the refreshingly firm i-MiEV, keeling over readily even at mild corner speeds and inducing plenty of tyre squeal when pushed.

After some initial bodyroll on turn-in, though, the Leaf reveals itself to be superbly neutral and highly adjustable mid-corner, reacting positively to steering inputs and feeling much less nose-heavy than most conventional small hatchbacks.

The steering is vice-free, without hint of kickback, rack rattle or torque steer, at least on the smooth 3.77km Oppama surface. It’s not what you’d call alive in your hands, but combined with its whisper-quiet cabin and accomplished ride quality, the Leaf’s steering attributes appear to have the bull’s eye of its target market.

In the metal, the cab-forward design of this dedicated new EV makes the Leaf look like any other modern small five-seater hatchback, albeit one with avantgarde styling including prominent back-swept headlights that are longer than the bonnet and a pair of matching tail-lights that span the length of the tailgate.

Inside, the Leaf interior high a surprisingly tall floor and seats, making ingress/egress more like a crossover than a passenger car, but remains airy and spacious. Rear leg and head room is impressive for a small (C-segment) vehicle, even behind full-size front occupants.

At 330 litres, luggage space behind the rear hatch is acceptable but not outstanding. There is no spare wheel to be found under the flat boot floor, which is augmented by a 60/40-split folding rear seatback, but a large hump behind it rules out an extended flat cargo area.

The all-white cabin features soft velour-like fabric on the seats that looks like it would mark easily, and while the driver scores a seat base angle adjuster, the lack of reach adjustment for the softly trimmed multi-function (including an instant range button) steering wheel is perplexing – as are the hard-to-the-touch plastics on most interior surfaces.

Overall, the Leaf cabin layout appears simple, functional and high-tech, but lacks any real sense of beauty or luxury. Apart from a large colour screen in the centre stack to monitor detailed battery charge information, the driver is presented with a double-deck instrument panel.

The slim-line upper display presents a digital speedo, trip/odometer, audio and outside temperature functions, while the large, futuristic colour panel below it displays the charge meter, battery temperature gauge and other key vehicle functions.

On the top of the dash are three blue lights that illuminate when the Leaf is being charged. The large central flap at the front of the bonnet opens to reveal the charging inlet, and the level of charge can be checked remotely on a smart phone via Nissan’s global data centre, which also allows drivers with a user name and password to control recharging remotely and activate the air-conditioning.

In Europe, the Leaf will come standard with air-conditioning, satellite-navigation, LED headlights, keyless push-button starting, electronic stability control, six airbags, a quick-charge socket and Bluetooth and smart-phone connectivity, which allows remote pre-heating/cooling and programmable charging.

In the US, a flagship SL variant will add a rear-view parking camera, solar panel-equipped rear wing, foglights and automatic headlights, but Australia is likely to receive only one highly specified variant, with a few top-end options.

Another ‘green’ aspect of the Leaf is the use of recycled material for bumpers, seat fabrics and sound-proofing materials.

Billed as the world’s first affordable, mass-produced zero-emission car, Leaf hatch is built on an all-new dedicated EV platform.

Slightly longer than the class average at 4450mm long, 1770mm wide and 1550mm high, the Leaf rides on a 2700mm wheelbase and is powered exclusively by an 80kW/280Nm electric motor, and its lithium-ion battery pack can be quick-charged to 80 per cent of capacity in 26 minutes.

An ‘eco mode’ is claimed to increase the Leaf’s driving range by 10 per cent, by activating a power-saving air-conditioning mode and increasing its rate of energy regeneration.

Nissan claims the Leaf has a real-world range of 160km – similar to GM’s Volt, which will go on sale in Australia as a Holden in 2012 – and Nissan says the Leaf has a top speed of more than 140km/h.

The Leaf’s range and top speed numbers are also similar to that of Mitsubishi’s pioneering i-MiEV, which was the first EV to go on sale (in limited numbers) in Australia, but remains two vehicle sizes smaller than the Leaf.

The 40 i-MiEVs will arrive in Australia from August, by which time Mitsubishi will have selected a list of customers, who will pay a total of about $62,000 over three years before handing the car back.

Nissan Australia says a similar lease deal is likely to be offered with the Leaf Down Under, albeit a less costly one. Without government incentives, the Leaf purchase price in Australia won’t be far short of $50,000.

In Japan, Europe and the US, however, generous government subsidies make the Leaf’s pricetag only slightly higher than that of a conventional small car.

Based on lower EV servicing costs and average US electricity prices, which are roughly comparable with Australia, the Leaf should cost less than $6 to recharge, which Nissan says results in a payback period of less than six years compared with a conventional hatchback.

Nissan says EVs are three times as energy efficient as their petrol equivalents and that, as energy retailers reduce their dependence on coal-fired power stations, the Leaf will play in increasingly important role in reducing global greenhouse gases and the automotive industry’s reliance on fossil fuels.

There is no doubt EVs like the Leaf represent an important step in the right direction in both respects. After our first brief experience, we have no reason to believe that any of the 20,000-odd early-adopters who have already signed up for this ground-breaking EV will be disappointed.

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