A lack of range in the Nissan Leaf


Although I’ve driven several, for the first time last week I actually got to live with a Nissan Leaf for a few days.

This is the car I helped install as last year’s European Car of the Year and one whose concept I admire very much. I like the purity of a car powered by electricity alone, the boldness of Nissan to be first to put a credible, mass-manufactured electric car on sale and the fact that its energy costs are less than 2p per mile. A Toyota Prius costs around 9ppm.

And I like the way it drives: because most of its mass is made up of batteries, which are slung across the floor of the car between the wheels, it has a spectacularly low centre of gravity and a low polar moment of inertia too. Which is why this rather upright and odd-looking Japanese hatchback has a turn in characteristics similar at least in part to mid-engined cars.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. The issue that will make or break the Leaf in this and many other countries around the world, is range. It’s meant to do a little more than 100 miles on a single charge. When it arrived (on a truck) it was fully charged but claimed its range was a mere 87 miles. I then used it at a photo shoot, driving it in a completely unrepresentative way, during the course of which I discovered (in private of course) that a Nissan Leaf with an official top speed of 90mph will actually indicate 100mph. I was not surprised to see the range decimated by such behaviour.

So I crawled home in it and plugged it into the mains. Interestingly according to my electricity meter, it actually doesn’t draw much power – nothing at all compared to a kettle or a dishwasher – which might explain why it needs most of the night to recharge. I’m sure there’s a good reason why it can’t suck up electricity as fast as a domestic appliance, and I will find out what it is.

In the meantime, I returned in the morning to discover the indicator saying the battery was fully charged, but my range was still only 87 miles. I then drove the kids to school. I live in the country, they are schooled in the local town and you tend to progress along the road between the two ends at between 45-55mph. OK it’s not urban driving, but nor are you exactly caning it. The journey is almost exactly 10 miles but by the time I dropped them off, the range had fallen by 24 miles. I drove home deliberately gingerly and plugged it in again. By the time I should have left to collect them again, the range was back up to 64 miles, which would have been fine had I not had to go to another town a further 10 miles away. I had a range of 64 miles and a journey of 40 miles to complete. Would you have risked it? I took another car.

And in that moment my confidence in this otherwise groundbreaking car was severely knocked. I didn’t drive it fast, the day was warm and dry so there was no need for lights, wipers or to use the heater, and still it used up its electricity supply at a rate that made it entirely impractical for even little local jobs.

Of course the Leaf was not designed for wide open spaces: it’s a commuter car and for a very small constituency of people who live in town or the suburbs, yet have off-street parking and therefore a guaranteed electrical supply, I can see the sense of it. If all you’re ever going to do is the same journey and that journey’s so short you know the Leaf will manage it even when it’s dark, cold and raining. But then £26,000 is a huge amount of money to spend on a car of such limited use, even if its running costs are near negligible.

So I like the Leaf, very much, but until Nissan finds a way of cracking the range issue, you’ll not find me recommending it to many people. And that moment seems as far away as ever.

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