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Nissan LEAF

Click to view picture gallery“We all need transport — but is
  electric power really the most
  practical solution? David Miles
  takes a thought-provoking first
  drive in Nissan’s all-electric LEAF...”


IT'S NOT REALLY ACCURATE TO TALK ABOUT ELECTRIC CARS BEING 'GREEN'; more correctly, they are low-emission. Like any vehicle, they're not at all 'green' to produce or use; and don't even mention the current lithium-ion batteries being 'green' their dubious components mean they're most definitely not. And neither is electricity 'green' 74 per cent is generated using oil, gas, or coal. Even wind-powered generators do little to improve the 'greenness' of our environment.

The recent annual Society of Motor Manufacturers media test day at the Millbrook Proving Ground produced a significant line-up of new electric- and hybrid-powered models, as well as the most fuel-frugal petrol and diesel models.

Electric models ranged from the tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV hatch and the similar Citroen C-Zero to the Nissan LEAF mid-sized hatchback and the future Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera. In addition, there were mid-sized hatchbacks which use electric batteries and a petrol generator as range extenders and, proving that even the very rich can be inclined towards 'green', Rolls-Royce were on hand with their Phantom Experimental Electric car.

“So how much will it cost
to charge and run the
LEAF, and how long does
it take to charge up the
battery? Depending on
the tariff charged by the
owner’s electricity
supplier, no more than
2.50 but it could be as
low as 1.50 for
off-peak and Economy 7
customers
...”
Alternatively-fuelled vehicles (which includes electric models) currently account for just over one per cent of the new car market but there's a raft of similar cars coming to market over the next twelve months and, so long as motorists can be persuaded to 'switch on', sales will no doubt increase. Nobody truly knows what the sales potential is for these vehicles as low as three per cent or as high as ten, depending on who you ask.

Searching for some hard facts over fiction, I headed to Nissan whose LEAF five-door hatchback is already on sale. At present this is built in Japan although in 2013 European market production will move to Nissan's Sunderland plant. Due to strong demand in America and Japan, the UK will only be allocated around 1,000 LEAFs during 2011.

To date 400 early-adopters have purchased LEAFs more than the total of all other electric models added together. These are mostly retail customers who want the latest in motoring technology boosted by well-known publicly figures keen to show off their 'green' credentials. Fleet interest is happening in small numbers, both to gauge public reaction and to see whether the 109-mile range between charges is viable.

At present the all-electric LEAF five-door hatchback costs 30,990. However, until the end of March 2012, you can claim a 5,000 Ultra Low Carbon Car subsidy.

These first LEAFs are well specified and include SatNav and air conditioning but once UK production kicks off, lower spec versions will be available to compete on price around 20,000 with the latest low-emission, family-sized turbodiesel hatchbacks.

Thanks to zero CO2 emissions, LEAF owners pay no road tax; Benefit-in-Kind tax is nil and the London Congestion Charge is also nil. And never again having to visit a garage forecourt for fuel is another strong incentive to buy, despite the high purchase price.

The LEAF has a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating and the insurance group is 22E. Service intervals are 18,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes around first. Perhaps the biggest question likely to be asked is about battery life. The LEAF is covered by a three-year/60,000-mile warranty and the battery pack, motor inverter, control module, AC/DC converter and charger have a five-year warranty.

Nissan say batteries should last over 10 years but there could be a gradual loss of capacity of around 30 per cent depending on usage patterns. [Equally important is the cost of battery replacement, about which there is no definitive information from the car producers; some newspaper reports have put this as high as £8,000 Ed].

So how much will it cost to charge and run a LEAF, and how long does it take to charge up the battery? Depending on the tariff charged by the owner's electricity supplier, no more than 2.50 but it could be as low as 1.50 for off-peak and Economy 7 customers.

“The electric motor’s
206lb ft of torque
is available instantly from
zero to 2,730rpm and
107bhp of power gives it
a top speed of 90mph.
At 11.9 seconds, zero to
62mph is very sprightly.
And while the driving
range is claimed to be up
to 109 between full
charges, there is
regenerative braking
which harvests power
to top-up the battery
during driving
...”
Using a conventional 13-amp socket, a full charge at home can take up to 12 hours. Using the Nissan approved 990 option of a dedicated home charge posPOINT directly wired to the main fuse box, it takes up to eight hours. Ironically this is done exclusively by British Gas as they are the only nationwide power supplier.

