Nissan was the first mainstream manufacturer to bring a high-quality, viable, practical electric car to Britain. Less than a decade later, the choice has grown rapidly – Nissan is just one of the players in this small but growing segment, and we can now compare the Leaf to a number of excellent rivals.
Electric cars represent a tiny proportion of all cars sold, and an even smaller percentage of cars on the road. But for buyers who have practical access to charging facilities, their negligible running costs and reduced environmental impact make them an extremely attractive choice.
We're driving the 2018 Leaf, the second-generation car. It's a five-door hatchback with a 40kWh battery. Please bear in mind that an improved version of this car, which offers around 60kWh and a commensurate increase in driving range, will be launched later this year.
Our car: Nissan Leaf 'Tekna' with 40kWh battery
List price when new: £28,390
Optional extras fitted: Metallic paint (£575), ProPilot self-parking system (£1,090)
Price as tested: £30,055
June 13, 2018
The arrival of a new long-term test car is normally quite enjoyable, but not on this occasion. It was the end of a fairly long week, which had been further lengthened by several successive late evenings in the office and the hum of low-level stress. It was 9pm by the time I got to the car park and, after walking through Victoria while trying to carry too much stuff, I just wanted to get home.
So the poor Nissan Leaf that had been deposited a few hours previously didn’t get the initial thorough inspection ritual that most of our long-termers receive when they arrive. That could wait until daylight. Instead, it got two exhausted people dollop themselves unceremoniously inside it, before grumpily complaining about its most immediately apparent faults.
“Is that as far as the seat goes back?” grumbled my relatively tall girlfriend. “Zero stars from me…”
I had a similar reaction to the lack of steering wheel adjustment. I’m 6’4” and while I found the seat position fine, I’d have liked a bit more reach. The Leaf’s steering wheel only tilts, which is surprising in a car that costs this much. It also makes an incredibly irritating beeping noise when the door is open, which I know is a characteristic of Japanese design but is still immensely unwelcome. The result was that we set off stressed, and in a slightly bad mood.
But the Nissan Leaf is an electric car. They move almost silently, wafting around with a sort of effortless grace; there’s something almost therapeutic about driving an EV in town, and for all its foibles (and bad first impressions) the Leaf was a calming antidote to a busy day. I’ve never been averse to driving internal combustion cars with manual transmissions through London, but the simplicity of the Leaf’s powertrain makes it a delight on the capital’s crowded streets.
That’s not to say that electric cars are entirely stress-free, of course. Nissan dropped the car off with its battery 89 percent full, which the dashboard said would give me 166 miles of range. Roughly an hour later, having driven 10.6 miles at an average speed of 12mph, the battery was down to 81 percent and the computer reckoned I had 143 miles left.
That came as a bit of a shock. I’d lost 23 miles of estimated range over the course of just ten real-world miles, which makes me question the validity of the number on the dashboard. To what extent should I believe it? How many of the ‘remaining’ 143 miles will materialise? At this rate, there’s probably only around 70 miles left in the battery - that can’t be right, surely?
I’m going to take a longer journey on what remains of the battery. Several, in fact, considering I’m a fairly high-mileage driver and I’ll be living with this thing for the foreseeable. First impressions count for a lot, and at the moment I can’t help feeling that the Nissan Leaf is a slightly uncomfortable, expensive car which is inconvenient to refuel. But the whole point of a long-term test is the ability to piece together a thorough verdict over several months – and not over the first ten miles.
July 16, 2018
A perennial response to electric cars is uncertainty about the provenance of the electricity that charges them up. Where does it come from, what fuel is used, and how environmentally damaging is its generation?
These are all fair questions, so I’ll look into them in very basic terms. At the time of writing (not June 16th) the UK’s electricity is derived from a number of sources. Half of it (49.37 per cent) is from gas, a fifth of it (20.47 per cent) is from nuclear reactors, and just over a tenth (11.86 per cent) is from solar. Around a 20th (5.58 per cent) is from France’s largely nuclear surplus, arriving in Kent via undersea cables.
The remainder includes coal (1.55 per cent) wind (1.64 per cent) pumped hydroelectric (1.36 per cent) hydroelectric (0.22 per cent) biomass (6.02 per cent) and a small input from the Dutch (1.86 per cent). That means that the total renewable contribution to the grid, including wind, hydroelectric and solar, is approximately 13 per cent.
I’m personally rather cheered by the idea of a nuclear-powered hatchback, even more so by the notion that some of the electricity I’m using to get around was generated in Fessenheim. But I’m also conscious that my supposedly zero-emission car still relies on fossil fuels for propulsion, and while natural gas is one of the cleanest types, its inclusion in Britain’s energy mosaic means I still release a surprising amount of Co2 per mile.
