"The Nissan Leaf remains a pioneering machine and one of the most comfortable, quiet cars on the road."
If the Nissan Leaf is the car of the future, then the future is already here. The Leaf was the first mainstream production vehicle designed to run purely on electricity, but since its launch in 2010 it's been joined by the likes of the Renault Fluenze and the super-zippy Twizy, with Tesla ploughing an electric-vehicle furrow in the US. The good news for the Leaf is that the battery-powered hatchback still makes more sense than its rivals. It emits zero CO2 and can be recharged via a standard plug socket. The body design is aerodynamic, with the lithium-ion batteries stored in the floor of the car to make sure there's plenty of space inside. The only thing stopping it truly competing with conventional family cars like the Focus and VW Golf is its relatively short 124-mile range, which makes it purely a commuting car or town runabout. Prices are coming down, and with the new entry-level Visia car, it shouldn’t cost much more to buy than the equivalent family hatchback. Until the range can be increased, the flexibility of range-extending hybrids such as the Vauxhall Ampera or Chevrolet Volt is more appealing.
The Leaf is incredibly easy to drive – in fact, it drives just like a conventional car. You push the start button, select the 'D' option on the automatic gearbox and then pull away silently. The electric motor generates the equivalent of 108bhp and thanks to 280Nm of torque that is instantly available, it's very quick off the line. Top speed may only be 89mph, but it goes from 0-62mph in 11.9 seconds, making it perfect for stop-start urban driving. It's eerily quiet at times but the suspension is soft, the steering is light and the ride is generally very relaxing.
Not only is the electric motor near-silent, there's very little road or wind noise inside the well-insulated Leaf. Plenty of seat and steering adjustment makes it easy to get into a comfy driving position behind the wheel, while your four passengers will have enough space to sit comfortably, with plenty of head and legroom for all. The soft suspension is set up for a relaxing ride rather performance, so bumps in the road are easily absorbed. Light build materials and an attractive central display also help to promote the overall relaxed sensation of driving the Leaf.
There are few moving parts contained in the Leaf's electric motor to go wrong or breakdown, which immediately makes it more reliable. Services should be few and far between, too, thanks to Nissan's strong reputation for overall reliability - the manufacturer finishing fourth in the 2012 Auto Express Driver Power survey. However, electric cars are still a little bit of an unknown quantity and there are niggling questions about battery life and degradation over time. Because of this, Nissan now gives buyers the option of leasing the car's battery – with a promise to replace it when it reaches the end of its usable life. Used values are good too, Residual vales aren’t great, due to limited popularity but it's worth noting that the Leaf scored a full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests.
The Leaf is supposed to be able to go 124 miles before needing recharging, according to Nissan, but you'll struggle to reach that distance unless you drive in the 'eco' mode. This reduces the motor's power and increases the effect of the car's regenerative braking system to charge the battery making it less fun to drive. Then there's the issue of the eight-hour charging time from a standard household plug socket - you're better off seeking out special charging stations (more and more of which are now popping up at service stations and forecourts), where you can charge the battery to 80 per cent capacity in just half an hour. Still, the range does limit the Leaf's practicality, but the 2013 updates did increase boot space from 330 litres to a reasonable 370 litres – more than in a Vauxhall Astra and nearly as much as a VW Golf.
Value for money
The Nissan Leaf was updated in 2013, and with it came the introduction of three new specifications. The all-electric family car now mirrors the existing Nissan trim line-up with Visia, Acenta and Tekna specs – with entry-level cars priced on a par with the VW Golf and Vauxhall Astra when you take into account the £5,000 government grant. Visia models get 16-inch steel wheels, and black mirror caps, while Acenta cars add alloys, tinted windows and body coloured trim. Top-spec Tekna models are expensive but you do get LED headlights, an energy saving Bose stereo and high-tech 360 degree cameras to help with parking.
The Leaf produces no CO2 emissions, so that means no road tax and no London Congestion Charge. Running costs were reduced further with the 2013 updates, when Nissan gave owners the option of leasing the batteries instead of buying them – reducing the car's purchase price by up to £5,000. Doing this also comes with the peace of mind that Nissan will replace the battery if it degrades significantly. The car maker estimates that over the course of a year, the Leaf will run up a charging bill of only £257 in electricity due to the fact it costs as little as £2 for each eight-hour charge. For this reason, few cars are as cheap to run and there's a strong argument for this balancing out the relatively high purchase. However, if you intend to use the public charging points that can charge the Leaf up to 80 per cent capacity in only 30 minutes, it's worth noting that many now charge a network subscription fee for use.