The Nissan LEAF is a spacious yet compact family car, similar in size to a Ford Focus, Toyota Prius or Volkswagen Golf. I have one as my personal car.
Nissan have worked hard to create a car that can be compared with more conventional family cars in terms of ride, handling, refinement, interior space and features, yet with the benefits of electric propulsion and at a price that compares with comparable models from other manufacturers.
By and large, they have succeeded. I have driven a number of LEAFs over the past few years and now own one as my daily family car. I am always impressed with how easy they are to drive, with the performance and with the ambience of the interior.
I am not the only one to be impressed. The car was voted European Car of the Year 2011 by a panel of fifty automotive journalists and subsequently won World Car of the Year Award in April 2011. The car was updated in 2013, incorporating an improved battery management system, faster charging and faster home battery charging.
Nissan updated the car in mid 2013 with a mild interior update, an improved range and amendments to trim levels. The official range of the LEAF is 124 miles (198km) on the latest model and 115 miles ( 184km) on the earlier car. Real world range does not match these claims, however, and a more likely range is 60-70 miles at motorway speeds, 65-80 miles on single carriageway roads or 90-100 miles driving around town. Charging up from a fast charger takes around thirty minutes, while a home charger allows the car to be charged from flat to full in around 3½ hours on the latest model, or around 7 hours on the earlier cars.
Unless you go for the top of the range model, the earlier cars were better equipped. The batteries were sold as part of the car, whereas with the latest version Nissan offer the choice of either buying the car with the batteries outright, or buying the car and leasing the batteries. This latter option reduces initial the purchase price of the car, but may make it more difficult to sell your car later on.
With the latest models, the rapid charging facility is not included in base model Nissan LEAFs. Depending on whether there are rapid charging points in your area and how you use your car, this could be a significant drawback of the lower priced models. Older, pre-2013 cars all have the rapid charging facility fitted as standard.
Sitting inside the car for the first time, the first thing you notice is that the floor is slightly higher than you expect. This is because the batteries are fitted underneath the floor and the result is a feeling that you are sitting in the wrong position. As a consequence, several drivers have said that it can take a few minutes to get used to this high floor. Yet once you have adjusted yourself to the car it feels very comfortable indeed, with supportive seats and plenty of head-room and leg-room.
Rear passenger leg-room and head-room is reasonable, but not great. The high floor and the tapering roofline means that the car is comfortable enough for people up to 6 foot (183cm) in height, but very tall people will find the rear space in the car rather cramped. Surprisingly, the much smaller Mitsubishi i-MiEV has much more rear leg-room and head-room than the Nissan LEAF.
It is always fun watching somebody drive off in an electric car when they haven't experienced one before, and that experience is even more entertaining in the LEAF. Many people think that electric cars are little more than golf buggies or tiny city cars. The LEAF is so different to that stereotype: many people do not know what to expect. One motoring journalist told me that on his first drive he felt as though he was piloting a spaceship rather than driving a car! The power, the silence and the light-coloured airy interior combine to make it a very different first experience to most other cars.
In many ways, the LEAF is an 'ordinary' car: the quality of interior fittings is reasonable, ride and handling is reasonable, interior space is reasonable. In none of those areas is the car class-leading. There are a few areas, however, where the car excels: performance, ease-of-use and noise levels.
The electric motor produces a comparable amount of torque to a 2½ litre V6 engine. That makes for rapid and instant acceleration the moment you put your foot on the accelerator. The very smooth power curve makes for enjoyable driving, with enough power to safely overtake other cars, should you wish, and the acceleration continues all the way up to an indicated 99mph (159km/h).
The LEAF is very easy to use. The visibility, light steering and excellent turning circle makes the car easy to drive through town. On the negative side, the interior plastics feel cheap and the instrumentation is a little confusing to take in at first.
The range meter on the LEAF, that tells the driver how far you can drive before you run out of charge changes rapidly depending on how you are driving and the terrain you are driving over. It errs on the side of optimistic: an estimated 100 mile range can quickly drop to 70 or 80 after just a mile or two of driving. Most owners report that the range meter tends to over-estimate the remaining range by 10-15%.
Nissan have worked hard to make the LEAF as quiet as possible on the inside, while incorporating an electronic sound on the outside when the car is travelling at walking pace to warn pedestrians that there is a car on the move.
In a conventional car, the noise of the engine masks wind noise, road noise, noise from the brakes and the windscreen wipers. In an electric car, the lack of engine noise makes these other sounds more obvious. Nissan have tried to ensure these other noises are suppressed too. The result is a very quiet interior, making for a very relaxing driving experience. The LEAF is quite possibly the quietest car in the world. When travelling at 40mph (65km/h) with the windows down, you can hear the birds singing as you drive along.
Nissan have incorporated a number of interesting gadgets into the car. Owners can use an iPhone or Android phone to 'talk' to the car and check the available range, or to switch on the heating or air conditioning remotely. Inside the car, the information display shows your remaining range, while the satellite navigation system also shows you your range as a radius from where you are now, and shows all the charging-points that are on or near your route.
The official range of the car, based on the European NEDC tests, is 124 miles (200km). The official range based on the more realistic United States EPA tests is 75 miles (121km). In a series of real world driving tests carried out for The Electric Car Guide book, the test car recorded a range of 98 miles in city centre driving, 82 miles on an urban/extra urban test route, 74 miles on cross-country roads and 69 miles on dual carriageways and motorways.
The rapid charge facility is excellent, using the widely available CHAdeMO charging system. In the United Kingdom, these charging stations are situated at every motorway service station and in many city centres, allowing the car to be charged up from flat to full in around 30 minutes. Owners can check on the charge status remotely via a mobile phone application, and even switch on the heating or air conditioning from their phone before returning to their car.
In summary, the LEAF is a very impressive car. Cheaper to buy and better equipped than a Toyota Prius, it can be justified as a wise choice even if you are not particularly interested in electric cars. If you want a compact family car and you are happy with the range, the LEAF should definitely be on your list of cars to try.
The Electric Car Guides are the definitive series on electric car ownership and use. They are available from Amazon and all good book retailers.
Now available, the Electric Car Guide to the Nissan LEAF is the ultimate buyer's guide to the world's most popular electric car. It explains what you need to know about owning and using a Nissan LEAF. How you can charge it for free whilst out and about and how a nationwide network of fast charging points now means a Nissan LEAF could be the best choice as your next car.
Printed in full colour, the book includes road tests, range tests and reviews from other owners.
Click on your flag below to buy a copy of The Electric Car Guide: Nissan LEAF today: