TG drives a rally-prepped Nissan Leaf | Top Gear
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Thursday 28th September

TG drives a rally-prepped Nissan Leaf

Heard the one about the electric rally car? And this one's going 10,000 miles...

  • You’re about to head on a 10,000-mile rally from the UK to far-flung Russia. You need to choose a car for the job. It’s not going to be an electric car, and the range anxiety that comes with it, surely?

    It is if you’re Chris Ramsey. He’s picked a Nissan Leaf as his car for this year’s Mongol Rally. It’s an adventure traditionally full of, um, not excellent old cars. The event’s own rulebook states “you need to drive a small, s*** car to make the rally tougher”.

    Now, the Leaf is neither of those things. And very far from the latter, as our review testifies. But surely running a car which can’t be refueled with ease makes the rally tough in its own right? It appears the organisers agree…

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  • No EV has yet attempted the Mongol Rally. Nonetheless, Chris assures me “it’s a perfect car to do this rally in.” While the Mongol rally is indeed a 10,000-mile event – and therefore many, many charges for an EV – he’s set aside six to eight weeks for the journey.

    As have most of the other 300-odd competitors; a daily average is 150 to 200 miles, and with Chris conservatively predicting 90 to 100 miles per charge, that means the Leaf might only need a 20-minute top-up each day if it’s being charged overnight. Wow.

  • So, the car. “It’s just a bog-standard 30kW Leaf,” says Chris. “No performance enhancements, no drivetrain changes.”

    No extra power over the Leaf’s 109bhp, then, and no extra batteries to boost range further. That must have been a temptation, right?

    “The thought was there, but when I look at the distance it’s not needed. There’ll be charging infrastructure so we’ll have what we need. And while there’s a temptation to push on, we want to take our time and enjoy the adventure, experience the journey.”

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  • While it remains front-wheel drive, there have been tweaks for the suspension and tyres. Knobblier off-road rubber will be used through Kazakhstan and Mongolia, though regular tyres will be used elsewhere to help efficiency.

    The suspension, meanwhile, has spacers in it to increase the ride height for the moderate off-roading the Leaf will have to tackle. But the springs themselves are unchanged.

    “We’re staying true to the essence of what the Mongol rally is all about,” Chris affirms.

  • The rear quarters, meanwhile, have lost their seats. Initially it saves 34kg – good for extending the range – but the space will quickly be filled by charging cables, spare wheels and the like.

    There will be no vehicle dragging around support equipment. It’s just Chris, his wife and all their various belongings aboard the Leaf. Note the light bar-equipped roof rack, too…

  • Charging, then. In Europe it’ll be a doddle, with plenty of rapid charging facilities along the way.

    But it shouldn’t be too difficult for Chris to pop his car into the mains in further-flung places, either; the governments of the countries they’re visiting are working with Chris to provide charging points, as they attempt their own electric car revolution. This Leaf is part of the PR campaign.

  • And Chris knows a thing or two about how to get the best out of a Leaf, having owned one since 2011.

    “I know the tactics for getting more range out of these things. I use hypermiling. Using the topography of the route, using neutral in downhill sections, putting it back into B-mode for a bit of regen. It really does give you that extra range.”

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  • Chris is no stranger to big adventures in the Leaf, having completed Land’s End to John o’Groats and back again in one trip. He’ll be back in Scotland between now and the Mongol Rally’s July start date, getting further accustomed to its range expectations.

    But a tougher task lies before even that. We’re getting our grubby mitts on it. The exact car that has an epic 10,000-mile journey ahead of it. Is this wise?

  • Without the time to head to Mongolia to try the car in its future surroundings, though, we’ve done the next best thing: driven it in an off-road safari facility in deepest Sussex.

    Mock all you want, but there are steep climbs, dirty, smelly bogs and much gravel. Perfect for assessing this Leaf’s off-road ability and rally credentials.

    “Because it is an adventure, not a race, nobody gets anything for being first,” says Chris. As polite a suggestion as any that this Leaf isn’t built for special stages, and the word ‘rally’ doesn’t always mean lobbing it around like a wannabe McRae.

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  • But I suspect the Leaf would be up to it. It grips very tenaciously on those tyres, and puts down the electric motor's instantaneous torque with no fuss. This is a very quick, capable car on mud and gravel, and the faster you go, the more the Leaf settles on its suspension and really takes unruly surfaces in its stride. It’s very good at being a rally car, basically.

    Its controls remain as light and effortless as a road-going Leaf. Yet it still inspires plenty of confidence, and when the photographer gets out his camera and requests dust kicking up from the wheels, it’s an easy car to build up and maintain speed in. The way it bolts up to 30mph in barely a moment never gets old, either.

  • The Leaf’s additional ride height also helps it clamber up and whizz down hills without a murmur, as well as drive through particularly deep puddles without the whole electricity/water interface becoming a worry.

    The changes over standard are small, but impressively effective. They were carried out by RML, who also made the Nissan Juke R.

  • I can see why Chris is so confident about the journey ahead. But there must be stuff he’s dreading?

    “Border crossings! I’ve never been involved in a border crossing before. You read all these stories about what happens in those, money being exchanged under tables, people sitting six hours without anything happening… I'm not looking forward to that.”

    Hopefully he’ll be able to plug the car into their office if he's kept waiting…

  • His wife is co-driver for the rally. Which is certainly one way of getting approval for two months away on a road trip.

    “We’ve been married for 7 years but together 17, so I think we can survive this! We’ve backpacked around the world together, too. I’m lucky to have someone with a passion for this sort of thing.”

  • The whole adventure is being funded by Chris, and has taken a year of intensive planning. Though with his previous Leaf trips all providing inspiration, he suggests the whole thing is basically six years in the making.

    Six years in which he’s become a proper electric car convert. “I don’t have any qualms in saying I’ve been a petrolhead myself. But when it comes to my car of choice, it’s now always going to be an EV for me.”

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