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Nissan LEAF Road Test – An All-Electric Commuter Car

Most electricity in the UK comes from fossil fuel-powered power stations so the concept of hybrid cars in the country seemed flawed to begin with. The use of a petrol engine as a power source in conjunction with an electric motor seemed a fudge, a cop-out, and an excuse not to do things properly. Battery range, capacity and size were all problems, but while manufacturers were willing to fit petrol engines as well as electric there is no incentive for them to conquer these obstacles.

Then Tesla came along and blew all of the existing prejudices out of the water. Here was a car that was properly quick, had great handling, and was genuinely fun to drive – and powered by electricity alone.

So the stage was set for a domesticated car such as Nissan’s LEAF. A small car, powered by a 107 bhp motor, it has just been voted 2011 World Car of the Year, beating the BMW 5-Series and the Audi A8 for the top spot.

First impressions are good. The dashboard is neat and clear. The seats are unremarkable which, for a family car, is a good thing. The boot space is large enough for a week’s shopping, although the family dog might not be too comfortable if it’s anything bigger than a spaniel.

The equipment levels are adequate. The LEAF comes with power steering, climate control, sat-nav, and even a reversing CCTV camera, which is far more useful than it sounds and provides piece of mind for those with small children.

The dash has an exciting central information panel. Car development has been linear; 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.

Until now.

The LEAF has a number of party tricks up its sleeve. You can programme it so that the car starts to charge 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.

This latter feature is all very well if you use your car at predictable times. What about those 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), and can control the in-car climate control.

It‘s a revelation and I can imagine trendy young things flocking to it simply because Nissan have gone to the trouble of thinking about how they can make their customers’ lives more simple – and interesting.

Apps like this, as Nissan obviously realise, make a huge difference to the perception of a car, and can act as a catalyst to change people’s minds and close the sale. So, it’s clever, fuel-efficient, innovative, spacious, and safe. What’s it like to drive?

The Nissan LEAF does feel a bit ponderous at times when you change direction quickly and the heavy, albeit low, centre of gravity engenders an odd pendulum effect, but this was during testing on a twisty handling circuit. During a normal drive, even in a spirited fashion, the LEAF is very good, even fun. It is also, of course, utterly silent and that adds an unusual air of sophistication.

The linear power delivery of the 206 lb/ft of torque (yes, 206!), all of which is available instantly and throughout the whole rev range, makes it incredibly nippy. The power-assisted steering is perfectly weighted and makes the LEAF quite wieldy when its weight says that it shouldn’t be.

As for purchase, the Nissan LEAF is the safest electric car on the market with 5 stars in the latest Euro NCAP ratings. 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 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. 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, though, is a bigger problem. This level of technology doesn’t come cheap. The list price is £30,900 ($49,000, €36,000) and that’s a lot of money for what is, after all, a small car. In the UK, the government will also chip in a £5,000 ($8,000, €5,800) allowance.

It’s a great car and a huge amount of care and intelligence has been used in its design.  If the price suits, then this is a must-buy.

About Carlton Boyce

Carlton Boyce
Carlton Boyce is a freelance journalist and photographer covering all aspects of the motoring industry.

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