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Driving at the national speed limit on our set test route my co-driver and I are praising Nissan's achievement of developing the first mass-produced electric vehicle – then we missed our turn-off… The N2 towards Durban does not provide an easy alternative or junction to turn around. Then we watched the indicated distance to “empty” drop below 70 km and range anxiety was suddenly a very real sensation…
Durban plays host to the climate change conference COP17 and Nissan took the opportunity to ship in four right-hand drive Nissan Leafs to show its commitment to zero-emission vehicles. A selected number of journalists were given the opportunity to drive an electric vehicle for the first time on South African roads.
From the outside the Leaf appears stylish and does look better in the flesh than on photos. The front end is dominated by the patented headlamp design to direct airflow away from the side mirrors in order to improve aerodynamic efficiency. The large charge flap on the nose provides access to the normal and fast charge sockets. The hatchback design and sloping rear give the vehicle a sporty side profile and the Leaf managed to blend in perfectly with the Umhlanga traffic. Boot size is above average in the C-segment but a ridge behind the rear seats containing a battery management module prevents a flat loading area when the seats are folded forward.
The modern and futuristic dashboard design is let down by the plain upholstery covering the seats, which shouts "cost cutting". The driving position is good although the steering wheel can only be adjusted for height. Rear legroom is excellent and the vehicle can easily accommodate five adult passengers.
Starting the Leaf is as easy as turning the key after inserting it in the ignition. There is no vibration or noise to indicate a “running” engine – only an instrument cluster and central screen alive with information showing the electrons are ready to flow. Move the drive lever to “D” and lift off the brake pedal to see the vehicle creep forward not dissimilar to an internal combustion car fitted with an automatic transmission. Encouraging the Leaf with a prod on the accelerator pedal provides instant torque response from the 80 kW and 280 N.m electric motor. The Leaf accelerates in absolute silence (bar wind and tyre noise at speed) up to the national speed limit (and above) in quick time. The single speed transmission compliments the refined ride with no jerks associated with gear changes felt. A pedestrian warning system emits a cyclic sound to warn pedestrians when travelling below 30 km/h.
The low centre of gravity makes the vehicle feel nimble with little body roll around corners. This provides a false sense of security as the front tyres will squeal in protest if pushed around a bend. The 1,5 ton mass easily overpowers the lateral grip available with resulting understeer characteristics. This is of less importance as racing is not currently one of the design objectives.
Regenerative braking, where the electric motor is used to charge the battery, is employed when lifting off the accelerator pedal (mimicking engine braking) and increased as the driver applies the mechanical brakes. Unfortunately the combination of regenerative and mechanical braking when pushing the brake pedal produces a wooden feeling for the driver which does not inspire confidence.
Charging the Leaf is possible by plugging in the bulky power cable in a normal household socket which should charge the 24 kW battery pack in about 8 hours. Fast charging is possible from dedicated fast charging stations and is capable of charging the battery to 80 per cent capacity in 30 minutes. A fully charged battery should enable a range of about 160 km which is more than 90 per cent of the daily driving needs of a commuting citizen.
“When can we buy a Leaf in South Africa” was the question on everyone’s lips. The answer from Nissan was in 2013 depending on the infrastructure availability (fast charging stations) and possible buying incentives from the government as seen in other countries. Pricing for our market is unknown but the Leaf is currently available for around €35 000 in Europe. leading to speculation of a price of around R400 000.
Where does this “Leaf” our own home grown electric car the Joule? Having driven both I can say that the Leaf looks and feels like the production version of the Joule (maybe with less flair). My proudly South African heart feels a little jealous as we could have had a competitor vehicle in production today if circumstances were different. For now it seems like the Leaf is on track to be the first 100 per cent pure electric vehicle that will be offered to the local public.
My co-driver moves the selector to “ECO” mode which increases the regenerative braking and limits the available engine torque. I switch off the aircon and the range estimator immediately adds 20 km to the expected distance-to-flat indicator. Relieved we eventually reach our intended destination. Nissan needs to be applauded for providing a real alternative to fossil-fuelled vehicles and deserves the European Car of the Year and World Car of the year awards.
Electric Motor: 80 kW and 280 N.m
Gearbox: Single speed direct drive
Battery: 24kWh Lithium-ion, guaranteed for 8 years or 160 000 km
Range: Approximately 160 km depending on drive cycle
Weight: 1 521 kg
Euro NCAP rating: 5 stars
Top Speed: 145 km/h