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First Oz drive: Green Leaf shows its colours

Silent spin: The Leaf EV goes for its inaugural local drive at Nissan Australia’s head office at Dandenong, southeast of Melbourne.

Nissan’s electrifying Leaf carves up the city traffic with smooth style

Nissan logo17 Mar 2011

By RON HAMMERTON

THE proof that Nissan’s all-electric Leaf can cut it – performance-wise – against conventional commuter cars in Australia can be observed in the rear-vision mirrors of this breakthrough hatchback and the potholes of Melbourne back roads.

In the mirrors, the other traffic can be seen shrinking into the distance as the Leaf and its torquey electric motor stream effortlessly away from the traffic lights, leaving the 20th century in its wake and underlining that just because a car does not run on petrol, it does not have to be a shrinking violet.

We had to look a bit harder for potholes on our 30km drive route on smooth urban roads this week, but a small detour down a couple of back roads near Nissan Australia’s head office at Dandenong, southeast of Melbourne, found a bunch of beauties, which the Leaf dispatched without a hair out of place, even on hard low-rolling resistance tyres.

This answered a couple of questions that had been left hanging after GoAuto’s first taste of the Leaf on a Japanese test track last year – how it would handle real-world Aussie roads and the daily grind of the big city.

While we still have more questions to ask of the Leaf when the final Australian-spec car hits our shores in the first quarter of 2012, Nissan's first mass-produced five-door all-electric hatch is starting to stack up as a serious contender.

12 center imageNissan, which air-freighted two of the UK-spec EVs to Australia for trials, says one of the Leaf’s great attributes is that it is just a car – it handles, accelerates, steers and generally drives like a conventional, internal combustion-engine small car.

We beg to differ we think that in at least a couple of ways it its better than those daily drivers.

Stop-start urban traffic – the natural habitat for this family five-seater – is not only comfortably handled by the Leaf, it does so with turbine-like smoothness unmatched by even luxury cars.

Such quiet, stepless acceleration has been one of the holy grails of automotive engineering since the birth of the car 125 years ago, and now it is here – at least for a handful of people lucky enough to get their hands on one of the trial vehicles that will grow in number by a further 16 in July when Nissan joins a Victorian government fleet EV trial.

Of course, the multiple elephants in the Leaf room are driving range, charging time and price, all of which remain unanswered from our perspective after our small taste test.

Nissan claims a potential range of 170km, but cheerfully acknowledges that can only be achieved with careful driving and that most people will get between 100km and 120km on a full charge of the 24kWh, 250kg pack of lithium-ion batteries that are stacked low in the car, under the front seats and rear floor, to lower the car’s centre of gravity.

Like all car companies bringing such cars to market, it argues that those distances easily cover the average daily slog of most Australian city slickers.

That is undeniable, but range anxiety – the buzz term of the 21st century – remains a real barrier to EV sales growth, at least until batteries improve, as they surely must. Right now, a full charge takes up to eight hours on a home socket, although most commuters will only need a top-up each night.

Nissan has tried to address this anxiety in a number of ways, including a sat-nav system that will direct drivers to the nearest public charging point which, at this stage, remain few and far between in Australia.

On our drive, our eyes were glued to the array of driving-range, battery-health and power-use meters, which even include a strangely alluring – if kitsch – gauge that allows drivers to ‘build trees’ – a graphical representation of a pine tree that, branch by branch, builds into a full tree if the driver is being particularly sparing with the battery juice during a journey.

Drivers need to be careful not to pay too much attention to the virtual trees or they could end up in the real ones.

But attempting to conserve electricity and extend the range of the Leaf is addictive, and no doubt will become a daily game, not just for individual drivers trying for a new personal best, but also against other Leaf drivers via the global portal for this 21st century model.

Yes, all your driving data can be uploaded via a mobile phone SIM card for you to pore over and to check your rating as a card-carrying electron-saving master of driving.

Leaf drivers can also select an Eco mode to help in this quest, extending the range by up to 10 per cent by delivering milder acceleration, more sparing use of the climate control and more aggressive regeneration of electricity under braking.

Even the latter becomes addictive, with your road tester attempting to maximise the amount of electricity recovered under braking. The same gauge that indicates the amount of power being consumed then goes into reverse, graphically illustrating the gains being made by the motor-cum-generator as it slows the car and claws back some of the energy.

When we climbed aboard the Leaf, the first thing we did was to turn the car off. Yes, the previous driver had left it switched on, but because there is no engine noise or vibration to detect a running car, we turned it off, before our Nissan co-driver pointed out that all the dash lights had gone out.

On turning it back on, we were greeted with an oh-so-Japanese greeting chime – Nissan’s way of telling the driver we are up and running because of the aforementioned lack of under-bonnet mechanical activity.

A check of the ‘fuel gauge’ – a digital bar graph similar to those on a mobile phone – and the accompanying range estimate – what petrol car drivers will know as a ‘distance to empty’ read-out – showed we had sufficient battery charge for 107km.

That was surprisingly good, as this car had already been driven around the 30km loop by other journalists, who are not renowned for sparing the horses.

‘Gears’ are selected by a mouse-like shifter on the centre console, and in this case we selected reverse – which requires the foot to be placed on the brake like a conventional car – and nothing happened.

Only with a dab of the accelerator pedal did the Leaf leap backwards, perhaps a little too eagerly, and then we moved the ‘mouse’ forward to engage ‘drive’.

From them on, the Leaf could have been any other extremely refined car, except for the tiny turbine whine of the electric motor under acceleration and deceleration, and the instant and near effortless application of power.

No, the Leaf is no V8 Supercar or even a WRX, but it derives more-than-adequate forward propulsion from the electric motor that has a mere 80kW of power – far less than cars of equivalent size, such as the Mazda3 – but 280Nm of torque.

Get within shouting distance of any EV convert and they will tell you that electric motors generate maximum torque from rest, when the first power is fed into their coils.

And yes, the Leaf gets out of the blocks well, impressively maintaining the rage in a single, seamless, linear line of acceleration. And while there is no throbbing V8 note or turbo popping, the new breed of EV lovers will revel in the electric motor that sounds for all the world like a mini jet engine.

Even when braking to a halt, it does not take too much imagination to relate the sound to jet engines – quiet ones – being powered down by a pilot.

Handling wise, the Leaf is about average, with a little body roll and understeer, but the low centre of gravity helps.

As well, the batteries placed strategically amidships also act as ballast against the sharp bumps and bangs of the road, in much that same way as an old-style luxury car with a big cast-iron-block engine engenders a silky ride. Leaf drivers will have no complaints about ride quality.

Nissan says replacement batteries cost about $10,000 to $12,000 in the United States, and admits they do degrade over time, like any battery.

But as they point out, potential new-generation batteries – with greater range and perhaps lighter and cheaper if the evolution of other gadgets is anything to go by – will be made to slot straight in if and when they arrive on the market, giving the Leaf a whole new lease on life. A sort of future-proofing.

When we completed our 20-minute test drive, the battery gauge was still showing more than 80km of range.

This was not only testimony to the accuracy of the Leaf’s predictive talents but also to the relatively efficient use of power on our quick burl.

To say that Leaf shows promise is an understatement. But if it costs $60,000 as some pundits predict, in our market with zero EV incentives, then few drivers will get to enjoy its charms – at least in the short term.

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