You look like hell
The Nissan Leaf is a weird-looking car, but not in an eccentric, Christina-Ricci-in-The-Addams-Family kind of way. It's weird-looking in the sense that it resembles a gormless, mutant bullfrog. Obviously, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we've yet to meet a beholder (who doesn't work for Nissan) who thinks the Leaf is anything other than an eyesore. Must. Try. Harder.
It's just as well, then, that beneath the Leaf's oddball exterior is some beautiful engineering. The car is driven by a 90kW (120hp) electric motor, which gains its power from a 345V, 24kWh, air-cooled battery pack, consisting of 48 flat, netbook-sized modules, each containing four lithium-ion cells.
The battery pack, designed jointly by NEC and Nissan, is charged via the mains using the Leaf's 3.3kW on-board battery charger -- located adjacent to the battery pack in the rear -- or via an external 440V quick charger. It can also be trickle-charged by the Leaf's regenerative braking system, which converts the kinetic energy achieved under braking to electrical energy.
The Nissan Leaf's interior is something of a mixed bag. In general, the cabin looks a little low-rent thanks to cheap plastics and fabric seats. While the wing mirrors and all four windows are electric, the seats must be mechanically adjusted, and the air-conditioning system is so underpowered, you'd probably have better luck getting an asthmatic gnat to sneeze on you. That said, the amount of high-tech gadgetry on offer, not to mention the space-age start-up process and cool-as-codfish driving experience more than make up for these flaws.
Silent, not deadly
To get the Leaf rolling, it's a simple case of hitting the power button located to the right of the steering wheel. Unlike cars powered by internal combustion engines, the Leaf's only start-up noise is a musical chime, which indicates it's ready to roll.
The Nissan Leaf is eerily silent on the move. At low speeds, the most you'll hear inside the cabin is the sound of the tyres interacting with the road surface. Those outside hear slightly more, though. Nissan has installed an artificial noise generator, which very discreetly synthesises a slightly louder version of the whirring produced by the car's electric motor. The car is also programmed to make a bell-like sound while reversing, though this feature isn't available on UK models due to bizarre legal reasons.
The Nissan Leaf is quick and responsive off the line. Nissan quotes a rather anaemic 0-60mph time of around 11.9 seconds, but it feels much quicker around town than this figure suggests. Nail the throttle anywhere between 0 and 30mph, and the Leaf leaps into action, benefitting from the electric motor's healthy 280Nm of torque, all of which is available from extremely low in the rev range. It's enough to help you overtake dawdling learner drivers and keep up with pesky mopeds when traffic lights go green.
Predictably, the Leaf's acceleration isn't as impressive at speed. Floor the throttle when travelling on the motorway, and the car reacts with the same lethargy you'd expect from a small supermini. We're not complaining, though. The fact that the Leaf is capable of driving on the motorway at all is remarkable, particularly as it can do so at up to 89mph.
Handle with care
The thing that impressed us most with the Leaf was how pleasant it was to drive. Sure, it doesn't react very well when asked to change direction in a hurry (the heavy 300kg battery pack and soft suspension make it feel a little cumbersome when cornering), but it's arguably the most pleasant, comfortable car we've driven outside of a luxury Mercedes.
That's no exaggeration. There's a common misconception that electric cars are silent to drive, but most suffer from an annoying whine when travelling at speed. The Leaf, however, is completely different. Its cabin is eerily quiet and peaceful no matter whether you're trundling around town or hurtling along a motorway at 70mph. It's truly remarkable -- there's very little wind or tyre noise, so you'd better brush up on your conversation skills when riding with passengers, or crank up the stereo.
The Nissan Leaf's entertainment and information system comes courtesy of Microsoft. The car uses the Redmond giant's Windows Embedded Auto platform at the heart of its 8-inch touchscreen, located in the centre of the dashboard.
The system is, in a word, fantastic. It allows the driver or passenger to manage all the basics, such as adjusting the stereo (which delivers a loud, powerful sound), and keep a very close eye on the car's electrical systems, range and power usage. It's possible, for example, to see how much battery power is being used by not only the car's electric motor, but also the air-conditioning system and the stereo. This allows you to make a judgement on whether you can afford to sacrifice your comfort for a little extra range.
Plight of the navigator
We have mixed feelings about the car's satellite-navigation system. It has some fabulous features, including the ability to download routes you've calculated on your home PC using Google Maps via an integrated 3G SIM card. It will even warn you when your journey is longer than the car's total remaining range, and gives you advice on where to find your nearest charging station should you be running low on juice.
That said, it also has some truly appalling traits. On several occasions, it gave us spoken instructions to turn at junctions we'd passed several seconds ago, and at one point compelled us to turn down what was essentially a level crossing, into the path of oncoming trams. It's annoying at best, and downright dangerous at worst.
Home on the range
The Nissan Leaf fares exceptionally well as a day-to-day city car. Nissan reckons you could, theoretically, drive it at a speed of 81kmh, in 31°C heat for a total of 76 miles. A more leisurely drive at 60kmh in 20°C weather with the air-conditioning, headlights and radio switched off will yield around 220km. On average, however, the company believes you'll get a range of 160km (99 miles) out of the car, though your own mileage will vary depending on how you drive, the external temperature and what features you use.
The Leaf fared pretty well when driven on Nissan's pre-determined, 63km test route. The journey included a mixture of motorways, stop-start traffic and flowing B roads with a mostly flat gradient. At the end of the drive, the Leaf had exhausted three quarters of its battery power, though it's important to note that we were driving exceptionally hard where possible, had the air-conditioning cranked up to the maximum and the stereo blaring. It's hardly a scientific test, but what's important here is that we didn't feel the need to modify our driving style just because the Leaf was an electric car.
Charge it to my room
Charging the Leaf is one of our biggest bugbears. The car will take a whopping seven hours to fully replenish its exhausted battery when using a standard 220V electrical outlet. That's fine for overnight charging, but it's simply not quick enough if you find yourself with an empty battery 10 miles from home.
Luckily, the Leaf's battery can be charged to 80 per cent capacity in as little as 30 minutes if you're lucky enough to find, or live near, a 50kW quick charger. There seemed to be a vast abundance of these in and around the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, where we tested the car, but this infrastructure isn't yet in place in the UK.
Arguably, the Leaf's biggest drawback is its price. The full retail price, as set by Nissan, is an eye-watering £28,350. Government incentives, designed to increase the update of electric cars in the UK, bring the price down to a slightly more affordable £23,350, but even so -- that's a hell of a lot of money for a small five-door hatchback.
What's even more worrying is the fact that in the UK, Nissan only guarantees the car's battery for five years or 60,000 miles. If you live in America, you get a far sweeter eight-year/100,000-mile warranty, but after that period is over, you're on your own.
Over time, the battery will degrade, losing approximately 20 per cent of its capacity after five years. Understandably, this will affect the Leaf's resale value. We can't imagine many people wanting to spend £15,000 on a second-hand Leaf whose batteries are on the verge of being knackered.
In saying that, the Leaf is relatively inexpensive to run on a day-to-day basis. It's cheap to maintain, exempt from the London congestion charge -- which could save you £8 per day -- free to park in some places and, if you have a cheap enough energy tariff, it'll cost as little as £1.80 per 100km. That compares very favourably to a 1.5-litre family diesel car, which can cost upwards of £6.95 per 100km to run.
The Nissan Leaf is a fabulous little car. It's nippy, handles well and is great fun to drive. It's also far too expensive, and several questions remain as to its resale value in the long run, but, Tesla Roadster aside, it's the best electric car on the road today.
Edited by Emma Bayly