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First drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf. Image by David Shepherd.

First drive: 2011 Nissan Leaf
The Nissan Leaf will be the first proper, affordable production electric car. We drive the prototype.

 



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| First Drive | Yokohama, Japan | Nissan Leaf prototype |

This is the future. At least that's what Nissan's boss Carlos Ghosn reckons. We've listened to his vision of a zero emissions electric future and his arguments seem very convincing indeed. It's not a case of whether we're causing global warming or not, nor peak oil, simply the fact that the public perceives the car industry as a big polluter. The Leaf should change that, Nissan bringing its fully electric, zero-emissions, five-door, five-seat hatchback to mass production in 2010, with Europe anticipated to get it in 2011. We drove a prototype version of the car that is likely to be considered the key point in the paradigm shift in personal mobility.

In the Metal

I'll admit to being a touch disappointed when we arrive at Nissan's test track facility in Yokohama. The Leaf I thought I'd be driving isn't here; instead it's a prototype that's based on the Tiida hatchback that's not sold in the UK. It looks a bit sci-fi though, with a black and white livery and zero emissions written down the side, but really it's not a matter of what it looks like here, it's how it drives.

What you get for your Money

This is the tricky bit. Nissan is remaining pretty cagey about exactly how much the Leaf will cost. The best we can get is 'about as much as a well-equipped C-segment car when all the subsidies and running costs are factored in'. So expect a high sticker price, but the blow then softened by government rebates - the UK government is expected to give a 5,000 sweetener to early adopters of fully electric vehicles. You'll not own the entire car either, the battery pack (the most expensive technology) being leased from Nissan.

Costing a tiny amount to 'fuel' via a normal electricity socket combined with the cost of leasing the battery should still be significantly less than running a conventional car. It's likely it'll qualify for lots of other incentives for owners too, things like free parking and zero road tax among others.

Driving it

The best thing about the Leaf is that it feels entirely conventional to drive. That's key to them being accepted by the public. Conventional perhaps, but also utterly silent, the only obvious difference inside being a battery meter instead of a normal fuel gauge. Unlike many of the other electric cars we've sampled it feels production ready, with no compromises like rear seats lost to house batteries - all the Leaf's batteries are neatly under the floor.

There's no clutch as there are no gears, the Leaf featuring a simple selector knob that's just like any regular automatic-equipped car. Select Drive, push the accelerator and it glides forward quietly. The wind and road noise rises with speed, but otherwise its drivetrain is silent - there being none of the whirring and humming milk-float noises of some electric cars we've driven.

It doesn't feel heavy either, the Leaf feeling no different to a conventionally-powered hatchback car. The same can't really be said of its performance. It's different, in a good way, the Leaf accelerating with a pleasing linearity that gently pushes you into the seat regardless of how fast you are travelling when you ask for more pace. Nissan's engineers have added control units to the 108bhp motor to produce power delivery that's very smooth, the torque rich unit (206lb.ft maximum from zero rpm) making it easily as fast as any equivalent petrol car, its mid-range acceleration more like a punchy turbodiesel.

Worth Noting

The Leaf will travel as far as 160 kilometres (around 100 miles) at speeds up to 140km/h (86mph) on a full charge. That's not a lot if you're used to a fuel tank that'll get you from one end of the UK to the other, but then the majority of us don't need that range. For a typical commute it's more than enough. Nissan has also incorporated a clever satnav system that works out your potential range, the location of charging points and even an application for your Smartphone that allows you to monitor charging and ensure the Leaf only draws the cheapest energy when plugged in at night. It'll take around eight hours for a full charge from a 200V socket, a higher voltage quick-charge station able to give an 80 percent charge in 30 minutes, or 50 kilometres (31 miles) in 10 minutes.

Part of the holistic approach Nissan is planning includes a second life for the batteries once they've reached the end of their usefulness in the cars. They'll still have around 80 percent of their capacity after about 10 years, so Nissan will usefully reuse the batteries to store energy from wind, hydro, nuclear and conventional power stations to ease loads on the national power grids.

Summary

Nissan is pursuing its electric dream with real vigour, and it's going to lead as a result. It's investing heavily in batteries, building a proper zero emissions battery production car for the masses and looking at means of disposing of/future use of the batteries, as well as means of charging them. The electric car was until recently the thing of dreams. That's no longer the case, the Leaf not just representing a paradigm shift in motoring, but in how we manage all our power. To call it significant is to underplay its potential importance, the Nissan Leaf certain to be seen as a key moment in the history of the car. That it drives so well - and is even fun - is doubly pleasing and proves that a zero emissions future doesn't necessarily mean zero fun.

Kyle Fortune - 23 Oct 2009









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2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.



2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 

2009 Nissan Leaf prototype. Image by David Shepherd.
 






 

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