Published on Wednesday 16 April 2014 17:49
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 while most potential buyers just can't make a case for it. The second generation model offers more real world range but it'll remain a minority interest.
Nissan describes its LEAF as the world's best-selling electric vehicle with a 'staggering' 50,000 units sold. I'm not so sure that's really that staggering. In two years in the UK, Nissan shifted less than 1,500 cars, a figure the Ford Fiesta would expect to sell in five days, so it's fair to say that the LEAF hasn't exactly revolutionised British motoring habits. That said, I have 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 and history will remember Nissan's name here.
So why did we not take to the LEAF? A number of reasons really. It was too expensive to compete with similarly-sized cars and the range of the car in real world conditions rarely matched up to Nissan's claims. The payback period over a petrol model was so long that unlike a Toyota Prius hybrid, the LEAF could rarely, if ever, be bought as a hard-nosed financial decision. Still, Nissan has clearly listened and is doing its best to address these issues with the second generation LEAF.
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 probably think it feels like a bloated milk float from behind the wheel but the LEAF 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.
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
Although the Nissan LEAF doesn't look too different from the outside, with a revised front grille being the main external differentiator, under the skin there's been some quite fundamental improvements. The biggest technical change is a fully integrated powertrain that brings the charger assembly, inverter and the motor together for the first time. Now assembled together as a single stack, the powertrain is again based around a high-response 80kW AC synchronous motor powered by Nissan-designed 48-module compact lithium-ion batteries, mounted underneath the cabin area to lower the centre of gravity for optimum handling.
By moving the charger from the rear of the LEAF to under the bonnet, it has been possible to increase the luggage area by as much as 40-litres, or to put that another way about the size of a typical aircraft 'carry-on' suitcase. Boot capacity has increased to 370-litres. More significantly, the removal of the charger from behind the rear seats turns the LEAF into a far more practical proposition. There is now no obstacle in the middle of the boot floor when the seats are folded, while rear legroom has been increased thanks to reshaped seat cushions, which allow passengers in the rear to put their feet under the seat in front.
Market and Model
The LEAF is offered in three familiar trim grades - Visia, Acenta and Tekna and Nissan has worked to broaden appeal - quite literally - by making the Visia cheaper, while the range-topping Tekna gets more standard equipment than before. Visia models have 16-inch steel wheels with full covers, black door mirror caps and halogen headlights, for example. 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
The LEAF's real-world driving range has been improved by a number of means. Aerodynamics are better than before and the NEDC's range assessment has gone up from 175km to 199km. Charging is easier than before too, with an LED inspection light now fitted so that drivers no longer have to rely on street lighting to connect their cars to an electric source at night. Other key improvements to the LEAF's e-Powertrain include reduced internal friction and a more efficient battery and energy management system.
True comparable cost of ownership figures over the life of the car aren't always easy to achieve. Consumer Reports in the US did back to back tests with a Toyota Prius hybrid, a Chevrolet Volt with petrol 'range extender', a petrol Toyota Corolla and a Nissan LEAF. The Nissan was the least expensive on journeys as far as its battery would take it, costing less than half what a Prius would in energy costs. It's just a shame that the LEAF costs around 30 per cent more than a Prius to buy. Aside from the issue of range anxiety, it's this capital expenditure problem that's done for the LEAF's sales in cash-strapped Britain. That's not about to change significantly with this latest car.
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 transformed. The two issues that prevent mass take up haven't been addressed though. The car is still too expensive and the range is still too small for most buyers, many of whom are unwilling to put up with the prospect of being stuck somewhere for hours should they be able to find a charging point. Cars are supposed to be an enabler. Few see the LEAF in this way.
I'd like to be in a position where a Nissan LEAF could work for me because they are just lovely things. They're good to drive, would save me a fortune in petrol station pasties and there's the fact that Nissan put its money where its mouth was in developing the car. All the good will in the world isn't going to help though. Nissan needs hard orders and as worthy as these changes to the LEAF are, they're not going to swing its fortunes about, in this country at least. More's the pity.