November 26th, 2009

Ready to turn a new LEAF on the road?

A lot of people wonder what the next generation of cars will be powered by. Some think that hybrids are the way forward, while others champion clean diesel or hydrogen.

Nissan thinks charging your car from home is the best technology to cut down on CO2 emissions.

I’ve written about the Nissan LEAF before on Motorfood and told you all about the new tech within the car. One thing I wasn’t able to tell you at that point, though, was how it drove.

So when I was invited to Los Angeles to have a go in the Nissan LEAF test mule, as well as have a look at the LEAF in person, I had to say yes.

My mother always told me first impressions are important, so when I first set eyes on the LEAF I was pleasantly surprised. What you can’t appreciate from the pictures of the car is the curvaceous, even — dare I say it? — feminine silhouette this car has. The LEAF smiles at you with its cheeky platypus-like face but has been shaped with a high roof line and big hatch boot so you have loads of room to throw your shopping in.

The design feature that gives the LEAF that second-look appeal — apart from its electric motors — is the rather large backside. If you thought the Renault Mégane had an ample derrière, a la Kylie, the Nissan LEAF is more J. Lo.

Overall, the styling is good, though not so edgy it will put people off. Rather, it’s a bit different enough to draw you in for a deeper look, upon which you’ll see the car’s party piece: the EV technology.

Housed under the rear seats of the car are the lithium-ion batteries which power the two front wheels. You’ll notice those batteries when you sit in the rear, because your position is raised in comparison to a traditional car.

From a driver’s point of view, sitting behind the steering wheel in the LEAF is quite  different from being in a “normal” car. There is no clutch, no gear stick and no hand brake lever, just a selection of buttons and a joystick.

To get the car moving, you press a button to start the electric motor, then push down the hand brake switch, press another button to select “Drive” and draw the joystick toward you to get the car going forward. It was all a bit like playing “Street Fighter” in an amusement arcade, yet a very easy way to drive.

On the open road, you are in near silence, with the only sound keeping you company the faint whir of the electric motor. This quiet motoring can be quite strange when you’re used to hearing an engine rise through its rev range and then to change gear. The LEAF doesn’t have any gears, but it does have instant torque.

What this means is that all the potential power from the electric motor is available all the time, whereas in a conventional car, maximum torque is only available at certain points in the rev band. This means the LEAF accelerates to 60 miles per hour in under 10 seconds, but runs out of puff at just over 90 mph.

As the heavy parts of the car — the batteries and the motor — are located low down in the floorpan, the car feels very planted on the road and around corners. It is by no means a sports car, but it’s not meant to be one. Rather, it’s designed to be a replacement for your everyday car, except with a new and clean means of propulsion.

“You can go buy an electric car today at $100,000 or $50,000, but that’s going to be a leech,” says Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan’s CEO. “Who’s going to buy an electric car at $50,000 or $100,000? I would like my neighbour to buy an electric car, but I don’t want to buy an electric car with such a premium. The only way you’re going to mass-market electric cars is by offering zero emissions as a free premium.”

The Nissan LEAF is set to be priced similarly to other cars of the same size, but customers will get significant government incentives to help get them into an EV. But Nissan won’t sell you the car battery. Instead, it will lease the battery at a cost less than that of petrol. This is because Nissan sensibly doesn’t want its customers to be instantly out of date when they purchase the car, as battery technology and range is constantly improving.

While Ghosn says, “This car should sell without advertising,” there are still a couple of things to consider if you are thinking of buying the EV when it goes on sale in 2010:

First, the biggest problem with running a battery-powered car is that batteries run out of juice … and the LEAF’s batteries go flat after 100 miles. Yes Nissan’s leasing plan offers a safety net so you don’t get left behind when a 200-mile range battery is developed, but for now it means you have to charge up the car every night. And that takes a long time.

To charge the LEAF, you lift a flap on the bonnet and plug it in overnight like you would with a mobile phone. It takes eight hours to charge to full, which could be a problem round the streets of London if you don’t have a garage and have to park a few streets down from your house. The other alternative is to use a three-phase fast charger, which charges the car in 30 minutes, but they’re quite hard to find in the UK.

Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you are running around in a car that isn’t polluting from its tailpipe, it isn’t polluting at all. An electric-powered car that gets its electricity from a coal-fired power station is still 25 per cent cleaner than a regular petrol car, but it’s not completely squeaky clean. While Nissan is currently running the LEAF under the Zero Emissions banner, for the car to truly earn that medal, it will need to get its electricity from a renewable source.

As Ghosn predicts he will easily exceed the target of 10 per cent EVs on the road by 2020, you’re likely to see the LEAF on a street near you soon. As more of them sprout out onto the roadways, perhaps you yourself will be tempted to give one a try.

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