5.1.2017Smiling and sideways in a Nissan Leaf
Despite EVs being around for a number of years now, there is still a bit of a stigma around them as boring cars with all the desirability of a milk float, but with less load space. It's an idea that is fundamentally untrue, so Nissan decided that it was time to try and change it.
To make its point, the Japanese company decided that it would invite a number of journalists out to Milan to drive the Nissan Leaf both around the beautiful surrounding roads, and also on the closed tracks at a local proving grounds. Tempting these motoring hacks in was an email titled 'Come drift a Leaf in Italy'. Suffice to say that it caught said writers hook, line, and sinker.
After travelling out to Italy and arriving at the venue on a crisp and clear winter's day, the first task for me to undertake was to drive the Leaf 30 kWh up to Lake Como for a bit of a look about, some coffee, and a taste of the Italian Lakes - it's a tough job but someone has to do it.
Naturally the Leaf was impeccably behaved on the autostrada, and with the briefing that the EV's don't have to be dull, we tackled the twisty lakeside roads with gusto. Nissan would be first to admit that the Leaf is not exactly sporty, but it was refreshing to drive a Leaf without having a part of your brain thinking about how much charge you have left, and whether you should really be using as much throttle as you are.
Despite the Leaf being no sportscar, there are certain similarities present. Before I get slated for giving the Leaf ideas above its station, it offers instant acceleration thanks to its electric motor, and the Leaf's centre of gravity is very low because of the battery pack placed in the car's floor. This means that both short bursts of acceleration and handling in corners are better than many conventionally fuelled rivals.
It's not lightning quick, but the Leaf responds well when driven with purpose, and despite few drivers ever really getting to test the electric Nissan out, there is a surprising amount of fun to be had when the conditions allow.
Of course the fully charged Leaf 30 kWh had more than enough in hand to deal with some motorway cruising, pottering around Lake Como, and a bit of A-Road driving. The route covered around 50 miles in total, so we didn't need to keep an eye on the range at all which helped.
Returning to base, we then changed cars to another Leaf. This wasn't because of the need to recharge since there was plenty of range left. Rather these new cars had special 'skid-socks' fitted to the rear wheels. These are hard plastic covers that surround the rear tyres, significantly reducing grip.
It's the same idea as putting a couple of trays under the rear wheels of a car in an empty car park, putting the handbrake on, and having a bit of a spin (literally), for those of you with a misspent youth.
Our situation was rather more controlled than that though, as we were on two specially designed skid pans, one a conventional circle which we had to try and maintain a constant radius and slide, and the other a slalom with 'walls' of water that shot up which we had to try and drift around.
There is basically no information I can provide about the driving experience that will be relevant for drivers in every day conditions. Direct comparison is largely useless since nobody takes to soaking wet, low-friction roads having first made sure that 50% of their tyres don't grip anything. It sounds like a bizarre set up, and not the 'done thing' in an EV - but that's the point.
It was immense fun trying to tame the car into doing what you wanted, and it did also give an insight as to what can be achieved in a Leaf. That low centre of gravity mentioned before means the response from the steering is quick for a car not designed to be sporty.
There isn't a large amount of weight high up to shift first, so when you need to put in a dab of oppo (there are very few occasions I will be able to write that phrase on Next Green Car), the Leaf responds far quicker than you might expect. Likewise, with trying to maintain the drifts, you had to try and maintain a fairly constant speed, driving on the throttle. With the instant torque of the electric motor, it was very responsive to this type of driving style.
Once I had tried and largely failed to get the Leaf to bend to my commands in the soaking wet - a reflection on my shortcomings rather than the car's - we were taken on a number of hot laps around a short track by Nissan GT Academy 2015 winner Romain Sarazin.
He cheated and had a completely dry track to play with, but the speed and sideways nature of his laps proved that the Leaf can be excellent fun, even for those expert drivers.
Suffice to say, the day put a huge smile on everyone's faces, proving the Leaf's capabilities as an enjoyable car to drive. These circumstances will not be experienced by 99.9% of Leaf drivers, but it is worth bearing in mind when driving an EV that it doesn't all need to be about maintaining range or getting the lowest kW/100km figures.
The majority of EV journeys are comfortably covered by an electric car's range, so when conditions are safe and the mood takes, remember to test out the theory that EVs can be fun to drive.