Turning Over A New Leaf
2014 Nissan Leaf review
At the time of writing petrol prices in New Zealand are around $2.21/litre. That’s after a 2 cent increase by the major oil companies a few months ago and a recent 3 cent government tax on fuel. Yet again. At one point it reached $2.23. The rise in fuel prices shows no signs of stopping as the crisis in the Middle East is worsening. I’m not an economist or politician but it seems to me that as soon as something happens in the Middle East, that’s an excuse to hike up fuel prices.
According to reports we are currently paying 56 cents of tax for every dollar of petrol. That’s ridiculous. The government says the new tax will go on to improving the road network but if prices are driving people out of their cars there’ll be no one to use the improved roads. Some might turn to diesel which is currently $1.47/litre but while the 3 cent increase in fuel will add about $20 a year to the average petrol motorist’s bill, the increase in road user charges for diesel vehicles will add around $60 a year to the ownership cost.
Road user charges, by the way, is a weird scheme that charges diesel vehicles by the distance travelled. Diesel fuel has no tax at the pumps so revenue comes from these road user charges. This wouldn’t be so much an issue if New Zealand had a decent public transportation service but it doesn’t. The trains don’t go anywhere where you’d actually want to go. The buses are scary and smell weird inside. There’s also the risk of getting stabbed, vomited on, and contracting a disease on them. You also have to follow a schedule so you can’t go whenever you want to. And most of the time they’re late anyway. A helicopter is impractical unless you’re Kim Dotcom while the ferry seems to lose a propellor every second day.
Fossil fuels are still vital to our lives, even in 2014, and I have a feeling that they will be in the foreseeable future as well. Too much of everything we rely on for our everyday lives runs on fossil fuels. The ever increasing prices can only have negative effects for us in New Zealand. We live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and its best seen in a car. Not a train, or a bus, or a motorhome. A car. A car gives you freedom. The freedom of movement; the freedom to go wherever you want whenever you want. A Kiwi road trip is something everyone has to experience before they die. But it seems less people will be inclined to go on a road trip if fuel prices keep climbing. It’s bad for tourism, bad for the economy, and worst of all bad for petrol heads!
Now I could go on about how the government seems to treat drivers as a sort of tax ATM which they can withdraw more money from whenever it takes their fancy. But that’s for another place and time. This isn’t a blog on politics after all. So, back to cars. Apart from improving roads the government said they’ll use some of the revenue from the new taxes to aid infrastructure for alternative fuel vehicles. Vehicles like the all-electric Nissan Leaf.
The Nissan Leaf was launched in 2010 and if I’m perfectly honest I didn’t pay much attention to it. The only other electric car I had known of prior to the Leaf was that weird Mitsubishi i-MIEV which cost an eye-watering amount of money (around $72,000 if I remember correctly) when it was launched in NZ. Thankfully it was quickly withdrawn from the NZ market. The Leaf was brought into NZ in 2012 and Nissan ambitiously priced at $69,990. Around 23 were sold. So when I went to Japan I was in for quite a shock. There was quite a number of Leafs there were driving around. But then this was the country that gave us the Toyota Prius and the bullet train. In Japan the Leaf is advertised as a car that doubles as an emergency power supply for your home. Quite the multi-purpose vehicle indeed.
But this is a car first and foremost so what it’s like as a mode of transportation. Well first impressions show it’s just like any other car. It has four wheels, four doors, a boot, an interior, windows, and lights. Nothing new here then. Actually, while it uses a basic car design formula, the Leaf stands out from conventional hatchbacks. There are hints that this is a car for the future. The blue badging, the lack of a fuel filler cap, the solar panel on the spoiler, the sculpted headlights, the alien-like taillights… it all makes for a unique look without looking over the top. It’s futuristic but not as if it was drawn by an 11 year old in 1954 when asked what an electric car would look like in 2014.