The LEAF comes with a six-metre extension lead to plug into either power source. A conventional DIY store supplied extension lead cannot be used because of the load capacity and neither can a family 13-amp socket be used if it shares the ring-main circuit with other heavy use items such as a washing machine.

In theory, the 1.50 to 2.50 cost of a full charge will provide for 109 miles of driving. A new-generation diesel mid-sized hatchback will, from my experience, use around two gallons of fuel to cover the same distance so that would cost around 12, but the diesel-powered car is currently considerably cheaper to buy so that leaves a lot of money for fuel. As the Americans say: You do the math.

For all motorists the larger issue is the range. The same concern does not apply to the forthcoming electric/petrol generator range-extender models such as the Chevrolet Volt or Vauxhall Ampera which will have a range between charging/petrol fill-ups of 350 miles a huge advantage over the 109 miles between charges for the LEAF given they all cost about the same to buy.

For some people, commuting from home into town and back, the LEAF will be fine. But on longer runs for family or business visits, or that unforeseen diversion and traffic jams, LEAF could well come up short.

Most LEAF owners will really need a second car and having to have two cars is not so low-carbon after all. Of course, one could always hire a car when a longer run has to be made but where's the convenience in that?

The other issue for city-dwelling LEAF owners is that unless they have off-road parking, how will they charge their car unless their town follows London's lead by having electric charging podPOINTS everywhere.

As already mentioned, a LEAF cannot be charged using household extension leads, and even if a high-capacity charging lead is available it cannot be run from a house or workplace across pavements or car parks. The real-life practicalities of charging will be a major headache for some owners.

So much for the pros and cons of owning a Nissan LEAF now more about the car in question, which has already received several Car-of-the-Year awards for its technology.

“As already mentioned,
a LEAF cannot be
charged using household
extension leads, and
even if a high-capacity
charging lead is available
it cannot be run from a
house or workplace
across pavements or car
parks.
The real-life
practicalities of charging
will be a major headache
for some owners
...”
It's a relatively pleasant looking five-door, five-seater (at a pinch) Ford Focus-sized hatchback. The current model is very well specced with SatNav, a power status information display, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, single forward speed auto transmission, rear-view parking camera, Bluetooth, a good sound system, 60:40 split/fold rear seats, electronic stability control and alloy wheels.

Inside, it's light, airy and comfortable; and the steering is light too, so driving and parking in town is easy.

The 24kWh capacity, 192-individual cell battery pack is largely housed under the floor with the tail end of it in the boot so it doesn't restrict interior space; and there's still 330 litres of boot space.

The electric motor is installed where you'd expect under the front bonnet and the plug-in charging point is concealed behind a small panel in place of a conventional grille.

Driven on Millbrook Proving Ground's simulated town driving stop-start circuit and open road hill route (a taxing combination of ups and downs and sharp bends) there was no real downside to the LEAF's performance.

The electric motor's 206lb ft of torque is available instantly from zero to 2,730rpm and the 107bhp of power endows it with a top speed of 90mph. At 11.9 seconds, zero to 62mph is very sprightly. While the driving range is claimed to be up to 109 miles between full charges, there is also regenerative braking which harvests power to top-up the battery during actual driving.

Starting up and driving away is straightforward: push the Start button, check the battery's mileage range, engage forward drive with the gearlever, release the electronic handbrake and press the accelerator. It moves off silently and seamlessly but with a faint audible whistle to alert pedestrians.

When stationary at traffic lights the battery is not being used as the motor is not turning but there are still power drains on the system from lights, wipers, radio, air conditioning, etc; these will take their toll on the outright driving range. Hard acceleration and fast driving speeds will obviously use more battery power so the all-important battery mileage gauge needs to be checked frequently.

For: No visits to a garage forecourt, cheap to run, no road tax, no company car tax, no London Congestion Charge, reduces town and city CO2 and noise pollution.

Against: Limited driving range, could be awkard to recharge the battery and expensive to buy. Also, electricity production is currently not 'green' so for most people petrol/diesel-battery-hybrid cars remain a more versatile and better personal transport solution.

We are, and always will be, dependent on cars so the LEAF is just one possible answer to reducing our dependency on oil in the form of petrol and diesel for our cars. But the overriding question is how we produce our electricity in the future. — David Miles

Nissan LEAF | 30,990
Maximum speed: 90mph | 0-62mph: 11.9 seconds | Range: 109 miles
Power: 107bhp | Torque: 206lb ft | CO2 0g/km