Nissan Leaf is a taste of tomorrow

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All-electric Nissan Leaf is now on sale in SA. It offers a torque output of 245Nm and sells for R450 600.

Oh, the irony. I’ve just taken delivery of an all-electric Nissan Leaf for a week-long test and as I make the final turn of my daily home commute I’m smacked with the sight of a city power truck working on the lines above my driveway.

Yup, some brazen bandit thought the cash he’d earn from stealing the copper-lined cables from my neighbourhood was worth more to him than an entire suburb’s basic rights to lights, television and refrigerated milk ... not to mention a power point to charge-up an EV (electric vehicle).

Not that this is entirely relevant to the Leaf’s road test. I just found it funny how third-world thievery can counter billion-dollar automotive research with a few strokes of a hacksaw blade on a long pole.

The battery-powered Nissan Leaf is now available in South Africa with no ifs, ands or buts attached to it. Okay, there is one but. You can’t yet get it with the portable charging system Nissan SA lent us, that allows it to be brimmed from any three-pronged household plug outlet. It should be available soon, but for now legislation’s red tape is preventing it. Fire hazard I guess.

At the moment each Leaf in SA comes with a permanently installed home-charging unit, which Nissan obviously wasn’t keen to permanently install in my house. Understandable.

WHOLESOME FEELING

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At 1.5 tons the Leaf is relatively heavy but handling is excellent because the weight of the batteries is carried in the floor. Steering is light but accurate and the cabin is comfortable. Driving in total silence, however, takes some getting used to.

With its lithium-ion battery packs full, the Leaf fills you with high hopes of around a 160km range. And I must say there’s a wholesome feeling that comes with whistling by every petrol station consuming nothing but current, as you scoot silently past fossil-fuel-burning traffic knowing that they’ll all inevitably pay, begrudgingly, at the pumps.

There’s a dazzling digital display where traditional dials would normally go, and though there are many information readouts the most useful is a cellphone battery charge-like percentage indicator. With this number upwards of, say... 70 percent, life is chipper. You’re driving a car that makes zero emissions, and will never need a drop of fuel – which of those things is more important is your prerogative.

RANGE ANXIETY

But, as that number begins to plummet, so does your mood. With that virtual fuel tank nearing its halfway mark anxiety levels start to rise. Remember, refuelling isn’t as simple as a five-minute roadside pitstop, and running out of juice in a Leaf could pose a big, expensive problem. Suddenly each petrol station you encounter becomes a mirage of incompatibility and, for that, you begin to loathe every one of them. Now you’re below half charge and feathering the throttle as if there’s a cute baby hamster stuck under the pedal. All that smoky traffic you overtook earlier with a big green, holier-than-thou smile across your face is now passing you back with greasy, fuel-scented middle fingers in the air. You start to loathe fellow road users and their big petrol tanks too.

That 160km range you started with turns out to be a bit optimistic especially when using energy-sapping features like heated seats, of which there are four, and the heater which sucks power in the same way as a hairdryer. In the real world the Leaf will do a little more than 100km on a full charge. Still, very useful this, especially for commuters who live under 50km from work.

In more first-world markets the Leaf’s GPS system can direct you to strategically placed quick-recharge points but, alas, South African Leafs (Leaves?) don’t come with satnav. Besides, our city centres aren’t exactly geared for EV-friendliness. Maybe one day they will be, but for now it’s best not to stray too far from your home’s electric umbilical cord.

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The dashboard mostly looks like that in any normal car, except for battery display.

CHEAP TO RUN

By our calculations a full bottom-to-top charge, which takes about eight hours, will cost around 30 bucks’ worth of Eskom’s finest. Now, even when compared to an ultra fuel-efficient car (let’s use a Honda Civic diesel which returned an actual 4.9l/100km when in our hands), the Leaf makes a compelling case for itself. At today’s diesel price the Civic would cost more than double the Leaf to run.

You can save even more cash by filling up for free at certain Nissan dealerships (nine in Gauteng but none in Durban or Cape Town yet), but even the 40 minutes this “quick charge” takes can feel like an eternity while strolling around a showroom floor. These devices would be more useful at shopping centres methinks.

Other than the fact that the Leaf whizzes around almost silently, it more or less behaves like a normal car. There’s a handy amount of storage space in the boot (no spare wheel though), and besides a strange hump on the floor between the two rear passengers, seating is spacious and comfortable.

DECENT POWER

It’s simple to drive too. After booting up (get it?), just slide the funny pod-like gear selector into drive and off you go like you would in a golf cart. But don’t assume that because it’s almost mechanically equivalent to a golf cart that it’s slow and underpowered. No way. The Leaf’s full 254Nm of torque comes on instantaneously and, because there are no gears to work through, it shoots eerily up to its 145km/h top speed without any interruptions at all. We got a best 0-100km/h of 10.9 seconds and covered the quarter-mile in 17.9, putting it roughly in the ballpark of cars like VW’s Golf Bluemotion and Merc’s C180 BlueEfficiency in performance terms.

The electrically-assisted steering (obviously) is extremely light, which makes the car feel less weighty than it actually is. At 1.5 tons it’s somewhat heavy for a hatch this size, but it handles remarkably well because its batteries live so low in the floor.

VERDICT

Fully electric motoring isn’t as far-fetched as you may think and the Leaf proves it. Yes, at R450 600 it’s way more expensive than your average hatch, but imagine never having to swipe cards at the pump again.

A tasty proposition that. Just make sure your daily round trip is under 100km... and your neighbourhood’s power lines are safe.

Follow me on Twitter @PoorBoyLtd

FACTS

Nissan Leaf

Engine: Electric

Gearbox: Single-speed gear reduction

Power: 80kW @ 3008-10 000rpm

Torque: 254Nm @ 0-3008rpm

0-100km/h (tested): 10.9 seconds

Top speed (claimed): 144km/h

Consumption (claimed): 150 wh/km

Price: R450 600

Warranty: Three-year/100 000km

Service plan: Three-year/90 000km


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