It’s possible to do a crude calculation here. Gas electricity generation produces roughly 500g of Co2 per kWh. If a kWh takes me 3.6 miles, as it did on my most recent commute, and half of the car’s charge is derived from gas, that’s about 70g of gas-related Co2 per mile, which is about 44g/km of Co2.
That’s… not brilliant. It doesn’t justify the Leaf’s much higher RRP or the faff associated with ownership, and that's before taking into account the wider Co2 costs. Obviously any calculation of this nature is a simplifcation, but the issue is very real: while the Leaf emits nothing at the tailpipe, there’s a great deal of pollution emerging elsewhere to drive its wheels.
I’m optimistic that I can bring my miles-per-kWh figure down, however. And of course, a bright, blustery day will do wonders for my Co2 g/km - as the national grid ebbs and flows to and from renewables like solar and wind, so too does my Leaf. It’s not a perfect system, and to call these cars “zero-emission” is, I think, a trifle misleading. But there’s a lot to be said for the progress being made, and the cleanliness of my car at the tailpipe is certainly important at a local level.
August 1, 2018
Electric cars demand a lot more effort from their owners than internal combustion vehicles do. Everybody knows this, but the true extent to which plug-in battery cars can become a chore has made itself apparent over the past few weeks, thanks to a number of irksome incidents and general EV inconveniences which have caused strife in the household.
The first occurred a few Saturdays ago when, anticipating a regular 65-mile journey the following morning, I plugged the Leaf in to a shared residential charging point. The battery had been depleted to just 44 miles' predicted range after several short outings, and there were no convenient chargers on the route. An overnight charge, I reasoned, would be enough to get me to my destination, and possibly even back again – a round trip of around 130 miles.
Alas, electric car ownership is never that simple. The charge didn't actually give me a full battery. Instead it added some energy, giving me a predicted range of around 70-odd miles, but falling far short of a complete tankful. I discovered this as I was preparing to depart on Sunday morning, with no other cars available to me. Frustrating, to say the least. I could use stronger language.
My choice was simple. Cancel my Sunday plans because I have an electric car, or embark on a motorway journey with just five miles' anticipated margin for error in the battery. I altered my route to take me past a slow charger I knew would be operational and available, sent an apologetic text explaining that I might be around an hour late, and set off into the scorching sun without the air conditioning on.
After the initial problems with charging, I reached my destination with an ample nine miles left in the tank. I promptly plugged it in and, sweatily, retreated indoors to complain about it.
But the car hasn't moved since. I'll go and collect it at some point, but it's been a mild disappointment – quite an acute disappointment at times, really – since it arrived. I like electric car technology but an optimistic claimed range and a general lack of charging infrastructure in the places I need to drive make it an annoying thing to own. I'm bored with changing plans to suit my car.
September 16, 2018
It's easy to take internal combustion for granted. I spend a lot of time driving to, from and around Europe for work and for fun, and I've never had to worry about whether there'll be petrol where I'm headed. I've never had to worry how I'll pay for petrol, either, nor whether there'll be a petrol station open on my route. Petrol is for sale everywhere, it takes thirty seconds to top up a tank, and I can pay for it with money.
Not so with an electric car. Tomorrow afternoon I quite want to be in Koblenz, a beautiful German city around six hours' drive from Calais. If I were to take a conventional or hybrid car I could leave tomorrow morning and be there in time for lunch, probably factoring in a ten-minute splash-and-dash around Maastricht. I'd then leave my car in the hotel car park until I needed to come back to England. But having an electric car makes this whole plan almost impossible.
For starters, our Polar network card doesn't work in Europe. I phoned Newmotion to ask about their coverage but they didn't even pick up the phone (so much for a 24 hour customer service line) and trying to find free charging points in three different languages is a huge waste of my afternoon. I've been advised to sign up to as many networks in the relevant countries as possible but, with sign-up fees of around £20 per company and a long wait for a card to be delivered, this costs money and time I just don't have.
October 13, 2018
It's fair to say that our experience with the Nissan Leaf has been a negative one. We've found it a frustrating machine to live with, largely because it's such a faff to keep it charged up, and while we've enjoyed the driving experience (quiet, swift, pleasant) it's just not been suitable for what we need it for.
And that's the rub. Electric cars are, largely, pretty fantastic now. Alongside the Leaf there's Hyundai's Kona, Kia's e-Niro, BMW's i3 and Jaguar's i-Pace, all of which we'd heartily recommend to those whose lifestyles can accommodate them. But while we've given these models glowing reviews, that doesn't mean that they're appropriate for everybody.