Andrew Frankel

A leaf from Nissan’s book

Later this year (and next spring in the UK) the pace of automotive change is going to forsake its customary crawl and take something of a leap. This may not be a Model T moment but it’s bigger than anything we’ve seen in over a decade, at least since the launch of the Prius a dozen years ago. It comes when Nissan puts the Leaf on sale, the world’s first purpose-built, mass-market production all-electric car. This is not a hybrid of any sort, nor is it one of those dreadful plastic quadricycles. It’s not an unaffordable esoteric like a Tesla nor adapted from an extant conventional car like a Mini E: it is a spacious, five-seat family hatch with a big boot and a likely list price of just over £20,000. And it is designed to be powered by electricity and electricity alone.

Nissan’s bravery in making this move makes me want to hide behind the sofa. It missed the hybrid wave, surfed so skilfully by Toyota and, perhaps less deftly, Honda but it is first into the water with the Leaf and by some distance. In three years time, Nissan will have assembled the global capacity to construct a quarter of a million Leafs (not Leaves, I checked) in Japan, America and, rather gratifyingly, Sunderland. And all in the hope it can persuade that many buyers to part with that much money for a car which even Nissan admits won’t have much chance of achieving the 100-mile range it quotes. It also hopes you’ll be happy to park it for up to eight hours before you get going again. That is some gamble.

This makes it exist in a strange space. Nissan has to market the Leaf as a commuter car or a second car, because it knows it will command zero credibility as an all-purpose, go anywhere machine. But if you’re buying a car to commute or as an addition to the go-anywhere do-anything car you own already, why does it need to seat five and have a vast boot? Simply because within its life cycle Nissan anticipates technology becoming available to enable the Leaf to do 350 miles on a charge and those who buy Leafs now won’t need to sell them then: they’ll just change the batteries. And the Leaf’s role and relevance will be transforming.

I’ve had a quick run in a Leaf, albeit one wearing the body of another domestic market Nissan (called the Tiida…) and aspects of what it does surprised not at all. The silence that accompanies your progress is eerie but hardly unpredictable; the same can be said for the spritely step-off: after all the torque is there all the time.

But two things I failed to predict, and both pleased me. Although its top speed is a mere 90mph, Nissan says its mid-range acceleration is similar to a 2.5-litre V6 saloon and I’d not disagree. More encouraging and more surprising still is the fact it handles rather well. Because it is a clean-sheet design the batteries lie flat across the floor, keeping the bulk of the car’s weight both very low and within the wheelbase, with commensurately desirable results. Its steering is light, crisp and direct, and the lack of anticipated body roll suggests that if an all-electric car can be this good to drive without trying, then one conceived with the provision of driving pleasure in mind has the potential to be exceptional.

The biggest challenge for the Leaf is what its creators call ‘range anxiety’, and can be described as that empty feeling in your stomach as you realise the number of miles left in the batteries is lower than the number between where you are and where you need to be. This is why all Leafs will be hooked up to a global navigation network and will display on a screen the remaining radius and all available charge points within it, updated automatically as the network (hopefully) expands.

A lot depends on the establishment of a so-called ‘fast charge’ infrastructure where you can get an 80 per cent charge in the time it takes to queue for, buy and drink a large cappuccino. There are hardly any at present, but Nissan says they are coming. I hope so: it would be simply unfair for a car as bold, inventive, effective and relevant as the Leaf to become derailed by something so prosaic. Then again, this is a far from fair world.