Nissan’s decision to launch the first Leaf electric car way back in 2009 was akin to a military leader from ancient history dashing into the fray of battle without ensuring his soldiers were following close behind.
Here the company was, rolling out a mainstream EV across the world before most rival carmakers had so much as figuratively rallied their engineers. It was a major gamble, but one that Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn saw as an essential differentiator for the years ahead.
Anyone who’s into the tech game knows that being an early adopter makes you a crash-test dummy for any problems that arise. But at the same time, you can stake a claim to leadership if the field matures. And Nissan always thought this was a certainty.
Now it’s time to capitalise, and the new Leaf is tasked with doing exactly this – cashing in on Nissan’s deserved status as the maker of what has long been the world’s most popular EV, often by something approximating default, in a now rapidly maturing market.
Sure, the segment is still relatively small, but major players such as Volkswagen will launch its own populist EVs by 2020, and industry analysts predict the pricing of electric and combustion-engine cars will converge around 2025. Earlier if subsidies apply.
The other reason why the new Leaf is so vital is that Nissan must remind the public that it is the true EV innovator for the masses, alongside alliance partner Renault and perhaps BMW, and reclaim the limelight from Tesla, which has used its charismatic founder to steal everyone’s thunder without yet offering product the average person can hope to afford.
So what has Nissan done over the past eight years? The answer is tantamount to ‘enough – for now’. The new Leaf for 2018 comes with a redesigned skin sitting on a reworked platform that houses a ‘denser’ lithium-ion battery pack that offers a much longer driving range between recharges, the headline figure for any prospective EV buyer.
It also gets Nissan’s latest active safety driving aids that allow partial ‘one-lane’ hands- and feet-free driving, a ramped-up regenerative braking system like the BMW i3’s that allows one-pedal urban commuting, and the company’s revamped infotainment displays/UI that finally match slicker rival units.
Where to begin…
Nissan has developed the Leaf’s now 40kWh Li battery pack to house cells with 67 per cent greater density compared to the 24kWh 2010 launch model, and has worked on improving durability by playing with the internal chemistry.
The resultant 400km driving range ceiling is about triple the original Leaf’s, and more than double the iterations uprated with 30kWh packs, even though the actual battery array is the same size as before.
Buyers will arrive at a full charge in 16 hours if using a 3kW connection, or eight hours if using a more powerful 6kW point. Quick-charging capability will get your energy reserves to 80 per cent in 40 minutes, if you’ve access to public charge points.
The new drivetrain makes power of 110kW and instant torque rated as 320Nm, up 38 per cent and 26 per cent respectively, cutting the claimed 0-100km/h time to 8.0 seconds. The kerb weight is about 1500kg, around 200kg heavier than an equivalent-size IC car like a Mazda 3.
For context, how does this compare to Australia’s favourite EV, the BMW i3 94Ah? The carbon-fibre Bimmer is about 200kg lighter, its 125kW/250Nm motor helps it dash to 100km/h about 0.7sec faster, and it tops up to 80 per cent on a fast-charger in 39 minutes. Its 33kWh battery gives an inferior range of about 300km on the European cycle though.
So this Nissan edges the BMW, which it should given the pace at which the market develops. And its lead will be eroded fast if it isn’t proactive, which is why Nissan says it will also offer a Leaf with more power and longer range, at a higher price, during 2018.
This is to ward off imminent competitors such as the 2020/21 Volkswagen I.D and its expected 600km range, plus high-end Golf diesel-matching price, and the Tesla Model 3 when and/if that company gets production ramped-up to satisfy the orders it has taken deposits on.
Looking ahead further still, the company is working on solid-state batteries that theoretically offer even greater ranges. Battery makers are also making huge progress on rapid charging to improve convenience, while Nissan and others are also preparing to trial wireless/contactless inductive-charging conducted via pads and coils, rather than plugs.
But that’s all for the future. Here in the now we can report the MY18 Leaf’s driving characteristics reminded us why EVs have such an obviously strong future for a sizeable part of the population – especially the majority of car-using humans: city-dwellers.
Acceleration is frisky, especially off the line where the motor’s instantaneous torque delivery gets you up and running fast, equivalent to a proper sports car out to about 60km/h before it starts to taper. The single-speed gearing is also a novel feeling, bringing momentum on with a surge rather than gradation.
The there’s the feted ‘e-Pedal’ with energy recuperation that gives a deceleration rate of up to 0.2 g when you lift off the throttle, effectively bringing the car to a stop without braking.
Once you become familiar, the car’s actual brake pedal will collect dust until you leave the urban sprawl – as our time spent in the similarly equipped BMW i3 showed us – or unless some numpty cuts you off. The only downside is the wooden pedal feel if you actually do need to apply said middle pedal. This could use a tweak.
