If you thought that electric cars were just teeny, tiny little things like the G-Whiz which look like they'd turn over if you blow on them, then think again. The latest crop of electric vehicles (and we're not talking hybrids here) are proper cars that look - but don't sound - like the real thing.
Last month, we checked out the Volvo C30 which won't go into production until 2013. This month it's the turn of the Nissan Leaf which is going to be available, albeit in small numbers, from next spring. Like the Volvo C30, the Nissan Leaf looks like an ordinary gas guzzling car, and houses a huge Lithium Ion Battery underneath. It's also a family car with room for 5 people.
It's available in various user friendly colours (black, red, silver, grey) but we took out a metallic blue model from Nissan's Bedfordshire HQ - a left-hand drive sample for Europe and currently the only one in the UK. As you might expect the price of the Leaf is quite steep at just under £24K (£23,990 to be precise), but prices will fall once full UK production starts from the Sunderland plant in 2013.
Until then demand will be met by Nissan's Japanese factories. "We're not expecting the Leaf to take over the road from day one," explains Gabi Whitfield, Communications Director, Nissan GB. However, those wanting to pre-order a model for next Spring can do so from Nissan's website here. Be warned though the website is very annoying with lots of flash animation and electronic voices.
Start me up
Driving a car these days it seems is more like booting up a computer and so it is with The Leaf. Obviously there aren't any gears to contend with, it's just a case of flicking a switch and putting your foot on the gas - sorry electric - pedal. Nissan claims it can go 100 miles on a single charge but this will vary according to the kind of driving you do.
There is an Eco Mode but this will reduce your speed in order to maximise distance between charges. Top speed is 90 miles per hour but on the mean streets of Milton Keynes (or thereabouts) I didn't get close to that. Instead I reckon I got the car up to around 50/60 miles per hour, but I'm sure it can go faster.
What's very odd about electric cars generally I find is how quiet they are, like something out of a sci-fi movie. Nissan have got round this problem for hard of hearing folk and those who generally don't look when they are crossing roads - people like me in other words - by actually introducing noise at lower speeds.
Up to 30 miles per hour the Nissan Leaf emits a whistling turbine type noise. Faster than that the noise of the tyres going around is loud enough to alert you to the fact that a car is approaching. Apparently there isn't yet a standard that manufacturers of electronic vehicles have to follow, but Nissan's idea of introducing a noise at low speeds does seem a sensible one.
While driving the Nissan is a pleasant enough experience (its low centre of gravity perhaps makes it feel a little more sporty than it really is!) what's really good about the vehicle is its in car entertainment system.
I've had to make do with a CD changer for years now, so I'm easily impressed with a car that has MP3 input jacks, USB sockets and so on. But the Nissan Leaf doesn't just stop there. It also boasts a large colour Satellite Navigation system complete with a map showing the nearest charging points - unfortunately there aren't too many of them yet!!
And apparently the vehicle will even interface with your mobile phone, telling you if it needs charging before you take it out and allowing to put the heating on in the vehicle before you set off on a cold winter morning.
So would I buy the Nissan Leaf? Well at £24K not a chance. I can see that some show offy types with loads of money might splash out on one - in the same way as Hollywood types have been photographed with their Toyota Pious, sorry Prius. But really when you can buy a top end 3 year old petrol car for half the price, it's not an option.
Even though you do make a saving on the congestion charge and on petrol, it's still going to take some time to make your money back considering the massive premium - even if you travel into central London every day.
Then again, once mass production starts in 2013, prices fall, and there are charging points all over the UK then it does become a serious proposition. Whether electric cars are that much better than petrol cars for the environment is of course a massive issue (because obviously the energy needed to power them still needs to come from somewhere), but at least electric vehicles don't chuck out nasty particulates into the atmosphere that can really damage people's lungs. What's more, they should save you money at least in the long term!
NISSAN LEAF TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS
Driving range 100 miles (160km)
Max speed 90mph (over 140km/h)
Battery Type laminated lithium-ion battery
Battery layoutunder seat & floor
Length 4445 mm
Width 1770 mm
Height 1550 mm
Seating capacity 5 adults
Max Engine Power 80kW
Max Engine Torque 280Nm
Charging times quick charger: less than 30 min for 80% charge;
Home-use 220V charger: about 8 hrs
On sale in the UK from March 2011
Built in the UK from 2013