We test drive the new Nissan Leaf electric car that will be released in the UAE later this year
Test drive: 2018 Nissan Leaf
The UAE is fast catching up with early adopters of electric vehicles around the world, such as the United States, which is where I am test driving Nissan's new second-generation Leaf ahead of the model arriving in the Emirates this year.
It will make its debut against a background of the Japanese car maker becoming an official automotive partner for Expo 2020, a move that will see the Leaf feature in a fleet of about 1,000 cars provided for the event.
The Leaf is itself playing catch-up with fully-electric rivals. The latest Renault Zoe has a quoted range of more than 300 kilometres; Tesla is leaving almost everybody else in its dust with its seemingly ever-increasing figures. And Nissan has responded by extending its expectations to about 240 kilometres, up from the previous model year's relatively paltry total of about 170km.
On American soil, those claims don't seem to have fallen foul of the proneness of certain competitors to exaggerate, proved by a drive from Las Vegas, where the Leaf has been on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, towards the spectacular scenery of Red Rock Canyon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, about 20 minutes outside the city. While the dashboard displays a rapidly dipping number on the outbound journey, which is partly uphill, requiring more energy, the return leg actually takes less kilometres out of the range than we travel in total. How so?
The answer is the “e-Pedal” feature, which in a nutshell turns the accelerator into a secondary brake. After e-Pedal is engaged from a switch next to the computer-mouse gearstick, when you lift off the accelerator, the car will automatically slow, depending on how you feather the throttle, with the result being smart deceleration. That friction contributes to regenerative braking that replenishes battery power. Traditionalists will be glad to know that there is still a regular brake pedal for harder, faster halts.
The e-Pedal function combines with Nissan's other headline innovation: level 2 autonomous technology entitled ProPilot. Essentially, it is a combination of lane-keeping assist and adaptive/intelligent cruise control – both features that are far from new in cars across the board. But on well-marked motorways, the integration means that you can actually temporarily remove your hands from the wheel (although Nissan don't recommend that, per se) as the car navigates its way round gentle curves and stays in lane. In traffic, it melds together to more or less form an automatic crawl function without the use of accelerator or brake pedals, which will certainly spare the tired legs of commuters.
There are glitches: apparently anything above intermittent windscreen-wiper action can throw off the ProPilot's sensors; standing water or anything covering road markings can do similar damage; and during my drive, junctions and areas of widened road seem to momentarily confuse the car. Rather than veering off into a canyon in such events, thankfully, the Leaf merely bleeps and a dash message politely informs you to resume manual steering. If you take your hands off the wheel for more than about a minute and fail to heed subsequent gentle braking warnings, meanwhile, the car will assume that you have fallen asleep or suffered a medical problem, which triggers an emergency response to bring you to a standstill. The next stage in Nissan's research might be to develop an autonomous system to pull the car safely on to the hard shoulder, because presently the end result could potentially be a sudden stop in the fast lane – something that could conceivably prove just as lethal as the scenarios the car is built to anticipate.
Charging times are about standard for this segment, although if you can locate a quick-charging station, Nissan claims that you can get to 80 per cent juice from empty in about 40 minutes. It still doesn't cost pocket change compared to similar-sized petrol cars, with its starting price on the wrong side of Dh100,000, but the newbie is due to be slightly cheaper than the outgoing model, which is no mean feat considering the additional tech that it boasts.
With more than 250 kilograms of battery mounted beneath the floor of the passenger cabin, though, the Leaf's low centre of gravity will handle better than most fossil-fuel peers, with its perky 147hp giving it a little punch through corners, aided by the e-Pedal. The Leaf hasn't changed the course of EV history here, but it is without doubt a welcome addition to the green motoring options in the UAE.