The Nissan Leaf is one of the few electric cars you can buy in Australia, and it's even rarer as one designed to enter the mainstream.
With a price tag of $51,500 for what is essentially a small hatchback, it will still be many years - perhaps decades - before electric cars are commonplace on the road.
Local car maker Holden has got it on the act, too, though, with its range-extender Volt that's imported from Chevrolet overseas.
The Nissan Leaf is a little bit out of this world when compared with any other car on sale today. It has so many features that will make you go “oh, that's a great idea” that even if it wasn't an electric car, it would still be a very cool vehicle to own.
For example, you can tell it to start up the air-conditioning (or heater) at 6:30am in preparation for your drive to work at 6:45am. It has a mobile SIM card built in so it constantly updates itself with new info (e.g. new charging stations, vehicle updates). You can find out remotely, from your iPhone, how much charge your car has left and can even tell it to begin or stop charging remotely (if plugged in). It can log your drive and tell you how much power you've used and where. Seriously, it's like the beginning of SKYNET. The entire car feels like one giant smart computer that wants to make you happy. Alas, it still can't make coffee (but its on-board computer can suggest places that can).
Before we get too into the ins and outs of the Nissan Leaf, it's important to get the basics right. For those that are still trying to make heads or tails of Electric Vehicles and Hybrids, the main difference between the Nissan Leaf and a hybrid (e.g. Toyota Prius) is that the Leaf doesn't have a petrol motor at all.
While the Prius can run on electric power alone for no more than a kilometre or two at best, the Leaf runs entirely on its electric motor. It can manage a range of between 100km and 170km.
Research has shown that more than 80 per cent of Australians drive less than 80km per day, which would make the Leaf the ideal car for, well, 80 per cent of Australians.
The idea is simple. The Nissan Leaf is just like any other car, except that you'll never have to visit a smelly petrol station again. You simply treat it like you would any other car. For example, you drive it to work in the morning and then drive it back in the afternoon. Put it on charge overnight and all is good again for the next day.
The benefits of an electric vehicle over a hybrid are pretty obvious. It doesn't pollute, given there is no combustion on any level. If the source of its electricity is from green power (e.g. wind, solar, nuclear) and hence also zero emission, then electric vehicles could potentially be the best thing that can happen to transportation.
The Nissan Leaf didn't just happen overnight though. While many have come to associate Toyota with green technology (partially thanks to the Prius and partially thanks to Toyota's marketing department), the folks at Nissan have been working on electric vehicles since 1992.
The Nissan-Renault alliance has been a huge benefit to both companies with advancements in electric vehicles a proud achievement of the venture.
Nissan has already sold out its entire initial stock of Leafs for the US market, so this isn't the sort of model that is waiting to gain acceptance. It has already been warmly welcomed in the States, Japan and Europe. Global production is expected to hit 300,000 units per year by 2013.
Nissan Australia CEO, Dan Thompson, believes at least 10 per cent of Nissan's sale volume will be electric vehicles by 2020. His boss, Nissan Global CEO Carlos Ghosn, thinks the same figure but applied to the whole industry. It's hard to know what will happen in eight years given the pace at which technology and the car industry moves. All we can say is, there are interesting times ahead.
The real constraints for electric vehicles are batteries. Currently all electric vehicles use lithium batteries (most hybrids use less-advanced nickel-hydride batteries), similar stuff that you'd find in your iPhone's battery. Lithium is a lot harder to get and process than one would think, especially at the level of refinement required for an electric vehicle.
There is 250kg of lithium batteries in a Nissan Leaf. That's spread over 48 modules, each about the size of a small laptop. Inside each module are four cells which store the power that drives the Leaf. These little cells are expected to have around 70 per cent performance even after six to 10 years of use. Even then, Nissan has set up an entirely separate company just to gather used batteries and put them to use in other applications and eventually recycle them.
Better yet, given the Leaf's modular design, the batteries can easily be replaced. In five years the lithium battery pack may have significantly improved in performance, so perhaps you can pick up a second-hand Leaf, stick new batteries in it and away you go.
