The Nissan Leaf has been around for five years now. While the pace of electric-car development means the BMW i3 seems more futuristic and the Tesla Model S offers greater performance and range, the Leaf (which stands for Leading Environmentally friendly Affordable Family car) has a greater range than the i3 and is half the price of the Tesla. The Renault ZOE is a more direct competitor to the Leaf; it's cheaper to buy than the Nissan, but it has a shorter range and is a smaller car.
The Leaf was also the first mass-produced electric car to be sold in the UK and was important in demonstrating to motorists that – range concerns aside – EVs can be very similar to a petrol or diesel-powered car to drive and own. Aside from near-silent running, the Leaf behaves just like a family hatchback. You simply turn it on, select ‘D’ and drive as normal.
The Leaf's real selling point, though, is how cheap it is to run. A full battery charge should cost around £2, you won’t pay a penny in road tax, Congestion Charge exemption means driving in central London is free and a 7% Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) rate is as low as it's possible to get. The Leaf's biggest drawback, meanwhile, is its range. There are two versions available: the 24kWh (kilowatt hours) model can cover up to 124 miles, while the 30kWh option (which costs about £3,700 more) increases that to 155 miles.
Much like fuel-consumption figures, though, the Leaf's range is subject to significant variation in real-world driving conditions. The batteries are adversely affected by cold weather and on a chilly day, range can drop by up to 50%. Similarly, running the air-conditioning or driving up a lot of hills will affect how far you can go.
Electric-car customers tend to be after economy rather than an involving driving experience. And while the Leaf is by no means an exciting car on the road, it's very comfortable: soft suspension insulates you very well from potholes and broken tarmac, although the trade-off is a bit of body lean in corners. While the Leaf's natural environment is town, motorway cruising is a real possibility – as long as you’ve worked out where you’re going to charge the batteries on longer journeys. The electric motor produces the equivalent of 108bhp, so performance is adequate, with 0-62mph taking 11.5 seconds.
Charging the Leaf's batteries takes about 12 hours from a conventional three-pin plug, but it's worth specifying Nissan's £1,150 on-board charger. This facilitates four-hour charging at home, assuming you have a dedicated charging point. Thanks to Government grants, you can get a charging point installed at your home for relatively little outlay, assuming you meet certain criteria. Fast-charging public points are becoming increasingly common, too, particularly at motorway service stations. These will give you an 80% charge in just 30 minutes.
The UK's charging infrastructure is continually improving, but the fact remains that if the Leaf's batteries run out, you’ll be stranded. If you like the idea of an electric car but are put off by this prospect, a plug-in hybrid like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV may be a more sensible option. Like the Leaf, the Outlander PHEV is eligible for a Government grant, making the purchase price more palatable.
Something else to bear in mind is that the Leaf will probably outlast its batteries. While Nissan guarantees the 24kWh model's battery for five years, the 30kWh version gets an eight-year battery guarantee. This also covers the battery's performance – meaning if its capacity or performance deteriorates during this period, you’ll get a new one for free.
This is one of the reasons why we recommend going for the 30kWh model. Replacing the batteries out of warranty will set you back around £5,000 – although Nissan will contribute £1,000 to this. Because of this, you may want to consider leasing the batteries (for about £70 a month) rather than buying them outright with the car.
Nissan offers the Leaf in three trim levels: Visia, Acenta and Tekna. Entry-level Visia cars come with Bluetooth phone connectivity, electric door mirrors and windows, plus air-conditioning. We recommend Acenta trim, though, as it adds a seven-inch colour screen, cruise control and automatic wipers and lights, as well as a smartphone app that allows you to monitor your Leaf's charging status – something that’ll be very handy when you’re enjoying a coffee as the batteries charge at a motorway service station.
Despite being a relatively niche proposition, the Leaf has an excellent reliability record. In our 2016 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, it came 12th out of 150 cars. A second-place finish for running costs was as expected, but Leaf owners also rate their cars’ reliability and ease of driving. Safety is similarly reassuring, thanks to a five-star score from Euro NCAP.