Leaf drives just like a conventional hatchback, except that itis eerily quiet. But handling and ride are impressive.
Leaf drives just like a conventional hatchback, except that itis eerily quiet. But handling and ride are impressive.
Cutaway diagram shows how the electrically-powered Leaf works.
Cutaway diagram shows how the electrically-powered Leaf works.

Right here, right now. Mark it. The Nissan Leaf electric vehicle we test drive this week signifies a turning point, a paradigm shift in humankind’s relationship with that most emotive and animate of inanimate objects, the motor car.

One day in a few decades’ time when your grandchildren are all driving electric cars and they ask you what it was like to drive smoggers (or whatever will be slang for fuel-burning vehicles), call up this page and show them this is where the zero-emission revolution started.

The Leaf (Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car) isn’t the world’s first EV but it’s the first to be mass-produced, with more than 20 000 already sold on three continents since its launch in December 2010, and its importance was underlined when it scooped 2011’s Europe Car of the Year title. The Leaf is scheduled to go on sale in South Africa in 2013, dependant on a charging infrastructure being in place by then (this is being discussed with government).

Although flatulent cows probably still cause more greenhouse gases than cars, the motor industry has a major part to play in reducing global warming and electric vehicles such as the Leaf represent our brave new motoring future. For now the Leaf’s a city commuter with a limited range of about 160km but eventually, as battery technology improves to increase the driving distance between plug-ins, EV’s will become our mainstream cars.

What’s clear is that we’re turning over a new leaf, if you’ll excuse the pun, and there’s no going back. Together with its alliance partner Renault, Nissan aims to put 1.5 million EV’s on the world’s roads by the end of 2016, with a vision that EV’s comprise 10 percent of total new vehicles sales by 2020.

A fleet of Nissan Leafs is being used to transport delegates at the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Durban this week, and we got behind the wheel.

The main limiting factor of electric vehicles is still battery life. The technology has crawled along quite slowly, with incrementally small increases in operating range being achieved over the past several years, and the big “Eureka” moment - a battery that gives a similar range to a petrol or diesel-engined car - has thus far proven elusive.

But within the next decade or two it’s not unfeasible for these targets to be reached and, once cities have a charging infrastructure in place, you’ll be able to plug in your EV wherever you park it, making the maximum range much less critical.

For now a Nissan Leaf will get about 160km per charge, which is more than the daily commuting distance for the average South African driver, making it a viable city car. For holidays you’ll still have to revert to your gas guzzler.

It’s an eerily silent drive but otherwise the electric-powered Leaf feels much like an ordinary hatchback to drive. Packing 80kW of power, it feels just as responsive as a petrol or diesel car, in fact more so as the electric motor doesn’t need to be revved and makes its maximum torque of 280Nm almost instantly.

The car offers two power modes. In the Normal setting the Leaf delivered the power of an average two-litre car, while in Eco mode it felt more like a 1.3 but promised a much longer range. Out on the open road the Leaf cruised contentedly at the national speed limit and topped out at 145km/h. Did I mention it was eerily silent?

The consumption meter is very sensitive and the remaining range on the onboard computer keeps changing depending on driving conditions. Boot the throttle and within a couple of hundred metres your range starts plummeting. Ease off and your mileage starts climbing again. Touch the brakes on a long downhill (there’s regenerative braking) and your range climbs even quicker.

I didn’t get to drive the car to empty, but after a 60km-odd drive there was still a range of about 100km showing on the trip computer, so Nissan’s claimed mileage seemed attainable. The lithium-ion batteries have a long lifespan and are expected to still retain 80 percent of their charging capacity after five to eight years.

The Leaf’s normal charging time is eight hours at any 220V wall socket, but a special 440V quick-charger can juice the lithium-ion battery to 80 percent of its capacity in just half an hour. The car is equipped with features such as air conditioning, satnav and a parking camera. Innovative connectivity allows an owner to heat or cool the interior remotely via a smart phone.

The eventual goal is to have a “smart house” where you plug in the car and any remaining charge it has can be used to power your household appliances.

Power delivery aside, the Leaf’s driving dynamics are no different to the norm and it feels adequately nimble. In fact, because the 200kg battery pack is mounted low in the chassis it gives the car a lower centre of gravity and therefore a handling benefit. The lack of sound might be offputting to people who enjoy the emotive howl of a petrol engine, but that emotional attachment might quickly evaporate upon seeing the money-saving benefits of EV’s. Though the Leaf is expected to be priced around the same as a Toyota Prius hybrid and higher than an equivalent petrol-powered car, its much lower running costs will make it cheaper over a six-year lifespan.

Even with Eskom’s soaring electricity bills, Nissan says it will cost about R20 to charge a Leaf, compared to the approximately R130 it would cost to drive a petrol-powered car (at fuel consumption of eight litres per 100km) over a similar 160km distance.

The Leaf is just the first of a planned line-up of mass-produced EV’s from Nissan and its alliance partner Renault. Close to 100 partnerships have already been signed with governments, private companies and other organisations in Europe, Japan and America to ensure the successful adoption of EV’s.

EV’s from Renault include the just-launched Kangoo ZE light commercial vehicle, shortly to be followed by the Renault Fluence ZE family sedan, and the ZOE compact hatchback. Also to come is the Twizy urban two-seater, a funky golfcart-sized car with a 45km/h top speed and 100km range. - Star Motoring