Nissan was the first mainstream manufacturer to bring a high-quality, viable, practical electric car to Britain. Less than a decade later, the choice has grown rapidly – Nissan is just one of the players in this small but growing segment, and we can now compare the Leaf to a number of excellent rivals.
Electric cars represent a tiny proportion of all cars sold, and an even smaller percentage of cars on the road. But for buyers who have practical access to charging facilities, their negligible running costs and reduced environmental impact make them an extremely attractive choice.
We're driving the 2018 Leaf, the second-generation car. It's a five-door hatchback with a 40kWh battery. Please bear in mind that an improved version of this car, which offers around 60kWh and a commensurate increase in driving range, will be launched later this year.
Our car: Nissan Leaf 'Tekna' with 40kWh battery
List price when new: £28,390
Optional extras fitted: Metallic paint (£575), ProPilot self-parking system (£1,090)
Price as tested: £30,055
June 16, 2018
A perennial response to electric cars is uncertainty about the provenance of the electricity that charges them up. Where does it come from, what fuel is used, and how environmentally damaging is its generation?
These are all fair questions, so I’ll look into them in very basic terms. At the time of writing (not June 16th) the UK’s electricity is derived from a number of sources. Half of it (49.37 per cent) is from gas, a fifth of it (20.47 per cent) is from nuclear reactors, and just over a tenth (11.86 per cent) is from solar. Around a 20th (5.58 per cent) is from France’s largely nuclear surplus, arriving in Kent via undersea cables.
The remainder includes coal (1.55 per cent) wind (1.64 per cent) pumped hydroelectric (1.36 per cent)hydroelectric (0.22 per cent) biomass (6.02 per cent) and a small input from the Dutch (1.86 per cent). That means that the total renewable contribution to the grid, including wind, hydroelectric and solar, is approximately 13 per cent.
I’m personally rather cheered by the idea of a nuclear-powered hatchback, even more so by the notion that some of the electricity I’m using to get around was generated in Fessenheim. But I’m also conscious that my supposedly zero-emission car still relies on fossil fuels for propulsion, and while natural gas is one of the cleanest types, its inclusion in Britain’s energy mosaic means I still release a surprising amount of Co2 per mile.
It’s possible to do a crude calculation here. Gas electricity generation produces roughly 500g of Co2 per kWh. If a kWh takes me 3.6 miles, as it did on my most recent commute, and half of the car’s charge is derived from gas, that’s about 70g of gas-related Co2 per mile, which is about 44g/km of Co2.
That’s… not brilliant. It doesn’t justify the Leaf’s much higher RRP or the faff associated with ownership, and that's before taking into account the wider Co2 costs. Obviously any calculation of this nature is a simplifcation, but the issue is very real: while the Leaf emits nothing at the tailpipe, there’s a great deal of pollution emerging elsewhere to drive its wheels.
I’m optimistic that I can bring my miles-per-kWh figure down, however. And of course, a bright, blustery day will do wonders for my Co2 g/km - as the national grid ebbs and flows to and from renewables like solar and wind, so too does my Leaf. It’s not a perfect system, and to call these cars “zero-emission” is, I think, a trifle misleading. But there’s a lot to be said for the progress being made, and the cleanliness of my car at the tailpipe is certainly important at a local level.
June 13, 2018
Fuel economy this week: 3.6 miles per kWh
The arrival of a new long-term test car is normally quite enjoyable, but not on this occasion. It was the end of a fairly long week, which had been further lengthened by several successive late evenings in the office and the hum of low-level stress. It was 9pm by the time I got to the car park and, after walking through Victoria while trying to carry too much stuff, I just wanted to get home.
So the poor Nissan Leaf that had been deposited a few hours previously didn’t get the initial thorough inspection ritual that most of our long-termers receive when they arrive. That could wait until daylight. Instead, it got two exhausted people dollop themselves unceremoniously inside it, before grumpily complaining about its most immediately apparent faults.
“Is that as far as the seat goes back?” grumbled my relatively tall girlfriend. “Zero stars from me…”
I had a similar reaction to the lack of steering wheel adjustment. I’m 6’4” and while I found the seat position fine, I’d have liked a bit more reach. The Leaf’s steering wheel only tilts, which is surprising in a car that costs this much. It also makes an incredibly irritating beeping noise when the door is open, which I know is a characteristic of Japanese design but is still immensely unwelcome. The result was that we set off stressed, and in a slightly bad mood.
But the Nissan Leaf is an electric car. They move almost silently, wafting around with a sort of effortless grace; there’s something almost therapeutic about driving an EV in town, and for all its foibles (and bad first impressions) the Leaf was a calming antidote to a busy day. I’ve never been averse to driving internal combustion cars with manual transmissions through London, but the simplicity of the Leaf’s powertrain makes it a delight on the capital’s crowded streets.
That’s not to say that electric cars are entirely stress-free, of course. Nissan dropped the car off with its battery 89 percent full, which the dashboard said would give me 166 miles of range. Roughly an hour later, having driven 10.6 miles at an average speed of 12mph, the battery was down to 81 percent and the computer reckoned I had 143 miles left.
That came as a bit of a shock. I’d lost 23 miles of estimated range over the course of just ten real-world miles, which makes me question the validity of the number on the dashboard. To what extent should I believe it? How many of the ‘remaining’ 143 miles will materialise? At this rate, there’s probably only around 70 miles left in the battery - that can’t be right, surely?
I’m going to take a longer journey on what remains of the battery. Several, in fact, considering I’m a fairly high-mileage driver and I’ll be living with this thing for the foreseeable. First impressions count for a lot, and at the moment I can’t help feeling that the Nissan Leaf is a slightly uncomfortable, expensive car which is inconvenient to refuel. But the whole point of a long-term test is the ability to piece together a thorough verdict over several months – and not over the first ten miles.