By Andy Enright
One of the big manufacturers had to be the first to take the plunge with a properly-developed all-electric car and it just so happened to be Nissan with its intriguing LEAF. While the car was the darling of those who wanted to make an environmental statement, was it ever any good as a practical everyday proposition? What's more, does it have what it takes to stand up as a credible used buy? Here's what to look for if you're considering something a bit different to the norm.
We'd had electric cars before the Nissan LEAF first made landfall in summer 2011 but they were rather half-baked things; quadricycles that didn't pass mass manufacturer safety legislation and converted citycars with little in the way of design flair. The LEAF was the first pure electric car developed from the ground up by a major manufacturer and it surprised more than a few people with the way it drove and the way it was marketed. Despite many industry commentators predicting it to be the thick end of £40,000 at launch, the asking price of £23,350 undercut many more prosaic diesel hatchbacks and brought electric motoring within the reach of many. To understand quite what a breakthrough this was, consider that this undercut the tiny Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the converted kei-car that was previously the state of the EV art.
The LEAF was massively more sophisticated. For a start, it could seat five in comfort with a decent-sized boot. Its styling was modern, but it didn't look like something from toy town. It was based on the EV-11 electric car prototype which was in turn developed from the Nissan Tiida, but the LEAF was very much its own thing. The first wave of customers were the predictable contenders of organisations and local authorities looking to make a green statement, but after that a more diverse set of buyers started looking to the LEAF. Sales were hardly massive, with less than 1,500 cars shifted in the first two years on sale. The reasons were easy to identify. Although it was well priced for a specific EV, it was too expensive to compete with similarly-sized cars and the range of the car in real world conditions rarely matched up to Nissan's claims. The payback period over a petrol model was so long that unlike a Toyota Prius hybrid, the LEAF could rarely, if ever, be bought as a hard-nosed financial decision. Still, Nissan listened and brought out a substantially improved model in 2013. This had a better range, revised styling, more luggage space and better equipment provision. It drove better than ever too.
What You Get
If you weren't clued into the fact that the Nissan LEAF was an electric car, you might not at first guess. The silhouette looks much like any other car in the Focus/Astra class and although the exterior detailing looks modern, it's far from wacky. There's plenty of front overhang to comply with European pedestrian protection regulations and the air intake in the front end even fools you into thinking there might be some sort of internal combustion engineering under the bonnet. The lack of a tail pipe will be the main giveaway that here is something not altogether conventional.
There's decent space inside, with a bright and airy cabin, decent quality materials used throughout, respectable rear legroom and okay rear headroom. The boot is a reasonable size too, given the need to package the battery packs. In the later revised model, the luggage capacity went up by 40-litres to a respectable 370-litres. The rear seats do fold if you need more space, the later car moving the charger from the rear of the LEAF to under the bonnet. Doing this turned the LEAF into a far more practical proposition as there was now no obstacle in the middle of the boot floor when the seats are folded.
What to Look For
Reported reliability has thus far been impeccable, due in no small part to the inherent simplicity of the LEAF's drivetrain. The Leaf doesn't have a transmission as such, instead relying on a reduction gear. The motor is always connected to the drive shafts. This makes it very simple and very reliable - much more so than any type of transmission in any other vehicle. Check that the annual battery checks have been conducted but other than that, there's really not too much to look out for other than the usual supermarket and kerb bumps and scrapes. The pale coloured interior finishes can look grubby very quickly so think twice before getting in with those brand new indigo denims on.
(approx values for a 2011 LEAF) What replacement parts are you really going to use? There's no clutch, no exhaust, no spark plugs, no filters, no alternator and no starter motor to worry about. Brakes and tyres are about the only consumables you really need to keep on top of and they're relatively cheap with front brake pads costing around £20 per set while the Bridgestone Ecopia tyres in the LEAF's modest 205/55R16 size are around £67 per corner.
On the Road
Go for the kind of early LEAF we're focusing on here and you'll get a maximum quoted range of 110 miles - though Nissan could do better than that as evidenced by the way that the later revised model managed to eke this out to a claimed 124 miles. In the real world, owners report that 85 miles on a full charge is very good going. Indulge in 'hypermiling' tactics and you might well get over 100 miles but this is usually a pretty antisocial way to drive, preserving momentum through junctions where possible and limiting speed on the open road.
The thing most people don't realise when considering the LEAF is that it's extremely good fun to drive. Most see an appliance, the ultimate incarnation of the car as white goods, but that's far from the case. Mounting all those batteries so low in the chassis means that the LEAF has a centre of gravity many supercars would envy and it handles well as a result, even though you do have to bear in mind that you're carrying around 300kg more than you would in a similarly-sized petrol hatchback.
The post-2013 model year cars featured smoother damper settings to reduce float and deliver a more agile and dynamic drive without adversely affecting ride comfort. The steering system was also given a touch more weight to provide steering feel more in tune with European tastes while the performance of the brakes was improved to make them more progressive in use, while also increasing the amount of energy recovered. Changes were also made to the Eco driving mode. A 'B' setting on the transmission increased regenerative braking during deceleration while a separate 'Eco' button on the steering wheel extended driving range by altering the throttle mapping to discourage rapid acceleration. The two systems could be operated independently of one another, unlike in the original LEAF.
Some cars stack up better as used cars than they ever did as new ones. File the Nissan LEAF in that category. Residual values haven't been as strong as Nissan would have liked which spells bargains for the used buyer. An excellent reliability record coupled with the fact that every car you look at is going to be a relatively pampered low mileage example also simplifies the used buying process. If a LEAF fits into your lifestyle, it earns a strong recommendation from us.