David Booth discovers that Nissan's new electric creation rides like a real car - just don't plan any long journeys.
Road Test: Nissan turns over a new Leaf with 2012 model
There's a simple question that's often lost in all the hullabaloo about the future of transportation. While the talking heads pontificate on whether or not electric vehicles are the future of transportation or if there's enough oil left to sustain the internal combustion engine, little time is being spent discussing exactly what EVs are like to drive. After all, if this indeed be the future of the automobile, should we not know its strengths, weakness and compromises? Are they fast or slow? Roomy or not? Heck, do you need to relearn everything you knew about driving a car? Or, as my normally not so erudite next-door neighbour so succinctly summed it up, "Howzit drive?"
Surprisingly well, as a matter of fact. Or as Ian Forsyth, Nissan Canada's director of corporate planning, says, the biggest surprise to all who test his new Leaf - consumer and professional road tester alike - is how much the Leaf is "just like a real car."
Indeed, other than the eerie silence that accompanies any electric vehicle's operation, there's precious little - other than the multicoloured, multi-panelled digital gauge display with floating trees and the like that all environmentally conscious automakers insist on foisting upon us - to differentiate the Leaf from a garden-variety Versa, which the Leaf resembles, at least in size and some areas of comportment.
That means there's brisk acceleration to about 120kph, the prodigious torque at low speeds of electric motors making the Leaf quite responsive around town. If one were looking for an internal combustion analogy, the Leaf feels as torquey (thanks to 282Nm of torque at zero rpm) as a mid-displacement V6 at low speeds, but only as powerful as a small four-banger once moving.
The transmission shifts much like a conventional automatic; over and forward for reverse, over and back for drive. Indeed, other than that eerie silence - punctuated by a slight whistle (to alert pedestrians) below 40kph and a beeping when reversing - and a complete lack of vibration, there's simply nothing to differentiate the Leaf from any other car. And though eerie, this lack of noise has its benefits; the Leaf is more relaxing than a conventionally fuelled car in the urban grind.
It is about the same size as Nissan's own Versa (though it weighs almost 300kg more) and uses Versa-derived suspension bits so it's hardly surprising if its comportment is not dissimilar to the compact. The ride is on the harsh side of firm, but not destructively so, and the handling is surprisingly agile because the 300kg or so of lithium-polymer battery are built into the cabin floor, lowering the centre of gravity.
Much has been written about the compromises that have been made of extending the Leaf's range, namely re-engineering the heating and air conditioning systems to use less electricity; Nissan's solution is to heat all the seats (even the rear perches have a built-in electric heater), allowing the range-conscious owner to save those precious electrons for motivation. Indeed, one of the primary functions of the Leaf's "ECO" mode, besides altering throttle response and increasing regenerative braking, is to moderate the HVAC system's energy usage.
Of course, in the middle of a desert, air conditioning takes priority and, fortunately, it gets frosty almost immediately. Even if the A/C system is electrically driven, it shouldn't diminish range very much and, overall, I don't expect the Leaf to sacrifice much in the way of creature comforts.
It's also fairly roomy, its 2,548L of interior volume almost qualifying as mid-sized. Headroom is abundant and, thanks to the upright seating position, there's lots of legroom, even in the rear. There's also plenty of cargo space (651L) but, unfortunately, lowering the rear seats doesn't result in a completely flat cargo floor because of the protrusion caused by the on-board charging unit.
A final gripe is that, although the interior build quality - namely the panel gaps - is excellent, it looks like Nissan - as Honda did with its latest Insight hybrid - tried to offset some of the high cost of the EV technology by saving on materials. The interior's plastic is simply not up to the standard compared with a conventional car costing roughly Dh140,000 in North America. The seat covering materials may be laudable for having been created from recycled plastic bottles, but they are not up to snuff for a car that is priced like an entry-level luxury saloon.
These, however, are the few disappointments of the Leaf. Nissan claims - depending on how fast and where you drive - a range of between 100 and 160km on a charge. I managed 140 driving abnormally, which suggests that's what's achievable without "high-mileing" it. It will take 18 hours to recharge the Leaf's batteries on a 110-volt circuit and a full seven hours even on 220V. The 30-minute recharge so many EV protagonists boast is only available if you buy a 480Volt/70Amp charger that currently retails for anywhere between Dh70,000 and Dh180,000 - significantly more than the cost of the car itself.
The obvious comparison with the Leaf is to Chevrolet's Volt. Indeed, Nissan's advertising, at least in North America, targets the Volt specifically as its only competition. Interestingly, despite the obvious differences in technology and style, there's little difference in comportment and size.
The difference, of course, is each car's range and how that range is achieved. The Volt can travel 64km on electric power alone, after which it reverts to its gasoline backup to continue on for as long as you're willing to fill its tank. The Leaf, as noted, should allow about 140km on electric power alone, the problem being that you're then stuck any number of hours waiting for all those electrons to switch polarity.
The comparison then is simple; up to 64km of driving per day, the two cars, both operating in fully electrical mode, offer essentially identical economies and emission reduction. From 64 to 140km, the Nissan continues to operate electrically while the Volt needs to be fed petrol. After 140km, the Leaf needs significant recharging while the Volt just needs a few dollops of petrol.
So, the decision making process would seem to be obvious. If most of your commuting is less than 60km or so a day, there's precious little between the two cars, other than styling and the Volt's petrol-fuelled range extender. If you typically drive between 60 and 140km a day, but hardly ever venture further, the Leaf's greater electrical range will serve you better. If, however, a 60km range is adequate for your typical daily needs but you will need the same car to venture out of your city centre, then the Volt is the better choice.
Normally, if you live in North America or Europe, it would be a decision based on your transportation needs. However, as both Nissan and Chevrolet are both undecided as to when or even if they will bring either EVs to the UAE market, your decision is, unfortunately, already made for you.
Engine AC motor with 24kWh lithium ion battery pack
Gearbox Single-speed transmission
Torque 282Nm @ 0rpm