22.3.2018Nissan LEAF 40kWh first drive
As the first second-generation EV to make it to production, the Nissan LEAF 40kWh is a pretty big deal in the plug-in car market. With more refined styling, a boost in motor power, and of course the headline larger capacity battery, the LEAF 40kWh certainly has plenty of promise. We attended the UK press launch in Scotland to see how that promise stacks up in the real-world.
Review by Chris Lilly
As mentioned, the new LEAF 40kWh has a more powerful electric motor, up from the 80 kW offered by the out-going model to 110 kW. That added power brings a welcome boost to performance, with the 0-62 mph time completed in 7.9 seconds, before topping out at 89 mph. What that means in reality is that the new LEAF 40kWh feels nippy if not fast. The instant torque of an electric motor gives plenty of shove off the line, and quick but smooth pick up in town conditions. On the open road, the LEAF 40kWh easily keeps pace with traffic, but never accelerates with the same gumption at speed as when pottering about. There is an Eco button that holds back throttle response, and has quite an effect on performance. Take the LEAF 40kWh out of Eco mode though and there is plenty of pep for the majority of drivers. Braking varies greatly on settings picked by the driver, but the new ePedal on the LEAF 40kWh provides strong braking power; occasionally too strong when not used to the system. Brake power in general relies upon the regeneration effect that tops up the batteries, and as such the pedal has little feel. It provides plenty of stopping power though for those few occasions when it is needed.
Nissan has designed the new LEAF 40kWh to provide a smooth ride, and it feels a refined car when driven. The ride and handling are set-up very well for an EV; the suspension is pliant, but it never wallows around corners and remains fairly level when tackling bends enthusiastically. Despite the increased power though, the LEAF is not really the car for a B-road blast. It's capable enough of putting a smile on your face, but it can feel out of its comfort zone - and understandably so. Instead, the LEAF performs best when cruising, cossetting occupants against harsh road surfaces. Having got a little way-laid (a wrong turning or three) on the test route, we managed to have plenty of opportunity to see what the LEAF was like in Glasgow city centre where it naturally excelled. The quick pick-up from the lights and easy slow-speed crawl in traffic were complemented by a suspension set-up that kept everything relaxed inside. The steering isn't even too light, an accusation that can be made against many an EV, with enough weight to give confidence in where the car is on the road. There's not much feedback, but where some will see that as a negative, many buyers will think it a positive attribute. And it certainly helps add to the easy-to-drive nature of the LEAF.
While some will lament the move away from the distinctive-looking original design, no-one can really argue that the new model looks more normal, more Nissan, and less polarizing in terms of opinion. The new style is one I prefer and also means that the LEAF can be seen as a more mainstream model from the Japanese firm. By using the current Nissan design language, the LEAF looks like a larger, more grown-up Micra supermini, and a hatchback version of the Qashqai crossover. It is precisely both those things, whereas before the LEAF was almost on a parallel design path from the rest of the range. It is little things like this that show the importance Nissan places on the LEAF. Stepping away from distinctive styling puts the LEAF in the mainstream market, just with an electric powertrain. Looking at it technically, the LEAF's new body style still provides a slippery shape to cut through the air. The low-drag shape is aided by under-body work to see that the LEAF develops no lift or downforce - easing the amount of work the electric motor has to undertake.
The interior remains spacious enough for use as a family car, and boot space is good for a car in its class - though not class-leading. Those that specify a Bose audio system will also have to pack around a bulky plastic box in the boot. Occupants sit high up because of the underfloor battery, and adults will feel almost perched on the seats rather than sinking into them. Personally I began to feel a little uncomfortable after an hour or so in the LEAF, which suggests a lack of support from the seat base, but it's not something I heard others comment on. Only further driving will see if it was a one off or not. The driving position isn't aided by a steering wheel that only adjusts for rake, and not reach too. It meant sitting closer to the pedals than I would like, and meaning my right leg began to feel a bit of strain - again after a long period of driving. I was concentrating on recalibrating said leg to use the ePedal though, so perhaps it is something that will be of little issue when familiar with the LEAF. One issue certainly shared by others was the size of the front (A) pillars. They are relatively shallow but very wide, which can make placing the front right of the car tricky in certain situations. There are sensors and parking assistance systems available, so it's not likely to put buyers off, but the A-pillars are definitely of a significant size.
