I don’t like electrically-powered cars as a rule. It seems to me that a hybrid car is a fine example of fudged engineering that also sits uneasily with my credentials as a bona fide car enthusiast. The use of a petrol engine as a power source in conjunction with an electric motor is a cop-out and an excuse not to do things properly. I understand that battery range, capacity and size are all problems but while manufacturers are willing to fit petrol engines as well there is no incentive for them to conquer these obstacles.
Full electric cars, by contrast, are interesting but ultimately hypocritical. Electricity is a method transmitting power rather than producing it and it has only two advantages over other fuels when used as a method of vehicle propulsion (if we ignore the coarse and questionable political considerations), one of which is to remove atmospheric pollution from the point of use. We’ll consider the second advantage later.
At Motoring Journo we are objective so it is with an open mind that I approach Nissan’s LEAF. A small car, powered by a 107bhp motor, it has been voted the 2011 World Car of the Year, beating the BMW 5-Series and the Audi A8 for the top spot.
First impressions are positive. The dashboard is neat and clear. The seats are unremarkable which, for a family car, is a good thing being supportive and comfortable. Boot space is OK for a week’s shopping although the family dog might not be too comfortable if he’s bigger than a spaniel.
Equipment levels are good. It comes with power steering, climate control, Sat-Nav and even a reversing CCTV camera, which is far more useful than it sounds and gives real piece of mind to those of us with small children who have a habit of not being very car aware. All very conventional inside then – so far.
It’s the dash that excites me especially the central information panel. Car development has, until now, been pretty linear with only incremental improvements; show Henry Ford a modern car and he’d recognise the engine, seating position, brakes gearbox. Nothing new has been done to resonate with the iPhone generation.
The LEAF has a number of party tricks up its sleeve, all of which will become commonplace eventually but are refreshingly novel for now. For example, you can programme it so that the car starts to charge its batteries at any time of the day or night, helping to make the most of off-peak, cheap electricity. Or you can set the heater to come on so that the car is nice and warm before you even set foot into it. The latter feature is all very well if you use your car at predictable times but what about the times when you vary your routine and forget to change the time on the car’s computer? Are you resigned to getting into a cold car? Nope. You can use your iPhone app to set the time for either function remotely. The app, called ‘CARWINGS’, also shows your estimated driving range, the time that it will take to charge your car’s batteries (lithium-ion and tucked away under the floor, so you’ll never know that they’re there most of the time) fully and can control the in-car climate control.
It’s a revelation and trendy young things will flock to it because Nissan have gone to the trouble of thinking about how they can make their customers’ lives more simple – and interesting. I can imagine that eventually you’ll be able to upload your energy consumption and compare it with that of your friends; or have competitions to see who got the furthest real-life range (claimed to be around 110 miles, which should be plenty for most commuters). Apps like this, as Nissan obviously realise, make a huge difference to the way that customers perceive their cars.
So, it’s clever, fuel-efficient, innovative, spacious and safe. What’s it like to drive though? Is it a duffer, albeit an innovative one?
No. It does feel a bit ponderous at times when you change direction quickly and the heavy, albeit very low, centre of gravity engenders an odd pendulum effect but this was on a twisty handling circuit and I was showing off, trying to catch it out. When I drove it normally, even in a spirited fashion, it was good. Very good – fun even. It is also, of course, utterly silent and that adds an air of sophistication that small cars just don’t have very often.
The delivery of 206 lb/ft of torque (yes, 206!), all of which is available instantly and throughout the whole rev range, makes it enormously nippy. This is the second advantage of using an electric motor to propel a vehicle; instantaneous and copious torque delivered in a linear fashion. Car enthusiasts should welcome the wider use of electricity for this reason alone, even if it doing so does mean that we have to forgo the wonderful noise that (too few) engines make.
Should you be an early adopter and buy one? Well, it’s a safe car gaining 5 stars in the latest Euro NCAP ratings and Nissan will also give you a three-year, 60,000-mile warranty to help set your mind at rest over the reliability.
The main drawbacks are the availability of charging points and the purchase price. The number of places that you can charge the car will increase, without doubt, and plenty of people will be able to do it for free initially; and anyway, with a range of 110 miles most commuters will be able to use it to get to work – with maybe a spot of shopping at lunchtime – and back home again in one charge before using off-peak electricity to get it ready again for the morning.
The price is a bigger problem as this level of technology doesn’t come cheap. The list price is £30,900 and that’s a lot of money for what is, after all, a small car. OK, it is a genuinely fun car to drive but you would have to be enormously committed to the environment to buy one at that price, even after the UK government have chipped in a £5,000 allowance.
My advice? Hold on for now, prices will tumble. Once they’ve reached your own personally acceptable threshold then buy, without hesitation. It’s a great car and a huge amount of care and intelligence has been used in its design. It’s just too expensive at the moment.
Like: Innovative design, instant torque, civility
Summary: Interesting but expensive