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The Top Gear car review: Nissan Leaf
What is it like on the road?
It’s all very simple and relaxing if you fall into its way of doing things - smooth and silent and serene. Try and drive it like a GTI and of course it’ll push back at you.
It’s not slow though. Up to about 50mph it has a definite spring in its step, and even at motorway speed there’s enough acceleration. And it’s practically silent as well as bewitchingly quick-witted. It gives the impression it was always impatient to accelerate and was just waiting for you, by pressing the pedal, to allow it to do so.
Don’t get carried away on the motorway though. Doing outside-lane speeds drives a coach and horses through your range.
Uphills do the same, but of course what goes up must come down. On our test route we drove up a 2,400m mountain. The battery charge fell scarily on the way up. Then on the way down to sea level we clawed back 11 percentage points by careful use of regeneration.
But that’s an odd style of driving. You try to avoid sudden acceleration and braking. But in bends you’re frantically conserving your speed. So there’s an unnatural combination of low longitudinal g but high lateral.
Still, hooning up and down mountain passes isn’t what this car is for. In normal driving, the silent exactness of its power is what enchants you.
A new ‘e-Pedal’ system means you can get strong regenerative braking, and also some blended friction braking, just by lifting off the accelerator. It means you can avoid the brake pedal most of the time. It’s a surprisingly relaxing and simple way to drive. You sharpen up your anticipation skills, and that’s quite fun in itself.
The e-Pedal’s electronics take care of deciding when to bring in the friction brakes and, by separate calculation, when to illuminate the brake lights. It generally (unless the battery is full so can’t take regen energy) will favour electric retardation over the brakes until very low speed. You need only use the actual brake pedal for events over 0.2g.
Flat and predictable cornering is a natural result of a low centre of gravity. Swinging through open bends is surprising fun, partly because you can meter the power with such precision and the responses to the steering wheel are nicely progressive. The Leaf sits stable on a motorway too. But the steering is depressingly remote of feel and the low-resistance tyres don’t cling very gamely, and the damping can get flustered.
The top-rung Tekna version comes with radar cruise control including lane following and traffic jam assist. Nissan calls the bundle ProPilot and makes rather a fuss of it. It’s unusual in the hatch segment, but not unique, and bigger cars frequently have it. Like every other such system, the steering assist is easily caught out by things like repair lines in the road, or glare.
All except base trim get radar cruise, but without the steering function. All Leafs also get radar sensors feeding cross-traffic assist for reversing, and blind-spot warning. Much more useful.
The ride isn’t too hard, but it can get a bit bobbly if the road excites that frequency. The absence of engine noise means you notice the sound of tyres and wind, but actually those things are decently subdued and you don’t have to turn up the stereo.