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What an opportune time for a new electric car… Indeed. As owners collectively scratch their chins about just how clean their diesel cars really are, Nissan has given its Leaf an extra 26 per cent of range – hiking it to 155 miles – as well as a bit of a spruce-up. It’s fortuitous timing rather than a clever plan, but you could say the stars have aligned, the most convincing Leaf yet arriving just as internet searches for electric cars exponentially increase. It looks no different. Why should I care? It’s unlikely to grab headlines quite like the more obviously revolutionary Toyota Mirai, true. But the Leaf is the world’s best selling electric car, ever. Over 200,000 have been shifted, 11,500 of them in the UK. It currently accounts for more than half of all EVs sold here, and a fifth of plug-in vehicles if you include plug-in hybrids like the Prius and, erm, Porsche 918.
Owners love them, too; the Leaf has the highest satisfaction rate of any car Nissan sells. So you can understand why little has changed: the styling is identical, remaining divisive, and its 109bhp electric motor is untouched, with the only mechanical tweaks occurring to the batteries that lie in the floor. What’s new? Their size and packaging are actually identical, but the cathodes are upgraded, helping energy output climb from 24 to 30kWh. In simple terms, this means a claimed 155 miles from a full change, as opposed to 124 miles. Fast chargers will top most of the power back up in 30 minutes for longer journeys via appropriately equipped motorway services. The 30kWh battery is an option – a £1,600 option, no less – with sales of the 24kWh Leaf continuing. But 80 per cent of buyers are expected to go for the more accommodating setup. A Tesla Model S will go quite a bit further. Yeah, but it will also cost quite a bit more than the 30kWh Leaf’s £24,490. And the numbers are spot-on for what people actually use cars in the Golf and Focus class for, according to Nissan. It reckons so-called C-segment buyers travel an average of 30 miles a day, with 98 per cent of them covering fewer than 100 miles daily. If you’re thinking “the old one could do that,” you’re right. But it’s all about perception: an extension of the range makes people more secure, makes them worry less about driving their EV in a mollycoddling way. Likewise an eight-year warranty on battery degradation is probably overkill in an age of short-term lease deals, but it’s all added peace of mind.
So why do people like their Leafs so much? Refinement, ride quality, and reliability. Sensible things, but the Leaf is very good at them. An easier, more relaxing car to drive you will struggle to find. Once you’ve negotiated its quirky little gear selector and clunky foot-operated handbrake, anyhow. The power output might sound modest, but the Leaf zips along nicely. Its 187lb ft of torque is about the same as a small hot hatch, only here you don’t have to wait for the revs to build - it’s all there as soon as you touch the throttle. And the lack of engine noise and gearchanges make it a quite serene way to travel. Early Leafs weren’t adept handlers, but little updates over the years have ensured it now grips well and steers intuitively, while the ride is nice and soft. It’s not where you should turn for thrills, but the Leaf stands up to all relevant scrutiny. Can I fit the new battery to an older Leaf? ‘Fraid not. Nissan blames EU legislation; swapping old batteries for new would require expensive homologation on each and every car, and claim that it’s far more cost-effective for customers to upgrade to a new car. They would say that… Well, quite. But Nissan is watching Tesla’s update template closely, and envisions a similar approach to upgrading its cars’ tech in the future. Autonomous driving goes hand-in-hand with electric vehicles too, it says, and future versions of the Leaf will almost certainly get self-driving systems. For now, the most exciting changes beyond the more efficient battery are a new colour (the ‘Bronze’ pictured up top) and a swooshier, smartphone-like touchscreen system, which helps lift an interior that is otherwise prosaic in light of those found in (albeit costlier) BMW i-cars and Teslas. I’ve seen more exciting facelifts. Us too. But if you’re suddenly questioning the worthiness of your diesel hatchback, the Leaf does all the things that probably had you smitten with a thrifty TDI – lots of low-down torque, low running costs (2p a mile, they say), free tax – with clean motoring thrown in for good measure. The biggest change for this 2016 model year Leaf could be people’s perceptions of it…