All the Leaf's might and mains

 

WE HAVE become quite complacent about technology. Our mobile phones are miniature computers that we check our e-mail on, surf the web on, book cinema tickets with, and capture births, marriages and incur debts with.

They have replaced digital cameras, alarm clocks, watches and in some cases, actual friends. Millions of us are watching television with a laptop open in front of us, tweeting our opinions to anyone that will listen and broadcasting the minutest details of our personal life to Silicon Valley servers that retain our views – and indiscretions – ever more.

But there is something that makes you pause and take a minute when you consider that the electric car is actually here.

Sure enough, the electric car has been around in various forms for a few years now. But they have been nothing more than glorified milk floats and couldn’t really be considered credible. Even the Mitsubishi iMiev, which was a valiant but nonetheless flawed effort, couldn’t really make the grade.

But now, the Nissan Leaf is here and it wants to be taken seriously. Coming armed with a European Car of the Year title and as much anticipation as a presidential visit, the Leaf could be the most over-hyped car in a decade.

The arrival of the electric car has been a little difficult. Ireland was singled out as something of a European guinea pig because of its size and the enthusiasm of the ESB and other interested parties to make the technology succeed.

Yet up until a few weeks ago, the promised grants to allow owners forgo a sizeable chunk of the price of the Leaf had yet to arrive and despite announcing the rolling out of fast charging points on the major arterial routes, the targets for on-street charging points have yet to be reached. The chances of there being 2,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by the end of this year appear to be slim.

The Nissan Leaf itself should really have been on sale a couple of months ago. But several factors, including the Japanese Tsunami disaster, which it is believed destroyed a batch of Irish-bound Leafs, along with the delay with the grant, mean that the car wasn’t reaching its enthusiastic owners. But let’s not waste the first proper road test of the Leaf on other factors. What is the Leaf like as an everyday car?

Well the first thing that you notice upon getting the keys of a standard production Leaf – without the usual promotional material plastered on to the side of it – is just how normal it looks.

Our test car was painted black and aside from some futuristic blue detailing and smart LED lights, it all looked very regular. Parked beside a Volkswagen Golf it looks bigger and more substantial. And the interior is remarkably impressive. Everything is where it should be in a car. Despite the fact that this new technology could allow car designers to get very creative, most will retain the traditional layout we know and love.

The Leaf is peppered with technology in the cabin. A large screen dominates the centre console and this houses a navigation system and an all-important information centre where you can monitor energy levels and scan the countryside for charging points.

Press the start button and it sounds like a PC starting up, all gentle bongs and bings and blue lighting. And silence. Without using the audio system in a Leaf or indeed the charge-sapping air conditioning, the silence can be eerie.

The lack of sound can be uncomfortable to the uninitiated. Pull the mouse-like gear lever into D (or down again for Eco mode) and you are set to go. Like an automatic, there are just two pedals; one to stop and one to go. Press down on the accelerator and the electric motor starts to draw from the 48 lithium-ion battery modules (which have four battery cells in each). The power is instant, accompanied by a mild, satisfying hum.

And after that, the Leaf is to be applauded for just how normal it is. You are comfortable with the car within seconds. It is a little more difficult to judge your speed without the audio clues, especially in urban areas, but around town it feels perfectly at home.

The steering has plenty of feedback, even if it is somewhat artificial and the brakes are urgent, although you quickly adapt to the fact that when you do take your foot off the accelerator, the car slows a little quicker than a standard engine car. In short, the Leaf is an easy car to drive, perhaps one of the easiest on sale.

But we must move quickly to the practicalities. We had previously driven the Mitsubishi iMiev and it didn’t perform as it might have. We collected the Leaf in Dublin and drove it to Drogheda.

Upon collecting the car, the projected range was 140km. My destination was 64.8km away. We set the cruise control on the M1 at 110km/h and arrived at our destination with 60km left on the range. We only “lost” about 15km on our range despite driving at motorway speeds. Mission accomplished.

From here we drove into town for some errands and, through regenerative braking and some careful driving, actually made up 5km in 20 minutes. We came home with more charge than when we left.

Plugging the Leaf in at home is easy. Although the charging point which the ESB had installed for us was now not the right one for Leaf, an adaptor sorted this (new customers won’t have this problem) and blue lights on the dashboard illuminate to show the car is charging. We recharged the car to full in just three hours, which really wasn’t bad – the last 20 per cent of charge takes the longest apparently. Fast charging points, which will be dotted around the country, will charge the Leaf to 80 per cent in just 30 minutes, according to ESB ecars. It will cost you €2 to charge the car at home at night or €6 at a fast charging point. Taking the at-home figure and being conservative with our maths, 800km in a Leaf (average range of a combustion engine) would cost you €10-€12. Consider that the next time you fill up at the pumps.

Also consider that you could budget for 120km to be the comfortable range of a Leaf. You might exceed this if you drive in town a lot and aren’t spending too much time on motorways.

Of course, this will not suit everyone, but Nissan aren’t claiming that it should. Go into a Nissan showroom with €30,000 and they will happily sell you a fully-loaded Qashqai if you are fretful of range. And you only have to look at the rivals listed on this page to see that you can get lots of car these days for your €30,000.

Of the fuel-sipping ones we have pointed out, all of which are in band A, you can have an Audi or BMW, the third-generation Prius or a high-spec Volkswagen Passat. Heaven knows what the residual value of a three-year-old Leaf will be or whether it will be as redundant as the audio cassette. Battery technology could have evolved rapidly. But then again it might not have. The message from car firms – and battery producers – is often contradictory on this issue.

There is uncertainty to the Leaf, but as a car and piece of technology it is nothing short of genius. There will be debates about where the electricity comes from, whether the battery should be bought or leased or if a grant should be given to private buyers of this car.

But the Leaf, judged on its own merits, is a superb car. You might want one in the same way that you want an Apple iPad. Lots of it doesn’t really make sense. It isn’t cheap, it doesn’t do everything you want it to do. But use it and you simply want one.

Factfile

Engine80kW electric motor putting out 108bhp, with 280Nm from electric motor

0-100km/h11.9 secs

L/100km (mpg)Maximum official range 160km/full charge. Range as tested, around 120km/full charge

Emissions(motor tax) 0g/km from tailpipe (€104)

SpecificationElectric front windows front and rear, electric heated door mirrors, remote central locking and keyless entry system, Bluetooth handsfree phone kit, automatic air conditioning, audio jack, remote audio controls, cruise control, height-adjustable driver’s seat, brake assist, stability control, electronic traction control, driver and passenger airbags, front side airbag with rear side curtain airbags, multi-function leather steering wheel, satellite navigation, 16-inch alloy wheels

Price€29,995 (including €5,000 Government grant in place until 2012)