The Nissan Leaf: not just for Christmas

After all the statistics, prototypes, range claims and financial chat, we have finally got behind the wheel of the production version of one of the most anticipated cars of the last couple of years – the Nissan Leaf.

There are other electric cars that will be arriving by the beginning of 2011 - the trio from Mitsubishi, Peugeot and Citroen are aimed at the city car market - but none has garnered as much attention as this ecologically-monikered Nissan.
Naturally the big concerns in the lead-up to the Leaf's arrival have centred on how far it goes between charges, but while the fuel economy claims of a combustion engine are often an unattainable dream, this electric five-door proves to hold good on its predicted range – if you believe the on-board computers that is.

The eco mode has more of an effect on your driving than almost any other in that it practically kills any ability to accelerate at speed. Even if you floor the pedal, the car still creeps around at a battery-saving crawl, meaning that even if you are trying to exhaust it, the Leaf will get close to - or even beyond - the hundred-mile mark.

Leave it in normal though, and it is like driving a different car. Rather than being the staid milk float or electric delivery van that we might have feared, the Leaf is like an electric go kart and one that accelerates much faster than we ever hoped. The current (unconfirmed) whisper is that the 0-62mph time will be around the 11 second mark, but it feels a good few clicks faster, especially in the dashes from zero to 30mph.

Unsurprisingly, the Leaf does not feel at home at speed. The lack of a heavy engine to weigh it down means it feels skittish on the motorway, and that instantaneous low-speed acceleration is lost when you get past about 60mph. But thread together a series of sub-40mph roundabouts and the Leaf is positively fun. The steering is solid and responsive and the ride around town is a pleasing mix of firm and supple without being wallowing, although it crashes rather crudely through larger potholes.

There is no point pretending that the Leaf is going to suit everyone, or even a significant proportion of the car-owning population. But those wavering about the lack of charging facilities or the need to plug it in between long journeys should view the commitment as being about the same as buying a family pet.

Just as you need to head home to feed a dog each night, and can't go away for a long time without making sure there are facilities at your destination to care for your pooch, the same is true for the Leaf. Young, unsettled flat-dwellers in their twenties are unlikely to have the ability to give the Leaf the space it needs to be at its best, so as with the pet it is likely to be settled families in suburban areas that would get the most out of a rewarding and cheap to run car.
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