Will Nissan’s Leaf put other EVs in the shade?

7 August 2009

Nissan Leaf side viewLeaf. Nissan has called its new electric car Leaf. We’re not sure about that bit. As green car names go, it seems a little weedy.

We like the rest of it though. Following our recent test drive in a proto-Leaf we have high hopes for the production car that Nissan still had under wraps at the time. When the wraps came off, we were pleasantly surprised by the shapely blue car with the silly name.

It does look like a bit of a bitsa though. A little bit of Peugeot around the eyes. A lot of Renault in the rear. Some Honda inside and a dash of Toyota across the bonnet. Somehow it all comes together though.

Unlike its namesake, the Nissan is not powered by the mysterious chemistry of chlorophyll. Instead, 24 kilowatt-hours-worth of lithium-ion cells run under the seats and floor, feeding their combined 400 volts forward to an 80kW motor, which in turn drives the front wheels through a reducer ratio. The driver can select forward or reverse via a stubby mid-mounted, drive-by-wire selector that seems uncannily like it’s been pinched from a Prius.

Nissan says the Leaf’s top speed will be a little over 90mph, with a driving range of about 100 miles between stops.

Nissan Leaf charging socketsCharging from a UK domestic socket will be an eight-hour job, best done overnight, but Nissan also has plans to develop a network of fast-charging stations that will offer a 50kW supply at an unspecified DC voltage. In the middle of the Leaf’s neat nose is a flap that hides two charging sockets – a small circular inlet for mains power, and a much chunkier connector for the rapid-charger. This will force-feed a discharged battery, fois-gras fashion, back up to 80 per cent in less than half an hour, according to Nissan.

Range anxiety is a factor that blights EV ownership, so Nissan has put its corporate mind to ensuring that drivers understand how far they can go on a charge. We applaud the integrated satellite navigation system, for example, which greys out the parts of the map that the Leaf can’t actually reach. We wonder if the circle of light will shrink and grown depending on how heavily or gently you plant your right foot.

Nissan Leaf interiorSpeed and smoothness both have an effect on power consumption and thus on range, so by rights the Clarion-developed in-car electronics should pick up on this. Drive like a loon and you won’t travel anything like 100 miles before the battery is left as lively as a doornail. Reaching 100 miles will no doubt require you to drive like you’re retaking your test.

And of course the Leaf won’t grow on trees, so it’s destined to be pricey. Nissan still hasn’t finished humming and hawing about how to ask punters to pay for the battery. When the car goes on sale in the UK at the tail end of next year, we expect Nissan to ask for about £100 per month in battery leasing costs, on top of the cost of the actual car. Which will be on a par with its conventional siblings – after some government assistance in the form of a cheque for five grand.

Yes the Leaf is a silly name. Yes the car is compromised. Yes there won’t be anywhere to fast-charge it when you need to. But having driven the prototype we are sure it will be lithe and silken and silent to drive.

After all, Nissan has built this car to be an EV from the outset. This is not some converted-car lash-up. This is the future.

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