It’s certainly a head turner. People gave it a second look. Which is good because they wouldn’t hear you coming. It’s eerily silent. Starting the Leaf is almost as conventional as its looks. You put your foot on the brake and press the ‘Power’ button which is just that. It’s even got a symbol for power like you get on a washing machine. It took me a while to figure out when it was turned on. Only the dashboard lighting up and a small beep give any indication it’s turned on. It’s a fantastic sensation. I felt like Captain Picard and I was piloting the Starship Enterprise. It felt like the future.
Just to make things even more interesting the gearstick is far from conventional. Slide it right and up for reverse, right and down for drive. Go down again and it puts it into eco mode. Yeah, an eco mode in an EV is as amusing as a sport mode in a Ferrari. Setting off in it felt not unlike a golf cart. Anyone who’s driven an EZ-GO will no doubt be familiar with the immediate torque delivery of an electric motor. That’s what its like in the Leaf. Hit the accelerator and all 280NM of torque is delivered in a smooth and predictable fashion. It took me by surprise at first at how quickly this thing picks up speed. You could call the sensation as electrifying! The 80kW electric motor develops the equivalent of 110bhp which is acceptable in a car of this size. But its the torque that’s the standout number. However a hot hatch it is not. It doesn’t encourage you to drive fast. Quite the contrary actually. Driving it was more like being on a permanent eco drive. You are more aware of everything on the road as there’s absolutely no engine noise to interfere.
Actually, there’s hardly any noise at all. Nissan’s designers have done a brilliant job making the Leaf cut through the air as smoothly and silently as possible. Case in point are the headlights. They make look weird but they’ve been specially designed to direct airflow away from the cabin. The wing mirrors are smaller than usual too to reduce wind noise. Even the motors to the windscreen wipers had to be specially designed because the standard ones Nissan use in their other cars made too much noise. That’s not an exaggeration, it’s that quiet inside the Leaf. Only the eco tyres can be heard on the move. The solution would be to have the radio turned on but it didn’t feel right to waste precious electricity listening to Lana Del Rey. It’s the same with the heater. It was a cold, miserable, winter’s day when I drove the Leaf. The outside temp readout was indicating 9 degrees. It felt more like -9. Still, turning on the climate control would’ve decreased range by 20km. That’s the thing with driving an EV. You find yourself trying to eek out as much range as possible from a single charge.
As a vehicle for saving the environment though, this is hard to beat. All eco car are made eco, but some are more eco than others. I got this warm fuzzy feeling when I pulled up next to a Prius in the Leaf. It’s hard to put a finger on it but it’s a very satisfying and smug feeling. A Prius still utilises a petrol engine (Victorian technology!) and it still produces dirty and harmful CO2 emissions. The Leaf doesn’t. It’s not often you can out-green a Prius, even in a red Leaf. Everything about the Leaf is green, eve the name. LEAF actually stands for “Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car”. Certainly it’s proved popular since its launch four years ago. The Leaf has a 45% market share worldwide in fully electric vehicles. It’s also won numerous award including Japanese Car of the Year in 2011 and World Car of the Year in 2011.
The eco-ness doesn’t stop with the zero-emissions electric powertrain either. It utilises recycled materials in the interior, it has a solar panel on the spoiler which charges the 12V accessories battery, and regenerative braking. The regenerative braking happens behind the scenes. You don’t notice it driving around except for a little readout on the dash indicating it at work. It converts and stores energy developed by braking in the car’s battery to help extend range. But once you’ve gotten used to the new driving style and the silence the Leaf is a brilliant hatchback. What made the Mitsubishi i-MIEV so incomprehensible was it was a small car (based on the i-Car) with a mammoth price tag. The Nissan Leaf costs like a normal car and does all the practical things you’d expect from a normal car. Visibility is great. The large windows make it feel nice and airy inside. And very rare in a new car, I can actually see out the back window! Space inside is generous. Up front its easy to get comfortable. The seats are supportive and with lots of adjustment. You have to manually do the adjustment yourself, the seats aren’t electric for obvious reasons. I have to add the fabric seats are superb. I’ve never felt fabric seats quite like the ones on the Leaf. They were soft and reminded me of a cat. But obviously they’re not trimmed in cat fur. That would be cruel and not very eco. It would also be frowned upon in most societies.
