Matthew Jones11 April 2013

First drive: 2013 Nissan Leaf

It’s a lot better, and more efficient, but it’s still got a long road ahead

First drive: 2013 Nissan Leaf

Well that doesn't look any different at all...

Yeah, it's not the most radical re-style. The only major differences are a slightly slipperier bumper and a new set of wheels, both of which improve aero (it's down by 0.1cd to .28cd). But underneath there are big improvements in efficiency and practicality - changes the all-electric Nissan Leaf needed.

See more pics of the 2013 Nissan Leaf

So it does 5000 miles non-stop and charges in five minutes?

Not quite. Range has improved from 108 miles to 123 miles, and the on-board charge capacity has grown from 3.6kw to 6.6kw, so you can now fully juice it from flat in four hours.

Crikey. That's good.

You didn't wait for the but.... But the range-gains figures are under NEDC cycle testing, which means the car doesn't have the heater or air-conditioning on at any point, so it's not terribly representative of, y'know, reality...

Oh, so any real-world gains?

Yes. Nissan spent a lot of time testing it in Norway with plenty of stop-start driving, and the heater blasting from an ambient temperature of -10 to 22 degrees. They found a 25 per cent improvement in economy.Which means that the real-world range is now 100 miles - identical to the cheaper Renault Zoe.

Still, that charge time's blummin' impressive.

It's good, but there's another but... If you're using a normal 10amp household plug it still takes 12 hours to fully charge from flat. But in the UK, you can get a 32-amp charge point fitted to your house (and the government pays 75% of the installation costs) which chops the wait down to four hours.

So what new tech is behind the improvements?

Hold on a second - we need to tell you about the new Leaf range grading first. It's moved to a three-tier system. Like the manufacturer's other cars, there are Visia, Acenta and Tekna trims levels. The entry level Acenta is around £2500 less than the current car, and the top-speccer is £2125 more. But it's only the Tekna that gets the full raft of technological improvements.

Like?

There's special leather, LED lamps, a Bose sound system that's 40 per cent lighter and uses 60 per cent less energy than their normal stereo, and you get an around-view camera system to help you park. But the best bit is the new heater/air-con unit. It uses 70 per cent less energy than ones from the other grades, so if you don't live somewhere along the equator, you will see huge benefits from going for the top level trim.

See more pics of the Nissan Leaf

What improvements have been made across the board, then?

Finally, Nissan introduced a dark colour to the interior spec - the old ones were all in very stainable light colours - and there's an eco routing system on the sat-nav which takes in altitude and traffic conditions. Plus, the computer tells you what battery charge you'll have left when you get to your destination. It'll also tell you if your destination's beyond the car's range and let you check the status of charging points. In Japan they're already allowing you to book charge points and pay for it on the fly. There are little upgrades too, like a percentage meter in the charge reading and a fan-only button. But the big one is weight: the Leaf is 32 kg lighter. Roughly the same as a sizeable German Shepherd.

Crumbs. How?

Well, Nissan's new E powertrain is lighter in itself, and the charger and inverter have been moved from behind the rear seats to under the bonnet, so there aren't any heavy wiring harnesses running from front to back. The relocation has also had some other pleasing side effects, like 50mm more rear legroom (also helped by resculpted front seats), and 40 litres more boot space.

So with all that weight under the bonnet is it a bit nose-heavy?

No, actually. Not any more than the last one. Because the motor and its gubbins are lighter, hardly any mass has been added to the front end. it feels a lot more unencumbered, cornering without the outgoing model's wallow. And because the batteries are still spread under the floor, it's got a lovely, low centre of gravity pinning it to the tarmac.

It's not notably faster (top speed's actually 1 kph down to 89mph, but the 0-62mph sprint has been reduced 0.4 seconds to 11.5 sec).

Are you saying it's... fun?

Yes. Well, relatively. It's the first time the car's had a proper European specification (on account of it being built here), so the body roll rate is more linear, and the steering is a lot heavier so there's oodles more feel, though it is still slow. OK, so it's no hot hatch (though there will be a Nismo body kit available in Japan...) but it's not entirely dreary to drive.

But there's another particularly fun new feature called "B" mode, which makes it feel like a proper, dinosaur-powered manual. Whereas the old car had either Drive or Eco modes (the latter limiting throttle response and giving additional brake regeneration), the new one gives you all the instant-torque responsiveness but with the hardcore regenerative braking you'd get in the outgoing Eco setting. So when you lift off it feels uncannily like you're engine braking.

Didn't the old one feel like that?

Not really. The new Leaf has had the brakes adjusted so they're a lot more progressive, which gives it the manual-car feel. While they were fiddling with the feel, the engineers also improved regeneration by 6 per cent.

So it's good, then?

It's better, but the Leaf still has a long way to go. Company boss, Carlos Ghosn, told Top Gear that it's largely down to the legislators to build an infrastrsucture to support EVs, but we can't help but think that the prospect of waiting four hours for every 120-odd miles still isn't enough to tempt people away from fossil fuels.

 

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