Think of the Nissan Leaf as a first generation LCD TV screen. When they first came out they were expensive, these days they are cheaper than anyone would have ever thought. The same principle of technology advancement will apply to the Leaf and other electric vehicles.
Initially they will cost a fair bit but as volume picks up, cost of production comes down and the technology improves, one could predict that electric vehicles will one day demand the same sort of small premium as today's diesel passenger cars.
Nonetheless, in the case of the Leaf you can replace its batteries with better ones at any time in the future, so it's not going to be left behind by advancements in lithium technology.
The big difference between the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV is size. The Leaf is a good metre longer than its Japanese rival. It also happens to be larger in every proportion than a Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla. So it's actually a car you can use every day and transport adults in, unlike the i-MiEV which is more of a city-only car with limited space.
Also unlike the i-MiEV (which is based on a petrol model), the Leaf is a dedicated electric vehicle, built from the ground up to be just that. Its electric engine develops 80kW and 280Nm of torque and its body shape is aerodynamically optimised for maximum efficiency.
It's designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible, so it's 95 percent recyclable and a great deal of its components are also made from recycled material. It's hard to argue with its Earth-saving credentials (even if you want to get into the CO2 cost of lithium extraction it's still better for the planet than an internal combustion vehicle).
Before we were allowed behind the wheel of one of only two Nissan Leafs in Australia, Nissan engineers took us through how the charging system works.
It's actually relatively simple. There are three ways to charge a Leaf. You can charge the Leaf at home so long as you have the right power system installed (the same 15amp power requirement as your air-conditioner).
This can be installed by an electrician for about $200. It will take around eight hours to recharge the Leaf from a completely depleted battery using your house's electricity. The Leaf comes with a power control box which manages the flow of power to the car when at home.
Alternatively you can charge it from fixed cable infrastructure systems. Such units are already on offer by ChargePoint, BetterPlace, etc., in limited numbers around Australia. The location of these systems is certain to grow.
The idea would be to find these charging points in office car parks or other places where your car is going to sit dormant for a few hours. These systems will cost around $5000 (plus installation), so expect to see a fair few of them around CBDs over the next few years.
The third and most potent charging method is a 'fast-charge' which is when a three-phase 415-volt power system is hooked up to your Leaf. This can charge your Nissan from empty to 80 percent in less than 30 minutes. Ideal when you need a quick recharge to get home.
Given the amount of power being pushed into the batteries at one time, the system will not charge the Leaf past the 80 per cent mark to help preserve its batteries. These systems are about $70,000 to $100,000 installed, so they are going to be more scarce than the normal charge points.
The public charging systems are going to be owned and managed by third party providers, of which there are currently plenty setting up in Australia. It's still unclear with what plans and at what cost they will be offered to the general public, but we will find out within a few months when the i-MiEV goes on sale.
Nissan Australian Regional Electric Vehicle Manager, Michael Hayes, told CarAdvice that even if electricity prices increased by 50 per cent, the Leaf would cost a maximum of three cents per kilometre to run. Significantly cheaper than any internal combustion engine.
To give you an idea, a Toyota Prius uses 3.9L/100km (official figure), so that's about 25km per litre. If fuel costs $1.50 per litre, that makes it six cents per kilometre. Of course electricity prices haven't increased by 50 percent so the comparison is not really valid, but it gives you a rough idea of running costs.
Plus, let's not forget that the Leaf is zero emission, unlike the Toyota Prius which pumps out 89 grams of CO2 per kilometre.
So, it's not lacking technology but how does a Nissan Leaf drive? Rather well, actually. The use of an all-electric engine means there is no sound, at all. Turn it on and it will sit silently (much like a hybrid at first).
Behind the wheel, my first gripe was a lack of telescopic steering wheel adjustment, but that's not all that uncommon these days. Once you've positioned yourself comfortably you're presented with an array of electronic gadgetry, all of which serves a very valuable purpose. My first intention was to find an open road and plant the accelerator, which is exactly what I did.