Nissan’s fan-dangled ProPilot suite offers claimed single-lane autonomy. But forget the nice marketing, it’s just a package of lane-departure prevention that can control the steering if lane markings are clear, and adaptive cruise control that brings the car to a halt, and keeps it there until you hit a button on the steering wheel.
Still, this Level 2 autonomous tech package felt as deft as those in much pricier BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes on our brief Tokyo test drive, and we would point out that Nissan has been at the pointy end of driverless car research for a long time now – even if it's mostly only emerged in concept form compared to the Germans. We'll wait to drive it locally...
Finally there’s a ProPilot parking system that controls throttle, braking and steering to put the car into parallel or perpendicular bays all by itself. All you have to do is hold a button and thanks to the car’s four high-res cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors, it parked us just fine, albeit slowly.
Along with all this, the Leaf gets AEB, blind-spot monitoring, a 360-degree overhead camera, a system designed to prevent accidental pedal misapplication from actually causing harm in most cases (Nissan actually cited Japan's ageing population as its motivator), cross-traffic alert and traffic sign recognition cameras and data processors.
From a ride and handling perspective, the Leaf’s revised legacy platform limits any hope of hot hatch dynamism, though for urban driving the light steering (feel-free despite new software and stiffer steering torsion bar) and silent drivetrain are ideal, even if the latter merely maximises road roar from tyres and wind.
Heavy components including the battery are placed in the centre of the body and low, to improve stability. The rear bump stops are now rubber not urethane, though honestly on our test loop we only encountered marble-smooth roads. Though we can’t imagine it’s less at home on patchy extra-urban surfaces than the skinny-tyred and sometimes-graceless BMW i3…
What do you think of the design? It’s certainly more conventional than before, likely more capable of appealing to a mainstream audience, less polarising than the i3, probably not as classically chic as a Renault Zoe. Though the plethora of bright colours are hit/miss. Dark red, yes. Bright yellow, eurgh.
It is inspired by the IDS Concept car from the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, albeit very toned-down, which is a shame. There’s a similar brand-signature V-Motion grille, boomerang light array and ‘floating’ (contrast-painted) roof.
The body also has a slippery 0.28 coefficient-of-drag rating thanks to a roof and floor that direct air flow to converge behind and away from the car’s tail, while the angle of the charging port at the front has been reconfigured for greater convenience, letting the customer connect the charging cable without bending down.
“The philosophy behind the exterior design was to express clean and simple lines and a robust and sleek silhouette, creating the feeling of a high-tech device,” Nissan claims. In case you were interested.
The Leaf’s cabin belies the car’s Mazda 3-rivalling dimensions thanks to the floor design and high roof, comfortably seating four adults. The battery mounting point also allows a deep boot with a huge 435-litre capacity, albeit at the expense of any type of spare wheel – though Australia will likely pick up a space-saver spare as an option, as it should.
There’s a new infotainment screen with simple menus and belated Apple CarPlay integration is Nissan’s finest to date, while its NissanConnect integration system lets you look for continuously updated information such as the location and operating hours of free charging stations and charging station availability.
Owners can also use their smartphone to check the car’s battery status and switch on the air conditioning, heating and charging process remotely.
On a side note, we played with a working trial version of a new Nissan app on a kind Japanese engineer’s phone, that lets you keep an eye on all of your car’s data by pulling it from an Alliance cloud server, and found it way more intuitive than BMW’s i app.
The instruments ahead of you also come complemented by a TFT digital display with a range of sub-menus, including ones that show what the battery pack and motor are doing in real-time. We also dig the button placement and the little gear shifter/knob.
Less ideal are the hard plastics everywhere that feel far from premium, though in fairness this is a common Japanese design ethos, and the lack of telescopic steering column adjustment that really waters down what are otherwise excellent ergonomics.
Our tester was fitted with one notably cool option: a camera display in the rear-view mirror housing that shows you what’s behind no matter what’s in the cabin. We loved it, though some people we spoke with didn’t. Try before you buy.
On the topic of buying, here’s one major sticking point. The Leaf is now in sale in Japan, and will roll out across 60 countries worldwide in the short term.
Yet because Australia is miles behind Europe, the US and even China in EV market penetration – thanks in part to a government that looks at subsidising green energy in amateurish fashion, according to one former Nissan Australia exec we know — we’re way down the pecking order.
When can we have the Leaf locally? Potentially as a Christmas present. In 2018. More than a year from now. When it will be priced at up to $50,000. Sure, that’s $15k cheaper than the BMW i3, but it’s also not a projected price point that will change the game.
All that said, provided Nissan offers good buyer support – dealer charging stations, home wall-boxes, engaged dealers – it’s in pole position to remain an EV leader both here and internationally for the time being.
The new Leaf is not the paradigm shift that the first one was, and it’ll need to keep improving in terms of driving range, cabin layout and partial autonomy if it’s to match the next crop of rivals launching around 2020. But credit to Nissan where’s it’s due. Just keep the momentum…