The all-electric British-built Nissan LEAF can now go further on a charge thanks to the installation of a more sophisticated 30kWh battery. Will that finally make it viable for mainstream buyers? Jonathan Crouch decides.
Ten Second Review
The Nissan LEAF is a car that divides opinion. Some love this fully electric vehicle for its bold engineering and surprisingly enjoyable driving dynamics. To date though, most potential buyers simply haven't been able to make a case for it. The Japanese brand hopes that'll change thanks to the installation of a heavier 30kWh battery that is said to be able to boost operating range to as much as 155 miles.
Though the Nissan LEAF is the world's best-selling electric vehicle, sales have hardly been staggering and it's fair to say that the LEAF hasn't exactly revolutionised British motoring habits. That said, we've always had the deepest admiration for Nissan for going ahead and building the thing, where most manufacturers will only display tedious design studies and proof of concept mules on motorshow stands. Someone had to be the first to build a vehicle as innovative from the ground up: history will remember Nissan's name here. Time now though, to make this vehicle more real-world viable, a process that starts right here, right now with this upgraded version. Previously, this model had a 24kWh battery that Nissan said could take you up to 124 miles on a single charge. We found that figure to be closer to around 80 miles in ordinary driving: not quite enough for most people not to have regular pangs of so-called 'range anxiety'. With this improved version though, these might subside a little. The 30kWh battery might add 21kgs of extra weight but it boosts the quoted range figure to 155 miles. Let's say that's 120 miles in real driving: now we're talking.
So what's changed about the way the LEAF drives? Next to nothing because that never generated any complaints. In fact, the LEAF might just be the most stealthy fun car out there. You might expect it to feel like a bloated milk float from behind the wheel but actually, this Nissan has a very crisp way of stepping off the line and with all of the weight - the batteries - mounted so low in the car, it has a centre of gravity that a mid-engined supercar can only dream of. In recent times, Nissan's engineers have finessed the damper settings to reduce float and deliver a more agile and dynamic drive without adversely affecting ride comfort. The steering system has been given a touch more weight to provide steering feel more in tune with European tastes, while the performance of the brakes has been improved to make them more progressive in use, while also increasing the amount of energy recovered. Changes have also been made to the Eco driving mode. A 'B' setting on the transmission increases regenerative braking during deceleration, while a separate 'Eco' button on the steering wheel extends driving range by altering the throttle mapping to discourage rapid acceleration. The two systems can be operated independently of one another, unlike in the original LEAF.
Design and Build
The LEAF was the first mass production electric vehicle to be designed from the ground up for purely battery power. Early EVs, like some of those still on the market, were merely conversions of cars originally created with petrol engines. Even if you didn't know this, you could perhaps guess the fact from a glance at this dramatic-looking Nissan. For example, since, as an all-electric car, there was no need to fit a bulky engine in the front, it has a stubby and sharply-angled nose that produces a smart wedge profile and aids the strong aerodynamic performance. But the perhaps the most important thing here is the overall size. At around 4.5m long, this was the first pure electric car big enough for proper family use, no more than around 200kgs heavier than a similarly shaped conventional model and offering cabin space and overall dimensions very comparable to that of a conventional Ford Focus-style family hatchback. Even today, no other EV on the market can offer you more back seat space. The rear bench can comfortably accommodate three adults on short journeys, two on longer ones and a trio of kids all day long. Luggage room is 330-litres and you can increase that to 680-litres by pushing forward the rear backrest. Up front, as before, there's an appropriately futuristically styled split-level dash, with blue-tinted graphics that look pretty conventional until you peer closer and find that they're primarily geared towards advising you just how much further you can go before a charging top-up is needed. The graphics advise you of your success in regenerating electricity and there's an eco-indicator to display the status of electricity consumption, with little tamaguchi-like trees growing on the display, depending upon how frugally you're driving.
Market and Model
The 30kWh LEAF is offered in two familiar trim grades - Acenta and Tekna. Prices start at just under £25,000, but that's for a model without the necessary 6kW charger. Get this and also include the useful Solar Cell panel that'll help you charge up via the sun's rays and you'll be paying up to around £26,000 for the Acenta version or up to £28,000 for the luxuriously specified Tekna variant. Acenta versions have 16-inch alloy wheels, suede fabric seat trim, body coloured mirror caps and rear privacy glass. Top grade Tekna models feature LED headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels, a Bose stereo and Nissan's rather wonderful Around View Monitor, a system which takes feeds from external video cameras to create a bird's eye view of exactly what's around you. Safety provision is as good as ever, with front, side and curtain airbags, ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution with brake assistance as standard, along with the Electronic Stability Program (ESP).
Cost of Ownership
Assuming you can afford the upfront asking price, then cost of ownership is an area in which this Nissan shows up very well indeed. The phrase 'no brainer' springs to mind. Here's why. Let's start with most buyers' biggest potential saving, which will actually be nothing to do with fuel and everything to do with the fact that this car attracts absolutely no Benefit-in-Kind company car tax, potentially saving owners thousands every year. Well, actually, it'd be better than that since as a buyer, you wouldn't have to pay for a tax disc, your maintenance costs would be about 15% lower (fewer moving parts you see), you'd be exempt from the London congestion charge and in some cities, you wouldn't even have to pay for parking. And we haven't even got to fuel savings yet, which the AA reckon would, on their own, enable you to recoup the difference between this car and a conventional diesel competitor in under three years. Specifically, Nissan reckons that the savings you could expect would add up to around £800 a year over a typical annual 9,300 mileage in comparison to a diesel rival. You want me to break that down? Well, on a pence per mile basis, reckon on it costing you about 3ppm to run a LEAF in comparison to about 11ppm in a modern turbodiesel rival. And before you ask, yes that does take into account the increased electricity charges you would incur in this Nissan.
Nissan has worked hard to improve the LEAF and has clearly listened to customer feedback. Range has been improved, equipment levels bumped up, driving manners have been sharpened still further and practicality is now much better than it used to be. This LEAF won't be for everyone of course. Those without a garage will join single-car families and long distance commuters in dismissing it out of hand. But then, no car is for everyone. As the Japanese brand points out, you wouldn't buy a GTR supercar for family use or a Navara pick-up as a city run-around. Where Nissan has succeeded though, is in finally offering us a relatively affordable family-sized pure electric car that's pretty free of compromise, a model you could pretty painlessly switch into from something conventional. Which leaves us with what? A defining moment in electric vehicle history? It certainly feels like it.