Monday, May 03, 2010

Nissan Leaf Test Drive

Nissan’s Leaf will be one of the first mass produced fully electric vehicles to be introduced to UK roads.

Last week, I had the privilege of taking one of the prototypes for a short test drive, as part of Nissan’s rather low key efforts to raise awareness of this new model.

With the Leaf, Nissan are attempting to bring to market a battery powered car in the shape of a regular family sized hatchback. And, to an extent, they’ve largely succeeded.

Of course, the usual caveats of EVs persist - limited range and (at the time of writing) poor recharging infrastructure.

However if, like me, you drive a 20-25 mile commute and have a garage within which to charge the vehicle, then the Leaf starts to become a serious proposition. Fuel is relatively cheap and is free of the duty levied on petrol and diesel. Being a zero emission vehicle, it attracts zero Vehicle Excise Duty - or road tax to you and me. There are fewer complicated oily bits to go wrong, so servicing should be cheaper.

As a result, the Leaf should be a cheap car to run. And, unlike the Tesla Roadster, the Leaf is approaching affordable, even if it is expensive for the size of car it is. Entry to the EV club was never going to be cheap for early adopters. The same was probably true for ICE automobiles until the Model T arrived.

Back to the Nissan event. The roadshow, if you could call it that, was held at 2 locations; the 02 Arena in London, and at the Centre for Life, Newcastle Upon Tyne. As the car is planned to be built at Nissan's Sunderland plant, Newcastle was the obvious choice for this demo.

Having driven down from Glasgow, and not knowing what to expect, we were a little underwhelmed to find a couple of small Nissan tents and a small exhibition trailer parked up in the courtyard that forms the campus of the Centre for Life.

That said, the Nissan staff were helpful and I quickly got signed onto the test drive list. The car was still being charged (unceremoniously left in a corner, near a power outlet), so we decided to come back after lunch.

Under one tent sat the 'static' Leaf showcar. Cordoned off, this was strictly hands off, because apparently they only have two - a left hand drive model and a right hand drive model. Present was one Nissan gentleman sporting white cotton gloves who was good enough to open the rear hatch and doors so that we great unwashed could get a better look at the interior.

Whilst the cream insides of the prototype might not be very family friendly, the blue tinged dash and controls looked very Star Trek. Whether this makes it to the production model remains to be seen.

Overall, we liked the look of the Leaf. The slightly bulbous look is deliberate - apparently it makes it look like an eco car - and I'd agree. And because it looks unique (as opposed to fitting the electric gubbins in, say, a Micra or Note), it's sure to leave it's eco mark wherever you leave it.

It was time for my test run. Turns out the test vehicle was actually a Nissan Versa, a production car available in the US, and thus a left hand drive. It had been modified to accommodate the electrics and drive train of what will be the production Leaf.

The first lap was with the Nissan test driver at the wheel. Let me tell you, this car can shift. And it does it silently.

Within the limits of the tiny track, the vehicles' performance was surprising to say the least.

My turn, now, to drive Nissan's only working model.

As I slid behind the wheel I found the controls were exactly like an automatic, and as my current car is a CVT equipped Nissan, I was right at home.

Still, I forgot to put my foot on the brake before engaging Drive, so nothing happened initially. (The CVT has a mechanical interlock - the gearshift won't move unless the the footbrake is depressed. Not so on the fly-by-wire Leaf.)

Underway, the car was surprisingly smooth. Nissan have obviously put a lot of work into making the drivetrain respond in a similar way to that of a petrol car and dipping the accelerator provided a pleasing burst of power.

The car does all this silently, of course. There is legislation being introduced to make EVs emit a sound to alert pedestrians of their presence. If not, I imagine the death toll in local supermarket car parks to be quite high.

So, test drive complete, the serious question of would I actually buy one quickly came up. I certainly fit the profile of a low-mileage commuter, and as we're a two car family, we always have a fossil fuel car for those long trips up and down the country. So yes, if the price is right, the Leaf seems a viable proposition.

Prices are to be announced in for the UK at the end of May 2010, so watch this space.