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Nissan Leaf review

S.Muralidhar February 15 | Updated on February 14, 2012

The Nissan Leaf rear shot   -  BUSINESS LINE

The Nissan Leaf interiors   -  BUSINESS LINE

The Nissan Leaf   -  BUSINESS LINE

Leaf rear detail shot   -  BUSINESS LINE

The speedometer   -  BUSINESS LINE

The steering detail   -  BUSINESS LINE

Central console   -  BUSINESS LINE

Front lamp detail   -  BUSINESS LINE

Charging station   -  BUSINESS LINE

Engine detail   -  BUSINESS LINE

Nissan Leaf details   -  BUSINESS LINE

The Nissan logo detail   -  BUSINESS LINE

Remember the old adage where a man finds Ms Perfect after years of searching, but still can't marry her…because she was looking for Mr Perfect. Moral of the story – life is all about making compromises. Buying a car is somewhat similar. Buying an electric car…even more so!

We have had an all-electric car (Reva) in the Indian market for years now. There are many buyers who made that compromise when they bought one. A compromise struck between performance and range to cost of ownership and fuel savings.

So, will all-electrics remain an exotic species? Can the equation be tilted in favour of mass-produced all-electrics that can deliver a fair driving range and respectable performance to become acceptable for the masses?

By now, we all know that it is only a matter of time before all-electrics and/ or hybrids become cheaper to own thanks to lower tech costs and higher fuel savings (compared to cars with ICE – internal combustion engines). The fact that they may become mainstream cars of the future is all too obvious.

But, right now, all-electrics continue to be rare due to the heavy compromises that buyers have to make to accommodate the car into their lives. To own an all-electric is now cool and makes all the right statements, but can it also be affordable and seem like a regular car?

Nissan has tried to answer that question with the Leaf, which the Japanese company claims is the first mass-produced all-electric in the world. Aptly named to highlight its eco-friendly ‘cred', the Leaf neither has an engine nor exhaust emissions. Since introduction in late 2010, it has been successful enough (going by the numbers that hybrid cars clock) to have been taken seriously by competitors who may have not bothered with an all-electric otherwise.

Nissan India says that it is considering the possibility of introducing the Leaf here. Will it fit the Indian usage cycle? Can the Leaf deliver on its promises in our conditions? I was bristling with curiosity and wanted to spend a day with the Leaf, instead of just taking a short test drive in a car of this calibre.

I have to travel to Delhi to pick up the Leaf from the Nissan dealership where it has been parked after being displayed at the Auto Expo. To be in sync with the car's eco-friendly claims, I try to lower my carbon footprint by booking my ticket in an airline with a proven track record of lower fuel consumption and by taking the Delhi Metro from the airport to the dealer yard on Mathura Road near Faridabad.

Powering up

After signing up, I pop my backpack in, get behind the wheel of the Leaf and gingerly negotiate the tight turn just outside the dealership. The Leaf is a big car, though it looks deceptively like a compact hatch in these pictures. The bonnet isn't exactly long in the traditional sense, but it's still big for a vehicle which doesn't exactly have anything large and noisy in there.

It would seem like a little quirkiness and a bit of an oddball design is a necessary feature for many hybrids and all-electrics. The Leaf is a member of this club, with its bug-eyed headlamps and the fat backside sticking out. Of course, there are apparently some reasons why the design is the way it is. Apart from the fact that the car's design improves aerodynamism, the headlamps are also said to enable airflow to be directed in a manner that helps reduce wind noise in the cabin.

No wonder the Leaf's cabin is eerily quiet, even when you are clipping at 80 kmph on the highway. There is only the faint, but shrill whine of the electric motor that is audible. I found the cabin itself to be a very simple layout. There is nothing to suggest that the interior is that of an all-electric car, except the blue-backlit info display behind the wheel and on the centre stack. The other cool feature is the gear knob that I just shift sideways and down to drive and push up to activate the reverse gear.

The cabin is spacious, the seats are comfy and there are a lot of the creature comforts that we are all used to seeing in regular cars like air-conditioning and heating, a decent music system, in-dash GPS navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control and real-time vehicle information.

