A new Leaf for test drives
Late last month the all-electric Nissan Leaf won the European Car of the Year award; juror Andrew English explains why he put the car first and his attitude to others on the shortlist
WE put this year's seven-strong short list for Car of the Year 2011 (and a couple of variants) to the sword at Silverstone, the home of British motor racing.
Choosing a winner is never easy, but this year posed unique questions. Should you test the vehicle or the infrastructure? Do modest sales targets mean the technology is irrelevant? And how much influence should manufacturer and government hype have?
Of course I'm talking Nissan's Leaf. The world's first mass-produced, battery-electric car, which goes on sale next year at €29,995 and will be eventually built at the firm's Sunderland plant, along with its lithium-ion battery.
If I tell you that to keep the two Leaf models (should that be Leaves?) on the go for the Car of the Year test day, Nissan had to bring a whopping great truck to fast charge them, then you'll get some idea of the dilemma here. Everything else got by with one tank of fuel -- albeit severely depleted after a day on the toughest roads and, thanks to Silverstone and the British Racing Driver's Club, on the new Grand-Prix circuit. This year's voting was unchanged, with 25 points to allocate to at least five cars, with a maximum of 10 for any one car and no equal first places. I give the cars below in the order I voted.
The winner was announced on November 29 in Paris and it was the Nissan Leaf, my choice.
1 Nissan Leaf
This 100-mile range, four-door hatchback has to confront some of the considerable snags that battery motoring entails, particularly what the Americans' call range anxiety.
In well-to-wheels terms, the Leaf emits between 78 and 82 g/km of carbon dioxide so it's far from a free ride.
Add in the fact that most will be sold as second cars to the wealthy middle classes and you'll see that this save-the-planet argument only goes so far.
Nor should there be much mystery about building a half-competent electric car. It's simple enough on paper; battery, motor, inverter and a step-down transmission and get motoring.
Except that the Leaf is so crushingly competent, it's impossible to disregard the virtuosity. I drove down a horribly testing road near Silverstone with no quarter asked or given.
The Leaf handled it all, only getting squirrely when the car landed after a jump as the battery added a bit of rear steering to the mix. There are premium German saloons that behave much worse.
So battery motoring for the masses? Er no, but this is an outstanding 'first' and for that I believe it deserves top marks.
2 Ford C-Max
Late to market with the wrong configuration didn't stop the previous model C-Max being the outstanding compact multi-purpose vehicle of its generation.
This new version debuts the 'One Ford' world-car Focus chassis, and again, it shows rivals the way home. Ford's new electronic power steering isn't quite perfection, but it's closer than most, and the interior is smart, practical and well thought-out.
These high-mounted family hatchbacks don't have to be dreich and drear to drive, and Ford has packed enough vim in the C-Max to allow it to stand tall in a tall class.
3 Opel Meriva
What could have been a one-trick pony with its wardrobe opening side doors is actually much better than that. Opel's range of engines tend to be raucous, but the Meriva is fun to drive and economical, with a well-designed, high quality interior. It's much more than a set of doors and should be recognised as such.
4 Alfa Romeo Giulietta
A sultry Latin beauty with flaws, where have we heard that before? Except that the Giulietta is far less of a compromise than any Alfa before. It's chassis dynamics are spot on (except in the noisy and hectic 1,750cc version, which promises but doesn't quite deliver), the 1.4-litre Multiair engine is powerful, clever and economical, the diesels are sporting and frugal, and the new range of twin-clutch transmissions shows that Alfa is right at the forefront of technology, but putting its own spin on things.
Pity the car's interior doesn't quite match the rest of the promise.
5 Volvo S and V60
The naughty Volvo is, on paper, neither sporting nor big enough, but that's to discount its considerable virtues that become clear when you get behind the wheel.
The impression of unburstable solidity, a high-quality cabin, supremely comfortable seats, great driving position and fine combination of ride and handling will all be familiar to traditional Volvo owners but not to buyers in this sports tourer market.
This is the Volvo dealers' dilemma: how to get potential customers behind the wheel? Hope they don't notice the bloomin' awful electronic handbrake, though. It's enough to put you off a Volvo for life.
6 Citroen C3 and DS3
A tale of two cars using the same basic hardware. The C3 is frankly outclassed in its market, with 'barely adequate' stamped all over -- it didn't feel particularly special and was unworthy of a lot of marks.
The DS3, on the other hand, was possibly the pick of the bunch over the poor roads, with accurate body control, precise steering, a fine ride and that wonderful engine/transmission combination it shares with the MINI. In the end, they cancel each other out.
7 Dacia Duster
All credit to this utilitarian Romanian-built SUV for making it this far -- buyers have voted with their wallets for this no-frills car, although once you load it with what many regard as bare-minimum specification, it's not quite the bargain it first seems.
I just don't see Louis Schweitzer's clever production strategy combined with a sort of reverse chic for owning a new-but-Spartan car as being worthy of Car of the Year, although given my post bag when I gave a less than sparkling verdict to the Duster, no doubt I'll be hearing from those who do.