COMFORT & CONTROLS
As already mentioned, the interior is one of the most disappointing aspects of the new LEAF - though still a big improvement over the previous model. The steering wheel is nice, with a similar design as found in other Nissan models, and is a good size and style. The driver's instruments too are a couple of steps forward over the out-going design, with a large clear screen able to show a vast amount of different pieces of information. Interestingly, Nissan has put its battery degradation information in one of the screen's menus, relegating it from the prominent position it had before, possibly indicating that Nissan is more confident about how long its batteries will hold up than when the original LEAF was launched. The information is still there and easy to find, it's just not always on show. Moving away from the driver's set-up though and the interior lacks quality over its rivals - both mainstream and EV. The infotainment screen is comparatively small, with graphics - particularly in the sat-nav section - that look old and out of date. It's also clunky to use, having a little think about each main action after you've told it to do something.
The heating control buttons look very similar if not identical to those in the outgoing model. It's a small point, but changing their design would have differentiated the LEAF further from the 30kWh version, and there are nice options to be found in the Micra and Qashqai that could presumably have been used. Other switchgear has also been carried over - or designed to look the same - with the gear selector and window controls just two elements that look to have been kept, and a number of controls have simply been rearranged on the central console. The dashboard is a big overhaul - at least in the Tekna spec we tested - with leather style trim covering most of the surfaces, and a splash of mock carbon plastic to liven up the passenger-facing section. It's a nicely styled cabin, just without a real feeling of quality. It is perhaps a victim of the LEAF's own success at offering a quiet and relaxed ride, giving one the impression that the Nissan is a more refined product than it actually is.
MPG & RUNNING COSTS
The LEAF's strengths come into their own in this category, with the new Nissan promising a more than useful driving range from its 40kWh battery. Again, there is an element of disappointment that Nissan didn't move the game on further with the new LEAF. The 40kWh pack simply brings the LEAF up to speed with its rivals, rather than put down a marker that the LEAF is the king of mainstream EVs - it's Alliance stablemate the Renault Zoe already has a similar capacity battery after all. I appreciate that Nissan will bring out a larger 60kWh battery in due course, but it has missed the boat in terms of a statement of intent. Still, a larger battery is not to be sniffed at, and Nissan quotes an NEDC range (the outgoing official test) of 235 miles, a combined WLTP figure (the new test which gets closer to real-world performance) of 168 miles (177 for the Visia), and a WLTP City range of 241 miles. That's with an official NEDC energy consumption figure of 14.6 kWh/100km.
In the brief time we had with the media test car, the real-world range stood up well. Driving largely on Scottish country roads - though with a little motorway and city work thrown in too - the LEAF 40kWh was good for about 135-140 miles on a single charge, the car being driven at a typical speed at around 50 mph, over undulating terrain, and in early March. Winter and summer will knock off a few miles or add some on respectively, and it is only with more time that we can get into the minutiae of the LEAF's real-world range capability. What can be said, however, is that there was never any hint of range anxiety over the course of our 100+ mile route on each of the two days, starting with a full charge and indicated 160 miles, and ending on 25% with 46 miles remaining according to the trip computer. That's over roads that are unlikely to be regular fare for a typical LEAF driver.
The LEAF obviously has a large number of features intended to help get the maximum out of its battery performance. The most important of these is probably the new ePedal system, which allows for very strong brake energy recuperation - enough to bring you to a complete stop, even downhill. The ePedal is able to be turned on and off, and can really help in recuperating energy - particularly in town when braking tends to be stronger than on open roads. If anything, it can often be too strong, certainly for those not used to driving with it, and although there's no doubt it can be a useful tool, it is handy to be able to turn it off.
Driving as part of a pair, we managed to use the least amount of energy over the first day of driving of any of the 10 cars on test, and we were also the car most sceptical about ePedal's usefulness; the two of us, it should be said, experienced EV drivers. It will I suspect prove very handy, but not at all times - hence the good news that it can be switched on or off as required. Other energy recuperation methods see the standard D and B settings on the gear select, plus an Eco button, giving a range of different regeneration strengths. For maximum efficiency, it's best to employ all of them at various times, which makes it a shame that they are all controlled by separate buttons. Personally, I prefer the selectable regen modes of the Hyundai IONIQ Electric and VW e-Golf, where you can easily knock up and down to change the strength of braking. It's a small point though, and the LEAF is undeniably good at capturing energy otherwise lost to the battery when decelerating.
