Nissan South Africa was the first of the large local manufacturers to introduce an all-electric vehicle to the automotive market. Back in 2010, the first-generation Leaf went on sale having sold over 450 000 units globally it’s the most popular electric car to ever go on sale. Now the Japanese firm is onto its next-generation model which went on sale in Europe in 2018. Looking to continue the Leaf’s momentum while competing carmakers are still a few years away from having their mainstream electric vehicles make their way to the assembly line Nissan has updated the Leaf yet again for 2019 with a more powerful battery and more technology.
The South African story of the first-generation Nissan Leaf is not one of exceptional success, however, as there are few incentives to own an electric vehicle here in South Africa and import taxes on luxury items mean that prices for EV’s are seriously inflated. Nissan has persevered and still has its plan for electric mobility in South Africa as well as the African continent going forward but more on that later.
The Nissan Leaf 40 kWh is unfortunately not available yet in South Africa yet, and only two units were sent down for testing and for the media to experience. The 40 kWh is the base Leaf model and launched this is year is the tech-laden 60 kWh version available globally too. The plan is to have both models go on sale in South Africa by 2021 when Nissan reckons conditions for mainstream EV sales will be much more favourable. Let’s get to the car.
From the outside, it looks like a regular hatchback offering a design that could easily pass it as the Micra’s bigger brother, a small ‘zero emissions’ badge does give the game away that this is no conventional car. Step inside and if you’re familiar with the current crop of Nissan products like the Qashqai or Micra you won’t feel out of place in the second-generation Leaf. The main points of contact like the seats and steering wheel are all recognisably Nissan. It’s strange to consider the idea of a run-of-the-mill EV, the Leaf is not overly futuristic or particularly exciting. There is an analogue speedometer offset by a digital display that offers a variety of driving information there are soft-touch leather inserts on the doors and squishy seats, all pretty orthodox motoring fair.
It’s once you set off that you realise what it is that makes the Leaf so special. The single electric motor drives the front wheels and is good for a healthy 110 kW and 320 Nm. The drivetrain provides instantaneous thrust and is something to get used to if like myself you haven’t driven an all-electric car before. On pulling away from the venue I screeched the eco-friendly tires, undignified I know. This highlighted the responsiveness of the throttle pedal controlling the electric motor. It’s nothing like that in a combustion driven vehicle. Only very small inputs are needed to make progress.
On the road, the car is whisper-quiet, eerily so. This means wind and tire noise is exaggerated but nothing too serious. Its overall demeanour is smooth and the ride favours a laid back driving style. Driven briefly in an urban and freeway environment the vehicle impressed most with it’s rolling performance thanks to the immediately available torque. Up until 100 km/h, the Leaf has surprisingly good acceleration pushing you back into your set, something you wouldn’t expect by simply judging its looks. Thanks to a low centre of gravity the Leaf corners reasonably flat and it feels stable over road imperfections too.
The Leaf offers an “e-Pedal” mode which is essentially a strong regenerative braking system. An odd sensation at first, lifting off the throttle sees the car slow down, given enough space the car can come to a complete stop. Once the knack for using the system is developed you can drive without using the brake pedal for extended periods of time. It’s indeed a very different way of driving, however, fun and satisfying once you manage to successfully anticipate traffic conditions ahead. I’d imagine that owners would have this mode permanently engaged to see how long they could have their mechanical brake pads last, and Nissan representatives were keen to explain that in Europe they’ve been told of some Leafs that have gone some 80 000 km before replacing the first set of brake pads. That’s about double what you’d reasonably expect from a regular set of pads.
The Leaf is a regular hatchback in terms of specification, practicality and quality, however, this recipe means that it is the most important EV currently sold in Europe. It looks to be a good urban runabout and if you travel less than 150 km per day this 40 kWh model with a range of 270 km on the WLTP cycle looks to be a promising alternative to a regular combustion hatchback. We’d like to experience it for a greater period of time before making any conclusive verdict though, as South Africa still needs more infrastructure to support these sorts of vehicles.
This generation of Leaf will only go on sale in South Africa in 2021 and Nissan reckons that once its $200 million Navara manufacturing plant in Rossyln is up and running they can subsidise the Leaf import costs to meet the regular middle-class family budget. The option of building an assembly plant for the Leaf has also been proposed to reduce import costs. This could be favoured by the government as this has the potential to create some desperately needed jobs locally. Only time will tell though, the EV future for the masses may be nearer than we may expect and the Nissan Leaf looks to lead the charge.
In a nutshell
Nissan Leaf 40 kWh
A refined EV for the masses with an eerily silent yet responsive drivetrain
We can only expect to see sales begin in 2021, EV infrastructure yet to be rolled out extensively locally
Powertrain: Single electromagnetic AC motor
Battery: 40 kWh
Power: 110 kW / 320 Nm
Performance: 0-100 km/h 8.6 sec, top speed 144 km/h
Range: 270 km (claimed using WLTP)
Tyres: 205/55 R16
Economy: 0 l/100 km
Transmission: single–speed, front-wheel drive
CO2 emissions: 0 g/km