Like it or not, electric vehicles are the future, or at least our immediate future. The Nissan Leaf is the first we will see that has been designed from the ground up without an internal combustion engine in mind. Steve takes a trip in a hatchback to the future...
It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the hype surrounding our burgeoning electric vehicle market. Fast forward to 2013 and BMW will have launched its new i-series EVs, Mitsubishi will have entered Pikes Peak with a full EV and will be introducing another electric-powered small car based on the Colt-replacing ‘concept small’ vehicle, and even Ferrari will be readying the brand’s first hybrid. Meanwhile, Nissan’s Leaf electric vehicle will either be considered the token corporate greenery of choice or an overpriced compact hatchback. I’d argue it’s both.
Unlike the Mitsubishi offerings, Nissan’s first fully electric vehicle for the global market is a vehicle designed from the ground up without an internal combustion engine in mind. This isn’t the first vehicle to be designed in such a way, fully electric personal transport is actually centuries old - the first vehicle to crack 100km/h was electrically powered. Nissan has been tinkering with EVs now for two decades, so it has a good handle on the technology.
Key to modern EV applicability is not motor technology - finding a high voltage, alternating current motor capable of spinning the Leaf’s 16” wheels is easy - it’s all about power supply. New Zealand is lucky, the majority of our electricity production is generated sustainably by hydro-dams. Unlike countries dependent on coal power stations, this means we’re ahead of the eight ball before we start to plug cars in, rather than fill them up. But the other side of that dilemma is a compact and suitably powerful method of storing energy inside the car. The answer, currently, is Lithium Ion batteries.
The Leaf has 48 of them. The battery pack, located under the floor, to maximise occupant and luggage space while also maintaining a low centre of gravity and increasing body rigidity, consists of those 48 modules, each one individually diagnosable with specific workshop equipment and replaceable for improved life. Nissan suggests the battery will retain 80% capacity after 10 years.
Lithium ion delivers a far higher output over a traditional lead acid battery - 80kW of power is delivered to the 280Nm motor without adding tonnes of weight.
At best, the Leaf offers just a 170km range in between charges (via 8-hour charges overnight at home, or as regional infrastructure allows, 30 min, three-phase quick charges). This will make it a very tough sell, even to the most eco-friendly motorist, when it hits the market next year. The technology is expensive as it is (no pricing has been released yet, but expect the Leaf to be around $60k), hence it being more relevant for businesses keen to be portrayed as caring greenies, rather than cost effective family transport. That’s to be expected however; all technology starts out expensive. It’s development and ongoing reductions in cost are driven by early adopter sales and the good news is, while oil-based energy is becoming more expensive, electric energy is becoming more affordable.
Also to be expected are the weird, futuristic looks, but beneath the styling, the 95% recyclable Leaf is pleasingly every bit as normal as a Qashqui. Luggage capacity is very acceptable, five adults can sit inside comfortably, there’s five-star safety and you can connect your phone and iPod, thanks to that ground up EV build philosophy, there is no compromise to the interior space. While the range performance has, er, a long way to go, acceleration is a suitable rival for the typical compact hatch offerings. In fact ,if this was a two-litre petrol car acceleration would be arguably class-leading.
From outside the vehicle there’s a faint artificially-generated hum that’s made louder at lower speeds for the benefit of the blind, that relatively silent and potent performance where peak torque is developed instantly is more than just a novelty.
I quite like it. But like moist Kiwis, I won’t be buying one. My mileage requirements exceed what EVs are currently capable of, for now the whole of life costs of an affordable petrol hatchback make more sense and unlike a corporate with a big fleet, I have no need for buying and flouting my environmental credentials. Make no mistake, you’re looking at the future and Nissan’s Leaf EV is the least compromised yet. But for now, I’m OK plundering the Earth’s resources and still having money to eat, thanks.