Test drive: Nissan Leaf prototype

19 April 2010

Update: Since this post about the Leaf prototype was written, we’ve driven the real thing on UK roads. Read our review of the Nissan Leaf.

Nissan Leaf prototypeAs test drives go, this has to be our shortest yet. Laid out on the tarmac outside The O2s dome is a twisty course of cones which must be all of 800m in length, and we’re allowed one lap behind the wheel, plus one in the passenger seat and one in the back. It’s not long enough to learn much, but what are we going to do? Refuse?

Our ride for this micro test is the nearest thing you can currently get to a Nissan Leaf electric car: a five-door Nissan Tiida hatch fitted with the Leaf’s battery, DC-to-AC inverter and transformer, control electronics and motor. The Tiida is a Japanese-market car but, oddly, our car is left-hand drive. According to our Nissan minder, our prototype has spent much of its life in the United States.

From the driver’s seat, the car feels quite unremarkable, except for the very high centre tunnel (much like the Cube-based prototype we drove last year). The tunnel houses the tiny joystick that controls the single forward and reverse gears. Functionally although not stylistically identical to the Leaf’s gearstick, this electronic selector will feel most familiar to drivers of the Toyota Prius. Push a button on the top of the joystick to select park, step on the footbrake and pull to the left and back to select drive, push forward to select reverse, and that’s it. Way back at the rear of the centre console is the electronic handbrake, which you’ll need double-jointed wrists to reach – fortunately the Leaf itself will put the handbrake switch in a more natural position.

In gear, feet off the pedals, and there’s a little forward creep. Stroke the throttle and the car pulls away cleanly and strongly. Floor it from a standstill and the rear suspension squats as the car surges forward as if hauled by giant rubber bands.

The hefty battery pack makes this car heavier than even a diesel equivalent, but because the weight is low down, under the front and rear seats and beneath the rear footwells, the roll centre is kept very close to axle height. Cornering in our severely limited test was flat, and braking caused relatively little front-end dive. Rear legroom is ruined, however, with a couple of layers of laminated lithium-ion cells occupying the space where your feet would like to rest.

At the low speeds of our test, all under 40mph, the Leaf prototype is utterly quiet – the loudest noise a faint whine from under the bonnet when the throttle is buried.

As with our earlier spin in the Cube mule, we are left wanting more. The Tiida-based Leaf prototype is compelling, and leaves us impatient to get behind the wheel of the real thing.

Nissan still hasn’t announced UK prices for the Leaf – it will make a statement in the middle of May, apparently. Nissan UK MD Paul Willcox hinted heavily that the Leaf will be leased rather than sold, although this seems like an odd decision, given that the government’s £5,000 incentive applies only to sales not to leases. He also confirmed that the Leaf will be pitched below the £38,699 level selected by Mitsubishi for its i-Miev EV in the UK, instead competing with the Toyota Prius on price (after incentives).

We were also told, on the quiet, that a buy/rent combination where the car is sold and the battery leased has been ruled out, despite seeming to be the best way to cope with the inherent high cost of lithium-ion cells.

We wouldn’t be at all surprised if both the hints we heard today turn out to be wrong.

We’ll know soon enough, and we look forward to driving the finished Leaf – hopefully on a real road and over a decent distance. About 2,000 will come to the UK in 2011 and will be sold to either businesses or consumers on a first-come, first-served basis. Realistically, most early adopters are going to be business buyers, but Willcox is also optimistic that the Leaf will prove a draw that will bring curious punters into Nissan showrooms, where many will be no doubt be steered towards a Qashqai, Juke or Micra.

Next » « Previous Home