Nissan Leaf in South Africa

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

  • Nicol Louw

    Hi Anon. We drove the Leaf on four routes of approximately 20 km each so we could not test the claimed range of the battery. Our mishap with the roadmap added quite a few nervous kilometres though!

  • Anon

    @the author. So what was the exact range that you guys achieved on a fully charged battery?

  • Charl Bosch

    Just another electric car that despite winning World and Euro Car of Year, will not be an instant hit in this country. Plus the nose reminds me of a hippo

  • Nicol Louw

    Hi John-Mark,
    Currently there is no “silver bullet” answer to curb CO2 emissions and automakers are looking at all possible solutions. The Renault-Nissan Alliance has placed their bet on electric vehicles. Other OEM’s are considering other solutions. Hydrogen is a good idea in theory but apart from the storage/safety concern the major problem is getting hold of hydrogen in the first place. It takes a lot of energy to create hydrogen which defies the objective of clean energy. We live in interesting times so watch this space!

  • John-Mark

    @ The Author Nicol Louw. Why is the motor industry going electric and hydrogen fuel cells rather than internal combustion and hydrogen? Surely the technology exists to safely store liquid hydrogen on board vehicles with the necessary fuel injection and ignition systems. And the emission product is water. The electricity route with all the drawbacks somehow doesn’t make sense. Or won’t the vested interest fuel companies play ball on this one?

  • Sakkie

    Who will be able to afford this car? Apart from cleaner air what are the advantages of this vehicle? At a buying price of R400 000 I can drive three other cars of the same size. What does it cost to recharge the batteries for 8 hours and then drive for 160 kms (not only in monetary terms but also in terms of pollution to generate the electricity)? An average car of that size would use petrol of up to about R120 to travel 160 km. How long will you have to drive this car to make up for this unaffordable selling price of R400 000?

  • Tshimega

    And with the price of electricity these days, and our eskom investing in coal powered stations,…..I don’t fancy this direction/solution. If it’s a solution. We will get dirtier air for generating the electricity to run this car than we would if they just put a 1.4 turbocharged petrol motor in it, and the consumer pays a premium on it as well.

  • Morne

    Cosidering that on-engineers in Britain and USA are putting together electrical cars in their garages; makes the pricing RIDUCULOUS.
    I get the impression the car industry don’t wan’t this type of vehicles.
    Difficult for government to tax maybe?

  • Nicsun

    When and where can i buy one? R400 000 for it…. No Problem. Tata’s Emo at around R160 000… Even better. Bring it on!

  • Cobra 351

    i just sold a gas guzzler and by the looks of things was far more environment friendly than all EV’s coz no one knows the full impact on the environment… what about disposable of dead batteries? there will be so many no one will know what to do with them….in the end will be in the millions …another problem!!!! has anybody thought about that? maybe yes….or not????

  • Realy nice car