Electrifying performance

The Leaf was handed over to me with a full charge and the odo and info display showed that I had another 98 miles of range right after I got out of the dealership's gates. The rated range is about 99 miles (also called miles per gallon equivalent or mpge) on a full charge of the lithium-ion battery pack. The showroom manager cautioned me against driving more than 100 kilometres in total and I soon realised why he wasn't telling me that I can manage to squeeze out much more without running the risk of getting stranded in the middle of the road.

I swerved out of the service lane and step on the gas, err…throttle and involuntarily my eyes stray off the road and onto the display. The range displayed quickly ticks down to 90 miles, though I have barely driven the Leaf a kilometre from the showroom!

That is when ‘Range fear' struck me and stayed with me till the end of the test drive. The Leaf behaves very much like other all-electrics – calculating the charge and range remaining on a real-time basis. I know that erring on the side of caution is a good thing, even if I am going to be supremely confident about the embedded electronics (like the Carwings system) in the Leaf.

I ease up on the throttle and the Leaf regains some of the lost miles thanks to regenerative braking. The principles are all the same – a battery pack with individual Lithium-ion cells, an electric controller and electric motor – this is essentially what powers the Leaf too. But it comes together well in this Nissan model.

Thanks to my constantly tracking the range readout, I am able to gauge that basically every time I drove the Leaf like I was driving a regular car (accelerating and braking hard every so often) the mileage would drop dramatically. If I accelerated quickly, but let the Leaf coast to a stop, the range dropped more gradually and if I stayed in the frugal 30 miles to 50 miles range, and cruised with my foot barely touching the throttle, the range achieved would be very close to the touted maximum.

Speeding it up

But, I did get wooed into driving the Leaf like I would a normal car, because it feels like one in every other respect. It feels solidly built, and there is no feeling of lightness, even when I was driving hard. Every time I stomped on the throttle the Leaf pulled clean and strong. There is absolutely no delay in the delivery of torque to the wheels.

In fact the throttle response and acceleration is so quick that I was soon addicted to it and onlookers in Delhi and Greater Noida were flummoxed to see a totally silent car that was literally launching itself from standstill. The power available is about 107 HP and torque delivered is about 207 lb-ft – both very respectable for a car this size.

As you can see from the picture of the speedo, the Leaf also managed to touch its peak speed of 95 mph on stretches of private road that I tested it on; very impressive for an all-electric.

The battery pack is located under the floor of the car and is said to be neatly stacked in an array that is also said to improve the car's weight distribution and retain a low centre of gravity. In addition to the rigid frame and suspension settings, the CG retention is also said to be one of the reasons why the Leaf's on-road manners are very much like an agile ICE car. To make it even more like a regular car, Nissan designers have also housed the controller under bonnet inside a panel that resembles a four-cylinder IC engine.

The battery itself can be charged by flipping open the small panel that looks like the bonnet grille at the front and connecting the cable to the port in the car and onto a power socket at your home or office. Charging times vary from 20 hours to 7 hours and with a special Nissan quick charge device, you can get an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes flat.

Bottomline

The Leaf is a great option for buyers out there looking to buy an all-electric that doesn't quite feel like one. It has the potential to wean away urban buyers from their polluting ICE cars.

I chickened out and decided to put the Leaf into ECO mode and limp back to the dealership after four hours of testing and shooting the car. But, most urban car users will not need much more than the range that the Leaf offers to manage their everyday commute from home to office, grocery store and back.

Like any other all-electric, the Leaf can't be the only car in the family for most buyers given the fact that the range is too limiting, if a regular weekend trip to another city is to be considered. In the Indian context, there are other limitations that are generic to any all-electric that will also apply to the Leaf, such as the lack of charging infrastructure, the lack of incentives and the high cost of an import like the Leaf.

The one aspect of the Leaf drive that I didn't quite like was the fact that the horn didn't work. The Leaf is so quiet that I was reaching for the horn very often to warn pedestrians in some of the crowded streets. There is supposed to be an ‘approaching vehicle sound' like that of squeaking ball bearings that is said to be emitted through a speaker at the front, but it was not audible for me in the cabin and so I was worried.

For someone who almost never honks, this was one drive when I desperately missed blowing the horn.

muraliswami@thehindu.co.in

Published on February 14, 2012

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