Gareth Butterfield spends a week in the all-electric Nissan Leaf
IF electric cars are the future then this, the Nissan Leaf, is a taste of it. I’ve driven lots of electric cars, and they’re often a bit weird and wonderful but here’s one that looks entirely conventional and blends in as if it was any other car.
It’s also the best-selling electric vehicle in Europe. But what is it like to live with an electric car in 2019? And is it possible to live with one in a rural area with barely any charging points?
The lovely people at Nissan were happy to let me put this to the test and offered to send me one for a week.
Normally, when someone sends me something powered solely by electricity, it arrives on the back of a truck. So I was surprised when a man turned up at my house having driven up from Oxfordshire to deliver it. “I’ll be needing to plug it in then”, I suggested to him as he got out to hand me the keys. He shrugged and, as if it hadn’t been a consideration to him at all, glanced at the battery meter and pointed out it had 51% left in it.
It appears Nissan doesn’t worry too much about range. Hopefully, this means I won’t need to either. I parked it up and went back to work, wondering how far 51% would get me and whether it would last the week.
MY first journey in the Leaf was an early morning trip to take the wife to work. It’s only a mile and-a-half and it’s mostly through a town, so it’s natural territory for an “EV”. Pulling away in complete silence is something motorists are getting quite accustomed to these days, now that hybrids are almost as common as diesel cars. But having no engine running at all, even at speed and under load, still takes some getting used to.
Speaking of load, one of the first things that surprises you about the Leaf is the amount of power it has. With no gears, and a flat torque curve from its electric motors, it sprints off the line at an alarming pace. Honestly, from 20mph to 40mph I doubt there are many fossil-fuel cars on the road that would keep up. From a standing start it’s seriously quick and the acceleration only starts to fizzle out around 60mph. I’ve driven Teslas before, so I know how quick electric cars can be, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it from such a normal-looking, mainstream car.
Picking the wife up later that day I had chance to take a good look round the interior while waiting at her office. It’s remarkably conventional. There’s some cheap plastics about but generally it feels nicely put together and all the controls work well. There’s an odd, futuristic gear selecting nob, and a screen on the instrument binnacle giving you information about the battery and range and so on, but apart from that it’s all very normal. That’s disappointing in a way.
TODAY I have time to give the Leaf a proper drive. Leaping off the line a few times yesterday and taking the neighbour out for a quick spin has wreaked havoc with my range, so I’m down to 42% – but by turning air-con off and putting it in Eco mode it suggests I’ve got nearly 100 miles. So I feel like I’m safe to hit the road.
The trouble is, I don’t really like Eco mode. And it’s a hot day so I’m definitely not going to turn the air-con off. As a result, my range plummets extremely quickly.
The range indicator works by dynamically monitoring what you’re doing and how you’re driving. So it’s possible to preserve it pretty well by taking it steady, using the fierce but clever regenerative braking and watching your throttle inputs carefully on the instrument display.
But the trouble with all that, is the Leaf is surprisingly entertaining to drive. Sure, it’s a heavy thing, but I’m genuinely surprised by its fine road manners and sure-footedness.
By the time I get back home I’m down to 7% battery power and my range is “worrying”. So I plug it into the wall using the supplied household charging lead. I check it an hour later and it’s gained just 4%. This is going to be a long job.
I TAKE the Leaf off charge before I drive the wife to work this morning and notice my charge has only risen to 82%. That’s good for 180-odd miles, but it clearly takes a long time to charge up on a 3kw plug. Of course, if you owned a Leaf, you’d be mad not to have someone install a proper charger at home which would drastically reduce your charge times, but I haven’t got one of those, so I’ll have to make do with the slow way.
I’ve also noticed, if I’ve worked this out correctly, that it’s cost me about £7 to charge it up overnight. That might seem like a lot, but if you think of how far I could potentially go on such a small amount of money it compares well to the cost of petrol.
I’m not going far in the car today, so I decide not to charge it at home when I get back from the wife’s office. Besides, later this evening I’m going to meet a friend at a pub which has a charging point, so I might as well wait to top it up.
Driving sedately to the pub doesn’t make much of a dent at all in my range. I’ve only lost a few percent and barely any miles, but when I get there the pub’s car park is so busy that one of the only two bays for electric vehicles is taken up by a diesel Astra. This sort of inconsideration could really trip up an electric car user if they were desperate for some juice.
So with a deliberately cross look on my face I pop into the boot to pull out the other lead, which plugs into a separate socket in the car and fits the reasonably universal socket on the wall. Nothing happens. The car’s not charging. After a bit of reading up, I realise I don’t have an account with the company that supplies the charging unit to the pub. I could have faffed about signing up, but there was a cold drink waiting for me so I decide to abandon the plan. I left it plugged in though. Just so the Astra driver would realise the error of his ways when he returned.
I CHARGED the leaf overnight at home again last night, so it’s full. I’ve got 235 miles to play with, apparently. And my only journey today is to pick up some friends from the station in Derby. From Ashbourne that’s just shy of 20 miles each way and I watch my range closely, driving as carefully as I can.
Remarkably, by using the clever “E-pedal”, which regeneratively brakes as soon as you lift off, and by feathering the throttle, I’ve only used four miles of range driving to Derby.
I didn’t do so well on the way back. I might have been showing its addictive acceleration off a bit and there were five people and their luggage in the car, so I arrive back having used 45 miles altogether. It’s not bad, though, considering I could have been more restrained and I might have even seen a net gain. Sort of.
The Leaf goes back tomorrow and Nissan asks for 50% power to ensure the driver can get it back to base. So I’ve got energy to burn for my last drive out in it. While pootling around the rural lanes near to my house I ponder whether the Leaf would actually work for me. Financially, I think it would. The entry price for a basic Leaf, once the Government has chipped in its £3,500 grant, is just under £28,000. And even the basic Leaf compares favourably in specification to a top-spec Vauxhall Astra – which could, in theory, have you knocking on the door of £30,000. It’s not quite that simple, I grant you but the price comparisons come closer than you think once you start looking at premium hatchbacks.
And then there’s the running costs. Based on my average mileage I wouldn’t save a lot. But someone doing 60 miles every day or more would save a fortune. And then there’s the cheaper servicing costs. Electric cars have fewer moving parts, of course.
There’s other factors though. Depreciation could be pretty sharp on a Leaf, until we learn to trust the longevity of batteries. And if, like me you do regular 120 mile jaunts to see the in-laws, you’d want a little more range just to make it comfortable.
You’ll also need to be fortunate enough to have a driveway and a charging point. If you live in a flat and you can’t charge an electric car at work, you might as well forget it.
But this week I set out to find out what it was like to live with an electric car in a rural area. And I found that, surprisingly, it really isn’t that different to living with an internal combustion car.
Range anxiety is becoming less of a problem. And, if you plan ahead and set out your motoring agenda differently it’s not something you’ll have to think about at all.
Beyond that, it’s just like driving any other car. It’s quieter, a lot faster and supposedly better for the environment, but popping to work in a Leaf is no different to popping to work in a Vauxhall. And I know which one I’d rather be driving.
So, really, the Nissan Leaf isn’t just a taste of the future, it’s a full meal with the starter dessert thrown in for good measure.