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Nissan Leaf (2013) review - first drive

Tom Morgan
1 Jul 2013
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We put Nissan's second generation Leaf electric car through its paces on the busy streets of London

Nissan's Leaf electric car only made its way to the UK in 2011, but the company is already pushing forward with a second generation model. Not only does that bode well for the future of electric cars here in the UK, but it gave us a chance to take one for a test drive and see whether that future might be closer than you think.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

DESIGN
The new Leaf looks almost identical to the original model from the outside, with some minor aerodynamic tweaks to the front grille and wing mirrors. There's also a new set of 17in alloy wheels, finished in two-tone gunmetal and dark grey aluminium. The main chassis is unchanged, but that's not a bad thing - it looks like a modern family hatchback, with the Zero Emissions logo on the boot lid and lack of a fuel cap being the only indicators as to what's under the hood.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

Underneath, however, there have been a whole host of changes. Nissan's representatives told us there were at least 100, ranging from the small, such as a built-in locking mechanism on the plug socket to keep youths from unplugging your car when it's charging, to massive new additions. The powertrain has been repackaged, reducing weight by 32kg, and the boot has gained 40 litres of additional space thanks to a relocated charger unit.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

The interior has received a complete makeover too. The white trim of the old model has been replaced with a more traditional black design - it may not have the same futuristic feel, but it should be much easier to keep clean, especially with young children in the back. Speaking of the rear, there's an additional 5cm of leg room for passengers three and four thanks to the re-designed front seats.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

Nissan's CarWings connected device system makes return, letting you pre-heat the car on a cold day using your smartphone or monitor the car's charge from within your house. That's on top of the more commonly found Bluetooth features, including address book sharing and music playback from either an Android or iOS device.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

The centre console also includes integrated satellite navigation, and the top of the range Tekno model also includes cameras for reverse parking. As well as a bumper mounted rear camera, there are wide-angle cameras in the front, back and sides of the car to give you a full 360 degree view when parking.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

The all-digital dashboard is a little daunting at first, with the upper section putting the current speed in your field of view and the lower section showing remaining miles, battery temperature and the effectiveness of the regenerative breaking system.

PERFORMANCE

Once you get out on the road, the first thing you notice is how quickly the Leaf accelerates. The 0-60 time of 11.5 seconds is deceptive - at the lights, floor the accelerator and the Leaf pulls away astonishingly quickly. It's roughly on par with a 1.6-litre turbo diesel, except the power comes as soon as you dip the pedal, rather than as a steady built up while you wait for the turbo to kick in.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

It's this system which recharges the battery slightly when you brake, much like the KERS system on a Formula One car. By itself, you can squeeze a few extra miles out of the battery when on a long journey, but it's the new Braking and Eco modes which go a step further.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

Engaged by pushing the gear knob to the Drive setting a second time, Braking mode forces the regenerative braking system to be more aggressive, engaging when the car is coasting or slowing down naturally rather than just when you brake. Although it means that you freewheel less, you get more charge back over the course of a journey and the system also mimics the feel of engine braking in a petrol or diesel car. It certainly makes the transition from fossil fuel smoother and less like driving a golf cart.

The floor-mounted batteries give the Leaf a balanced centre of gravity that plant it firmly on the road, but with enough response in the steering to throw it round corners when the time comes.

Getting the maximum range from a Leaf is a bit like driving a petrol car when you're trying to be as fuel efficient as possible - using the air conditioning will eat into your projected maximum, as will aggressive acceleration. Nissan says the new model can reach 113 miles from a full charge in optimum conditions, but 80-90 seems more likely for most drivers.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

When you do eventually run out of battery, you can plug the car into a regular household mains socket and get back to a full charge in eight hours. With a 32A socket, this time is halved, and if you find a CHAdeMO point you can reach 80% in around half an hour. There's a light in the bonnet-mounted charging port now, making it easier to plug in at night.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

The Leaf drives like any other automatic car, only without any gears you don't have to worry about a gearbox that can't keep up with your driving style. Power is always available (as long as you have charge) and it gets put on the road quickly.

The noise, or lack thereof, is immediately obvious. There's no sound when you press the ignition switch, no sound when edging forwards in traffic and no sound when haring down a dual carriageway at 70, apart from wind and the road noise from the tyres. The novelty didn't wear off throughout our time with the car, with plenty of onlookers still surprised by the complete lack of noise.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY

At list price, the Leaf is undeniably expensive for a family hatchback, which normally start from around £12,000. The entry-level Visia costs £20,990, the mid-range Acenta £23,490 and the high-end Tekna £25,490. With the government EV grant, those prices drop by £5,000 each, which makes them a little more reasonable, and Nissan has also begun a battery lease scheme, reducing prices by another £5,000. However, this requires a £70 per month fee to cover battery rental.

Ironically, the battery will be worth more than the car in ten years, with Nissan expecting some customers to rip them out and stick them in their lofts, attach them to wind turbines or use them to power their homes.

Nissan Leaf (2013)

Based on what we've seen, the new 2013 Leaf is an improvement over the original model in almost every way. The extended range, reduced price and a growing list of incentives such as free road tax, exemption from the London congestion charge and claimed running costs of as little as 2.5p per mile are all compelling arguments to choosing an electric car such as the Leaf, especially if you're a commuter that typically travels less than 80 miles in a single journey.

For those longer trips, the simple fact is that the UK doesn't currently have the infrastructure to support electric vehicles such as the Leaf. You'll only be able to go so far before having to look for a charging point, with only so many motorway service stations currently equipped with charging points.

However, that is set to change in the coming months and years. The government is incentivising electric cars with a series of schemes and investments which should see the network of chargers increase significantly by 2014. British gas will fit a 16A charging point to your house for free, or a 32A point for £99, letting you charge the car faster.

If you live in central London, the Leaf is already looking like a good investment, but next year it could soon be appearing on roads much further afield from our nation's capitol.

The Nissan Leaf is available to test drive today from your local Nissan dealership.

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