Nissan is the first to offer a pure electric car to private buyers in high volumes. Jesse Crosse takes a look
Car makers have been flirting with hybrids for years (more than flirting in the case of Toyota and Honda), but pure battery electric vehicles have remained on the back burner as far as the major players are concerned. Now though, Nissan has stepped up to the plate with the new Leaf, a front-wheeldrive C-segment hatchback that goes on sale in Japan and the US next year and is scheduled for the UK early in 2012. The Leaf is powered by a high response synchronous AC electric motor developing 107bhp and 206lb ft of torque, which is enough to whisk the hatchback to 60mph in around 10 seconds and on to a top speed of 86mph. Inside, there’s room for up to five people and a generous sized boot due to the fact that the large, lithium ion battery pack is tucked away in the centre of the car beneath the floor. As you can guess, despite its electric drivetrain, the Leaf is a straightforward production car aimed at typical buyers. It will be sold in large numbers too, with 50,000 planned for the first year, and that figure rising to 200,000 when sales go global in 2012. We attended the unveiling of the new Leaf in Japan on a strictly ‘look but don’t touch’ basis, but were allowed to drive a Tiida ‘mule’ vehicle at the Zama plant’s test track in Yokohama, equipped with the actual production underpinnings of the real thing. The Tiida has pretty much the same proportions as the Leaf and, once behind the wheel, the most obvious difference is the lack of a gear lever. Instead, there’s a stumpy direction lever that does the same job as a conventional auto stick with drive, reverse and park.
Fire up the powertrain and you’re met with silence, though perhaps there was just the slightest hum from a hidden fan. The test car drives ultra-smoothly with only a whirr from the motor, but it’s very responsive to the throttle. Unlike a petrol or diesel engine, an electric motor produces maximum torque from rest so stamping on the throttle pedal is met with punchy urge. As for the rest, the car drives similarly to a normal hatchback, only much quieter. Weighing the best part of 200kg, the battery pack is slung low under the floor, not only freeing up space inside the cabin, but also providing a low centre of gravity for stable cornering, too. We also took a look at the charging system. There’s a flap in the nose of the car for plugging into the mains at home or at the supermarket. In the UK, the on-board charger will fully charge a flat battery in eight hours, though if you’re travelling in Europe, 110 volts will take up to 16 hours. A second socket takes a plug from one of the three-phase industrial chargers that should start appearing at charging stations by the time the cars hit the streets, assuming local authorities and utility companies are on the ball. The 200 volt, 50kW chargers used by Nissan can deliver an 80 per cent charge in under 30 minutes. But a Nissan spokesman also said that more powerful, 400 volt three-phase chargers in the UK could do the job in as little as 15 minutes.
Like several manufacturers, Nissan has been working on electric drive motors for many years and the technology is now pretty sorted. The Leaf is powered by a lithium ion battery pack containing 48 rectangular plug-in modules which in turn are made up from single cells, each roughly the size of an A4 envelope and just a few millimetres thick. The modules are stacked neatly into a frame to make up the pack and there’s a battery management system and a major disconnection switch in case of an accident. Obviously, the one big fear people have about electric cars is running out of juice and becoming stranded. The Leaf gets around all of that by using clever telematics combined with the satellite navigation system. When you fire it up, the system tells you the available range, not only in numbers, but visually on the satellite navigation map. You’ll be able to see, at a glance, whether you can safely make it to town or not and if things are looking a bit marginal, the screen also displays the position of charging stations en-route. These stations will be automatically updated as new ones appear, too. Hopefully, the combination of these things should take the range anxiety out of using an electric car. The leaf can chat to your mobile phone (so you can get a coffee while its charging) and tell you when it’s ready to go. You can also start the air conditioning remotely if needs be, so the car can be cooling while it’s charging up in hot weather.
When the Leaf does arrive in the UK in 2012, you’ll be able to buy one through a dealer in the usual way. The electric drive system should be maintenance-free and although the rest of the car will need servicing as usual, running costs should be lower. The price is likely to be around £20,000, but that won’t include the cost of the battery – Nissan plans to lease this. Why? Because the cost of each one is £6,000 and the aim is to make the Leaf as attractive a proposition as possible. Leasing costs are likely to be under £100 per month which, as long as your daily commute totals around 35 miles or so, should make it at least as cheap as buying petrol. Will it sell? You wouldn’t choose one if your driving consists of long journeys, but Nissan is confident that there are plenty of urban types up for buying their first electric car. If you think going electric sounds more expensive than you’d like for a car with limited range, don’t forget the government’s promise of a £5,000 grant towards the cost of an electric vehicle, which should make turning over a new Leaf a lot more attractive.
- Range: 100miles plus
- Max speed: over 90mph
- 0-60mph: around 10 seconds
- Type: AC motor
- Max power (kW): 80kW
- Max torque (Nm): 206lb ft
- Type: laminated lithium-ion battery
- Total capacity (kWh): 24
- Power output (kW): over 90
- Energy density (Wh/kg): 140
- Power density (kW/kg): 2.5
- Number of modules: 48
- Charging times: fast charger DC 50kW
- (0 to 80 per cent): less than 30 min
- UK home charge: less than 8 hrs
- Battery layout: Under seat & floor