Leaf too green for mainstream

NO MORE than many observers, I was completely taken aback when the Nissan Leaf won last year’s prestigious European Car Of The Year title, becoming the first electric car to do so.

It was not that this innovative and in some ways ingenious machine did not deserve the title, but I felt it was far too early in the development of the modern electric car to secure such a high honour.

But win the prize it did and in doing so probably put pressure on every other manufacturer out there to speed up whatever development plans they had for electric machines. Unsurprisingly it was Renault — who own Nissan — who were first out of the blocks with their ZE (zero emissions) range of cars.

The Leaf, however, has set the template for all others to follow and I was delighted to get my mitts on one recently after some considerable delay. And, even though said car was covered in promotional signage, making it something of a mobile billboard and therefore a touch embarrassing to drive around, I still came away from the experience hugely impressed.

That’s not to say I have shrugged off the considerable reservations I have about electric cars being the saviour of the known universe, as some die-hards seem to believe it to be; far from it. But having experienced the Leaf, some of those reservations were at least a little alleviated.

Pegged by Nissan as the car with “no oil, no petrol tank, no exhaust, and no transmission”, the Leaf is a very pleasing machine to drive. Being an electric car, the torque delivery is instantaneous the moment you press the accelerator and this can take a little getting used to. Add to that handling characteristics which are right up there with the pick of the bunch in the standard family car segment and you have a surprisingly good driving proposition.

It pulls like a train right from the off and the pick-up even when you are on the move is impressive. This thing feels fast, even though the performance figures don’t necessarily underline that. With a quoted 11.9-second 0-100km/h time and a top speed of just over 140km/h, it is not going to smash any landspeed records anytime soon, but it really does feel a lot quicker than that. By my reckoning the 0-100km/h dash was achieved in a time closer to 10 seconds than 12.

Power is supplied by an 80kw AC electric motor and the lithium ion batteries provide the motivation. It is these batteries, however, that provide the first major conundrum for people who would like to drive a very green car. The claimed range for the Leaf is some 175km, but that is a variable proposition — particularly in cold weather.

That means if you want to take any sort of a long trip, you need to be sure you can power up at the far end. I spend a lot of time in West Cork and could not take the Leaf down there from Cork City because there was no guarantee I could get it back.

I have had a charging point installed in my home which meant I could charge the Nissan at will. But a full charge takes eight hours, although Nissan maintains the batteries can be charged to 80% of capacity in 25 minutes at a fast-charging point. But where are you going to find one of those when you really need it?

Nissan had expected to sell a considerable number of these machines in Ireland, but the recently launched offer from the company taking €5,000 off the €30,000 list price ‘while stocks last’ is an indication that the distributor is not satisfied by the level of sales.

The reason for this, I believe, is that the Irish motoring public remains to be convinced by the whole electric car deal. The almost complete absence of a nationwide charging network is one reason for this and the other, I am firmly convinced, is that the price is well above the amount you’d be asked to spend on a normal 1.6l family hatch.

OK, so the running costs are virtually zip and the car is very cheap to tax, but the premium being asked of people to buy one is not something many are willing to shell out for — at least for the moment anyway.

The plusses of the Leaf are many: It is by far the quietest car I’ve ever driven; it is stacked with standard kit (sat nav, air con, alloy wheels and innovative smartphone technology that allows you control many of the Leaf’s functions remotely, LED lights, etc), it is roomy enough for a family, and it costs peanuts to run.

But the downsides mean the sales potential for the Leaf is drastically compromised. That is a pity because this is an innovative, smart machine and one which has a lot going for it.

If you have the dosh the Nissan Leaf might make sense as a second car, but right now not many people are in a position to spend such a large slice of cash on such a thing.


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