In the back there are three seats like you get in a normal hatch. Only, there’s actually a decent amount of legroom. The middle seat is useable too, just. I found headroom to be adequate though taller folk might find it a bit limited. The boot is a decent size too, though the shape of the opening is awkward and there’s quite a high load lip. The rear seats fold down but unfortunately it doesn’t fold flat with the boot. That’s because the batteries are placed between the boot and rear seats. Build quality inside is normal too. You’ve got decent plastic inside. They’re not soft touch but they do the job. The piano black trim that’s seen in other Nissan interiors also makes an appearance here. It would’ve been nice if there was an option for a different colour. Green or blue perhaps? But other than that its standard Nissan. There’s a lot of tried and tested Nissan switchgear, and it’s very conventional actually.
Which might disappoint those expecting a futuristic sci-fi design. It’s got the same 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system as other contemporary Nissans such as the X-Trail and Altima. That means an easy and intuitive user interface and clear, readable writing. iPod connectivity and Bluetooth phone compatibility come standard. I actually quite like how they’ve made it look and feel like a normal Nissan inside. It’s not crammed with too many buttons which some find intimidating. Even the readouts for the battery information, power meter, and range weren’t too overwhelming for the eyes. It’s all logically placed and friendly to look at. The eco indicator even grows trees for you the more eco you drive. No really, it does. Okay, they’re not real trees as such but it’s quite fun seeing how many virtual trees you can grow before you arrive at your destination.
It’s as safe as any other hatchback at this price range too. It was awarded the maximum five star safety rating by EuroNCAP. It’s got the standard safety kit such as many airbags, ABS, and VDC. While we’re talking about VDC, it was a wet day when I drove the Leaf. And the eco tyres aren’t the grippiest in the world. At one point I turned at an intersection and it understeered. That was unexpected and scary. Luckily the VDC kicked and saved the day but it made it very obvious that it was no GTI. I was surprised that in a car for the future a few of today’s tech such as blind spot assist and lane departure warning weren’t fitted. But for the money few rivals have that anyway. So that’s all the conventional stuff dealt with. And you must be thinking buying one seems like a no brainer. Not only can it do everything a normal hatchback can, but it does without producing any emissions and it costs roughly the same as the equivalent sized petrol or diesel powered hatch.
But hold wait a second as there are a couple things that need mentioning. If you live 200km from where you work you best get something else or walk the extra 20km as the Leaf has a range of 170km. In a hilly city like Wellington it’s more like 150km. Ideally you’d have two cars. The Leaf for your weekday commute to work, given your roundtrip is within the range, and then a petrol or diesel car for weekend and long distance trips. That’s what I’d do anyway. Unlike an internal combustion vehicle, when the Leaf runs out of juice and range it’s not a quick fill up to get it going again. You are able to do a quick charge (80% charge) which takes around half an hour but this shortens the battery life. A full charge on a 240V 15A dock takes around 7 hours. The Nissan dealer will also have a charging point.
With prices now starting from a very reasonable and realistic $39,990, the Leaf should definitely be near the top of your shopping list if you’re looking at an economical family hatch at this price range. For the same sort of money you could have a conventional VW Golf, Ford Focus, or Hyundai i30. These are available as both petrols and diesels. But while they have a bigger range have a think and work out the maths if the Leaf is more suited to your commuting needs. If you already have a petrol or diesel powered car then the Leaf could offset some of the running costs by taking over urban commuting tasks. It’s the same with the Prius. If all you want is an eco-friendly runaround then the Leaf is about as eco as they get for the money. Other EVs such as the Holden Volt and BMW i3 may have a bigger range thanks to their petrol-powered range extender which acts as a generator charging the batteries on the go but they cost considerably more than the Leaf ($75,000 for the Volt; $83,500 for the i3). However, a range extender on the Leaf would be a welcome option. It’d take some of the range anxiety away.
