With the exception of the locally conceptualised Joule, mention of electric vehicles (or EV’s as they’re commonly known) is almost unheard of in South Africa. But that’s all about to change with the imminent arrival of the Nissan LEAF – a vehicle that won European Car of the Year in 2011 for its ground breaking innovation in EV technologies.
I, along with a few other lucky journalists, was privileged enough to be handed the keys to a LEAF for a quick spin before the vehicles attend to COP-17 delegates over the course of the climate conference in Durban.
I will admit I held a fair number of reservations about the credentials of EV’s – revolving around the stigma of big, cumbersome, inefficient batteries that can’t hold enough juice to get you round the block, never mind to work and back on a daily commute.
Lucky then that I have relatively small feet, because they found their way to my mouth rather quickly. The batteries come from the Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC), a joint venture between Nissan and electronics giant NEC Corporation. The breakthrough battery pack has the capacity to store twice as much energy as older technology would allow – which translates into a range of approximately 160km.
Global studies show that 80% of people don’t drive more than 100km in the average daily commute – making the LEAF an ideal runabout for the “eco-minded” consumer. In fact, it is ideal for any consumer, because not only are you being kinder to the environment, you’re saving money with every kilometre. Anyone who can’t see the upside to that should have been dealt with by natural selection already.
The numbers are in fact quite simple. The batteries hold 20kWh (kilowatt hours), which at an approximate Eskom rate of 82cents per kWh equates to less than R20 for 160km. In the average car petrol costs for the same distance would be somewhere around R160. You do the math.
The LEAF is powered by an in-house developed compact electric motor, sat where your normal combustion engine would go. The AC motor develops 80 kW and 280 Nm, enough for a maximum speed of 145 km/h and a 0-100km/h time of just over 10 seconds – and doesn’t produce any emissions.
With numbers like those the usability of the LEAF cannot be questioned, especially around town. There’s a surreal sort of entertainment value when you push the start button and hear absolutely nothing. The only indication that you’re ready to be off is a green light on the instrument panel.
Prod the throttle and the bizarre sensations continue as a torrent of silent torque is immediately available, allowing the vehicle to gather momentum with absolute ease. Power delivery is silky smooth too thanks to the fact that the LEAF has just one gear. Even at highway speeds it feels responsive enough that you don’t feel exposed in faster traffic – but be warned, rapid overtaking does come at the expense of the vehicle’s range.
As the LEAF was developed as an EV from day one, on a completely new platform, there is no compromise to the vehicle’s dynamics. The batteries are positioned very low down, under the seats, for better weight distribution and a low centre of gravity. There is very little body roll when cornering and the steering is quick and accurate with fairly good feedback on offer. Aside from the silent propulsion there’s no indication you aren’t behind the wheel of any other Focus-size hatch back.
Being relatively conventional in its layout, the cabin is bright and airy and all the materials have a quality feel, as do the various knobs, buttons and switches. The LEAF is fully equipped with features such as regenerating braking, air conditioning, satellite navigation and a parking camera. The clever bit is Nissan’s Connected Mobility, which includes the ability to send the car’s charging status to your mobile phone, or be used to remotely engage the air conditioning or heater. The only feature that isn’t standard is a solar panel mounted in the rear spoiler.
As the driver you are subject to an immense amount of information from the onboard computer – most useful of which is how much energy is being used by the motor, air conditioner and other ancillaries, all separately. What is incredible is how the availability of this information motivates you to drive more carefully. In fact, with Connected Mobility you’re in a permanent “eco” competition with other LEAF drivers around the world – so if you’re anything like me you’ll have your LEAF stroking baby polar bears if it gets you on top of the leader board.
All in all the LEAF is a superb town car with the ability to transport a whole family in perfect comfort. While the limited range makes it a nonsensical prospect as an only car, think of it as a second car and it becomes a proposition that is enormously favourable.
* Availability in South Africa is subject to various negotiations, with current expectations pointing to a 2013 launch.