Other elements of the new LEAF include a new Type 2 charging inlet (replacing the previous model's Type 1 set-up), which brings the LEAF more in line with the European market. It retains a CHAdeMO inlet for rapid charging, but the standard on-board charger is now up to 6.6 kW, which is a good call. All of this gives charging times of 7.5 hours from a 7kW public or home unit, 21 hours off a three-pin plug at 10A on occasion, and around 40 minutes on a 50kW DC rapid charger, from empty warning to 80% charge. Nissan is still offering new LEAF buyers a free 7kW home charge unit, if OLEV requirements are met, to make things easy to charge at home. It saves a few hundred pounds from the cost of installation, plus it will mitigate any potential frustration from those previous-generation LEAF drivers that had a Type 1 tethered cable fitted for earlier models.
There are also the usual EV features offered by Nissan for the LEAF, such as pre-conditioning, setting charge times, the Connect EV app for live charging updates and system controls, driving efficiency scores, and EV charge points mapped on the sat-nav. More unusually though is Nissan's commitment to the EV as a part of an energy system. All new LEAF models come fitted with the systems required for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) connectivity, and buyers can have a 10kW smart charger installed, which will both charge the LEAF and draw energy from its battery when required. This smart energy system can also be combined with home solar panels and Nissan's xStorage energy storage system in one package - or as separate elements - to allow owners to charge using renewable energy, and potentially profit or off-set their charging costs by selling energy back to the National Grid at peak times. According to our calculations, the model tested has a Next Green Car Rating of 24, putting it second in it's class behind the VW e-Golf.
As you would now expect from an EV, the LEAF comes well equipped. Along with the new systems such as ePedal, all models come with 16-inch alloys, illuminated charging port, 7-inch TFT instrument screen, keyless entry and start, automatic air conditioning, automatic headlights and wipers, 6.6kW on-board charger, and a suite of safety systems. These include Intelligent Emergency Braking, lane departure warning, lane assist, cross traffic alert, and blind spot warning. Move up from Visia to Acenta and elements such as front fog lamps, electric folding door mirrors, leather steering wheel, Intelligent Cruise Control, Nissan Connect EV 7-inch infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all fitted. Up again to N-Connecta sees 17-inch alloys, privacy glass, heated steering wheel and part leather seats, auto-dimming mirror, and parking sensors. Finally, top level Tekna trim sees full LED headlights, leather trim throughout, electronic parking brake, 7-speaker Bose audio system and ProPILOT. This last feature combines elements such as automatic cruise control and lane assist to provide a driver assistance package. It's hands-on semi-autonomous, but proves helpful in heavy traffic in particular, keeping the car in the lane, and accelerating, maintaining speed, and braking to a complete stop if necessary, before starting again. Tekna is also the only trim level available with ProPILOT Park, which can park the LEAF for a driver; whether parallel, reverse-in, or nose-in - useful for charge points. It will even deal with herringbone spaces as the driver can change the intended parking spot on the car's screen.
While I've detailed why I'm disappointed with how the LEAF has been developed in a few key areas, don't let that make you think that I consider the LEAF to be a poor car - it's actually very good across most areas. The range available will convince a many more car buyers that were cagey before to take the step into EV ownership, particularly since there is more space in a LEAF than in a Renault Zoe or BMW i3 for example. The IONIQ and e-Golf prove tougher competition, but the LEAF now competes on an even keel against them in a number of areas - losing out in certain aspects, but beating them in others. Originally a game-changer and well ahead of its time, the LEAF had dropped towards the bottom of the mainstream EV league table. With the LEAF 40kWh, its now back amongst the leaders. The practicality, driving range, and overall package are excellent, and the LEAF 40kWh is an EV that will meet the demands of many drivers looking at buying a family car. It won't stun the opposition or break new ground in the market, but the second-generation LEAF is a very good value, easy to drive, and comfortable car, with very low running costs.
Model tested: Nissan LEAF 40kWh Tekna
Body-style: Five-door hatchback
Engine / CO2: 110 kW electric motor / 0 g/km
Trim grades: Visia, Acenta, N-Connecta, Tekna
On-road price: From £21,990. Price as tested £29,155 (both inc Cat 1 PiCG)
Warranty: Three years / 60,000 miles - Battery 8 years / 100,000 miles
In the showroom: Now
Review rating: 4 Stars