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First drive: Nissan plays safe with new Leaf

Easy being green: Nissan has taken a deliberately conservative approach to the design of the Leaf to ensure it appeals to more buyers.

Nissan to pitch new Leaf EV to government and fleet buyers in Australia

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Nissan logo31 Oct 2017

By TIM NICHOLSON

NISSAN Australia will target government and corporate fleet buyers with its new second-generation Leaf electric vehicle, but is not expecting a huge uptick in sales volume compared with the original model until there is sufficient charging infrastructure in place across the country.

Set to hit Australian showrooms in late 2018, the new Leaf hatch is likely to be priced at about the $50,000 mark – a leap over the $39,990 driveaway price of its predecessor but closer to its original launch price of $51,500 plus on-roads – with the variant line-up, specifications and official pricing to be confirmed closer to launch.

The new Leaf is already proving to be a sales success in its home market, with more than 9000 orders placed since it went on sale in Japan early in October.

Nissan Australia general manager of corporate communications Karla Leach told GoAuto that the company would actively seek out fleet business for the new Leaf.

“We think that fleet probably comes in lots of different iterations,” she said at a first drive event for the new Leaf at Nissan Motor Corporation headquarters in Yokohama last week.

“Fleet potentially is … local government, state government and also larger corporates that have a corporate social responsibility policy as well as small-to-mid-size fleets that want to make a more conscious decision about the vehicles they buy.”

Ms Leach said Nissan was not anticipating a huge increase in sales compared with the first-generation Leaf given the low take-up of EVs and lack of charging infrastructure.

In Australia, Nissan sold 635 examples of the Leaf in its five years on the market – it was discontinued earlier this year after launching in 2012 – but globally Nissan has shifted 280,000 units, making it the world’s best-selling full-electric vehicle.

“Based on the current market in Australia and the regulatory environment, I don’t think it is probably fair to say that we expect a big uptake because something needs to change for that to happen – a fundamental shift,” she said.

“And it is not only us that is saying that, it is most manufacturers.”

Ms Leach said the company was nonetheless in a better position to bring the Leaf back to Australia, with shifting consumer attitudes, industry changes (such as electricity companies getting on-board with home recharging units) and improvements to the new model, such as more refined styling and better battery performance.

Nissan Motor Corporation chief vehicle engineer for the Leaf, Hiroki Isobe, said the shift to a more conventional design for the second generation was a strategic move to appeal to a wider buyer group as the company wanted to target more than just early adopters.

“This time, our styling designer tried to express its performance, with a low and wide dynamic feel, rather than the futuristic style,” Mr Isobe said. “And also, since the battery performance has improved … customer will choose the Leaf because they have less anxiety about the range.”

Nissan’s executive vice-president for global marketing and sales, zero-emission vehicles and the battery business, Daniele Schillaci, added that buyer satisfaction for the Leaf was higher than other Nissan models.

“Satisfaction with this product is probably the best,” he said. “We have statistics where in all of our line-up, we have the customer satisfaction with the products which is good, but with Leaf it is simply outstanding.”

Nissan Australia is in the process of determining whether all dealers in its network will sell and service the Leaf, but Ms Leach said this was complicated by the level of staff training required for the EV tech and infrastructure investment at dealerships.

The company is also looking into offering a home charging system, potentially bundled into the price of the car, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Nissan is also in the process of developing a wireless charging system that will start to roll out in 2020.

As reported, the Leaf uses a carryover version of the EV platform that underpinned the previous model, but with improvements to the battery pack that have increased the driving range to 400km, up from 170km in the previous Australian-spec car.

The Leaf we sampled last week was a Japanese-market car and the drive route consisted of Japanese motorways and some city streets, so with this in mind, and given the flawless condition of the roads, we will reserve our final judgement until we drive it on Australian roads next year.

But Mr Isobe was right when he said the look of the new Leaf was designed to appeal to more buyers than the old one.

It is certainly a more conservative design, and while it looks better in the metal than in images, the new Leaf is unlikely to win any design awards.

Inside, Nissan has taken an even more cautious approach, losing the more futuristic look of the previous model’s dash, console and colour choices.

It makes sense that Nissan wants to appeal to a wider buyer group this time around, but some of the switchgear, such as the electric seat controls, combined with the overall interior design, makes the new Leaf already look and feel a couple of years old.

Nissan could have at least been a little more daring in this area.

There is no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, with Nissan executives confirming that it is expensive to include, but they are working on incorporating it during this model’s lifecycle.

The Leaf cabin has a lot of hard, dark plastics, but the cloth seat material works well with the neat blue stitching and the front seats have excellent cushioning.

Cargo space is significant for the class, with 435 litres on offer, well above the likes of the Toyota Corolla’s 280L, and the rear seat compartment has excellent headroom and adequate kneeroom.

There’s very little under-seat space allocated for feet, with placement of the battery pack under the floor resulting in a shallower floor inside. The Leaf is not offered with rear air vents and there is only an average amount of storage throughout.

Nissan will offer the Leaf with an optional interior rearview mirror camera mounted at the top of the tailgate that gives a wider view of what is at the rear. As the sticker says, however, it does make objects look much closer than they actually are.

The new Leaf introduces an e-Pedal which, if selected, effectively eliminates the use of the brake pedal while also engaging regenerative braking.

It takes some getting used to, but beware not to take your foot off the accelerator too dramatically as the braking power is intense.

Steering is reasonably sharp and the Leaf does not feel heavy. The cabin is quiet, which is hardly surprising given the EV powertrain makes no noise, and we have had no real opportunity to assess ride and handling qualities.

The updated powertrain delivers 110kW/320Nm – up 38/26 per cent respectively over the previous model – while Nissan says acceleration has improved by 20 per cent, and it feels brisk from a standing start.

The new Leaf features Nissan’s ProPilot driver assistance tech which includes some semi-autonomous functions such as a lane keeping aid and adaptive cruise control.

However, when engaged, it warns the driver to put his or her hands back on the wheel after just five to six seconds, a much shorter time than similar systems from other brands, notably Mercedes-Benz. The system did successfully keep the car in its lane while our hands were off the wheel.

Parking Pilot is a hands-free parking system that uses 12 sonar sensors, four cameras and detects car spaces at 10km/h. It can also detect pedestrians and other objects to avoid colliding while parking.

Like many of these self-parking systems, it is unlikely to be used very often in the real world. The driver must hold down a button in the centre console for the entire manoeuvre and it takes a painfully long time to complete the park.

The technology, however, is still very impressive.

While Nissan says the Leaf now has a 400km range, this is, of course, dependent on driving conditions, acceleration and other factors.

After our brief drive we had used 17 per cent of the battery but had 211km to go until it needed to be recharged.

That maths doesn’t add up as 17 per cent of use would bring the range back to 332km, but again, our heavy right foot might have impacted the figure. Just be aware that the 400km range is more of a guide.

Nissan doesn’t think the Leaf will sell in its thousands in Australia but is confident of pulling in new buyers this time around.

Given it doesn’t look as sci-fi as the previous car, and the subtle improvements to the powertrain and overall offering, it should stand a better chance of appealing to the general public than the original.

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