Compared to a conventional car servicing costs are considerably less too as there aren’t any mechanical or oily bits to maintain. Only a yearly check up is required and that costs around $100. The Leaf uses a lithium-ion battery which is more efficient and lighter than the nickel batteries used by most hybrids. The battery has been designed to last for years and is covered by Nissan’s 3-year/100,000km warranty. However over time the battery’s performance will decrease. Have a look around you right now. Your phone, your tablet, your laptop… everything that has a rechargeable battery will eventually experience a drop in battery life over time. My iPhone for example only lasts a couple of hours. I can’t live without my iPhone and start having a mental breakdown when the battery goes red. Imagine the anxiety attacks I’d get if that happened in a car.
I do like the idea of never having to go to a fuel station though. I find nothing more tedious and time wasting than going to a fuel station. But today, the Leaf’s 150-170km range has a long way to go to be on par with the 800km range of something like a Mazda3. Obviously this is only a first generation electric vehicle and as technology develops so too will the range and life of batteries for electric vehicles. It should also be said we’d need to retrain children on how to cross the road. These are so quiet I have a fear that unless we have a new system for crossing roads, every child, deaf person, and animal will at some point get run over by EVs such as the Leaf. Hopefully the next Leaf will have a city brake function. If any car needs one of those it’s this.
However, my biggest issue with the Leaf is a personal one. What I love about petrol cars, and some diesels actually, is the noise they make. The noise a car makes is one of the most important factors for me. It makes you feel more connected with the car. To me, the noise is a way connecting with a car. It’s like the soul of the engine singing to you. Going up and down the rev range experiencing the different notes and noises of an engine is one of the best sensations in the world. Yes that’s great for going around quiet suburbs but it takes away some of the connection with the car. In an EV, and its not just the Leaf, there is no noise. Just a sort of buzzing noise like you get from a computer. Oh, that’s the other thing. The ‘Power’ button makes it feel more like an appliance. It’s a little thing but it annoyed me. It didn’t feel right.
It’s not something children will be dreaming about and have posters of on their bedroom walls. Sure, cars like the Tesla Model S, Fisker Karma and BMW i8 are changing the way we see EVs but they don’t evoke the same sort of feelings as a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Aston Martin. Let me put it like this; if they ever do a remake of the movie ‘Grease’ it’d be unlikely the producers will use a Nissan Leaf as the Greased Lightning car. Unless they wanted to be literal about it. To be fair on the Leaf though its rivals such as Focus, Prius, or Golf aren’t exactly things of dreams and if we’re being honest that’s just my personal view anyway. For most people, i.e. those who don’t know their Austins from their Astons, won’t care that the Leaf doesn’t scream like an opera singer who’s stubbed their toe.
This doesn’t take away the fact that the Leaf is an impressive car, and an electric one at that. Any fears of EVs not being able to fit into our daily lives in 2014 were quickly thrown out the window when I experienced the Leaf. What makes it incredible is that underneath that conventional exterior lies the future of cars. It’s still a niche car. This is one for early adopters. It’s for the people who had the first iPod, the first iPhone, the first iPad, and MySky before everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. But unlike most first-generation products the Leaf actually works. I have no doubt most of us will be driving silently and emission-free in the near future. The Leaf is great as you can pop down to a Nissan dealer and buy one today. I never thought I’d be driving a pure electric vehicle this early on in my life let alone recommending it as a viable alternative to an internal combustion engine. The future is here, today.
Pros: Instant torque, zero emissions, never having to go to a fuel station, space inside, design, value, the feeling of being greener than Prius drivers, being the future today, driving in silence, cheap to own and run,
Cons: Limited range, has first-generation EV niggles (some might want to wait for the next generations), not available with a range extender, children won’t be able to hear you.
I am both shocked and impressed by the Leaf. It now makes for a feasible proposition after Nissan kindly lowered the price. Seriously consider one if you’re looking at buying a hybrid or diesel hatch for urban use.