First Drive: Nissan LEAF
Since March 2011, another eight manufacturers have launched plug-in vehicles, charging point availability has rocketed and LEAF sales are growing.
Substantial media and public attention has made the LEAF a figurehead for the electric vehicle movement over the last two years, sometimes a bit of a double-edged sword with plenty of doubters keen to point out flaws and shortfalls. However, a best-in-range 93% satisfaction score from customers and a generally very subtle batch of upgrades implies Nissan doesn’t think the first car was too far wide of the mark.
The timing of this upgrade can be attributed to a change in the manufacturing process for the LEAF. Until recently, all cars were built at a single plant in Oppama, Japan. Nissan North America began manufacturing its own market-specific version at the end of last year, and in April the Euro LEAF began rolling off the Qashqai production line in Sunderland. All three LEAF factories build their own batteries, and can alter the cars to suit the markets where they’re sold.
But most of the improvements are shared. There are subtle aerodynamic upgrades on the outside, and the drivetrain features a new motor and lighter charging unit which has been relocated from the boot to the engine bay, plus upgrades which allow it to recuperate more electricity while slowing down. Nissan has also fitted a 70% more efficient cabin heater, which offers substantial real-world range benefits in cold countries. Range on the NEDC test cycle has increased from 109 to 124 miles.
It’s harder to notice the rest unless you’re familiar with the outgoing model. The obtrusive box behind the rear bench, which once housed the charging unit, has gone, and there’s a light under the charging flap to make plugging in at night easier. Nissan has also introduced a new engine braking mode, similar to the Prius, which slows the car using motor resistance similar to shifting down a gear on a conventional manual gearbox. Once stopped, existing LEAF owners will notice the electronic parking brake on the centre console has been replaced with a pedal.
All markets are now being offered three versions. In the UK, these will follow the traditional Visia, Acenta, N-Tec structure as the rest of the Nissan range, with around 75% opting for the mid-spec version, roughly equivalent in spec to the outgoing LEAF’s single trim level. Visia offers a £2,000 cut in entry price, while the N-Tec with its leather interior and Bose eco-friendly audio system is expected to appeal to downsizers.
The Euro LEAF does have a few unique features, though. In line with customer criticisms of the old car, the steering is weightier and the suspension stiffer than in its predecessor. Both add a much more natural feel to the driving experience, particularly at higher speeds where the LEAF feels better connected to the tarmac, and the steering response around dead centre is softened to avoid twitchy motorway cruising.
Also unique to Europe is a black interior, trimmed in leather on the N-Tec model, which helps bring the car in line with sector norms far better than the beige and light grey of its predecessor. Nissan’s Around View Monitor, which offers a simulated birds’ eye view to help with parking, is also a useful addition for a primarily city-based car.
The LEAF broke new ground in 2011, and while Nissan wasn’t the first, its early entry into the market has given it enough data to undertake a comprehensive upgrade of its most advanced model before any of its competitors. It’s really never had the potential for broader appeal.
A subtle but thorough package of upgrades has helped make the LEAF feel even less like a futuristic novelty than the well-rounded original. Unless long distance driving is a regular part of your motoring life, there are very few reasons not to at least consider the Nissan.
Segment: Lower medium
Type: Battery-electric vehicle
Price: £20,990-£25,490 after UK government grant (£15,990-£20,490 with leased battery)
Electric range: 124 miles
CO2 emissions (tailpipe): 0g/km
Charging Port: J1772 AC & CHAdeMo DC