When it comes to drivability, the Nissan Leaf is an interesting car. You're actually going to feel it accelerate just like you would in a sportscar. It's a bizarre sensation given there is no engine noise. It feels and sounds like a Japanese bullet train about to hit cruising speed as it accelerates from the lights. With 280Nm of torque available from a standstill, the Leaf is much more lively than a Prius and many other cars (no official 0-100km/h figures yet).
Steering feel is very light, much like a Lexus. That makes it easy to manoeuvre around town and get in and out of car parks. Our test vehicle was a European model so it's still unknown if the steering will be further tuned for the Australian market. Unlike the i-MiEV, the Leaf is front-wheel drive, but you'd hardly be able to tell the difference driving it normally.
The gearstick is tiny and very simple to operate. You simply pull it to the right and down to engage Drive, if you do that again it will engage ECO mode which will change the accelerator pedal response (essentially limiting power to preserve the battery) and optimise other systems. This is the only way you can get the maximum 170km range (also without air-conditioning). You simply press the P to go into Park.
Nissan says the average driver will get around 120km out of a Leaf when driven in normal Drive mode with the air-conditioning on, which is still 40km more than 80 percent of Australians need.
The typical analogue speedometer and tachometer displays are not present, instead you get a powermeter which tells you how much power you are using. You also get a distance to empty system that tells you how well the batteries are doing (so you'll know if they are no longer being charged to maximum).
Above that you get a digital speedometer and also a peculiar 'tree building' system to the left. Depending on how environmentally friendly you drive, the Leaf will build more trees for you, well, digital trees. A somewhat useless feature to be frank, but it will make Bob Brown happy.
Nonetheless, if you really want to be the greenest person on Earth, you can sign up to Nissan's global 'Leaf portal' and measure your driving style against others from around the world. Your Leaf will automatically update the portal with your driving log and the system will rank your driving style (based on how many kilometres you get out of a charge) on a global, national and even local level. A great way to take advantage of human beings' need to win competitions.
The on-board computer system is pretty nifty too. It will tell you your driving range (on a map), nearby recharging stations as well as energy information. It will update your driving range every 500m based on your driving style and if you happen to turn on the air-conditioning system, it will even tell you how many more kilometres you will gain if you turn it off (or vice versa).
According to Nissan, early adopters of electric vehicles want all the information they can get, so the company has not held back.The Nissan Leaf's iPhone application will be available for Australians in time for the vehicle's launch. It will also be available on Android-powered phones.
Spending 30 minutes behind the wheel of a Nissan Leaf was an eye opener. Having driven electric vehicles in the past, it can be said that the Leaf is a step up from its competition. It's the sort of car you would recommend to your family without hesitation.
Overall, it's hard to fault the Nissan Leaf. It has won the European Car of the Year award and is certain to win many more. Sure, it may be expensive and its range might create what the industry has now termed “range-anxiety”, but if you think about it, how often do you travel more than 170km in one session?
It's truly the first full-electric car that you can live with. It's comfortable, it drives well, it's full of technology and it has enough juice to get most of us around on a daily basis. More importantly though, it's a sign of what's about to come. Thumbs up to Nissan.
- Automatic lights-on system
- LED headlamps with load-sensing leveller
- High luminance LED rear combination lights
- Full colour rear view monitor, with vehicle width/distance display function
- Rear windshield wiper (intermittent)
- LED high-mount stop lights
Active safety features
- VDC (Vehicle Dynamic Control [TCS functionality included])
- ABS (Anti-lock Brake System)
- EBD (Electronic Brakeforce Distribution)
Passive safety features
- High-strength safety bodyshell
- Impact-energy-absorbing body construction to mitigate pedestrian injuries
- SRS airbags for the driver and front passenger
- SRS side airbags for the driver and front passenger
- SRS curtain airbags
- Two-stage load-limiter-equipped double pretensioner seatbelt for driver and front passenger
- Emergency Locking Retractor (ELR) 3-point seatbelts for all seats