Sunday 24 September 2017

New LEAF turns to next electric chapter but we need real action to change our EV mood

First look: Nissan Leaf

Nissan LEAF
Nissan LEAF
Nissan's interior
Nissan LEAF
Eddie Cunningham

Eddie Cunningham

And so we'll have the new electric Nissan LEAF by February. With the mood changing across motoring can it be the breakthrough model that switches greater numbers of people on to mainstream electric cars?

There are grounds for hope and grounds for, well, more gradual progress - things that can help and things that can hinder.

But before getting into that let me recap for you.

The new LEAF, unveiled in Tokyo, is a significant departure from the current model on looks and power. The five-door hatch will be made in Sunderland and arrive on the Irish market next February.

Its arrival is perfectly timed to reflect how much attitudes have changed towards electric cars.

Helping it in no small measure will be its new e-powertrain that gives it a 40kWh capacity (up 10kWh) and boosts its range to a claimed 378km (on the so-called soon-defunct 'New' European Driving Cycle).

Nissan defended what some here described as a conservative range compared with the likes of Tesla. They point out that most of those buying one will only need to charge it once or twice a week. And they contend, rightly, there is a matter of cost. More range equals bigger battery and more money.

A key mind-changer, I believe, will be the new car's cost. In Germany it will be up €600 on the old one. Irish details will be released next month. The current model starts at €21,490 for the 24kHh version (199km claimed range) and €24,490 for the 30kWh (250km range). The Japanese price will be largely in line with the current one too, we are told. So there's one of the challenges: how keenly they can they spec and price it.

One area not often stressed on electric cars is how sometimes they can be nippy to drive (they get all their torque from the start unlike fossil-fuel powertrains). The LEAF's figures suggest it should be lively as the new motor generates more torque (to 320Nm) and power (now 150PS). It has a claimed top speed of 144 kmh.

I was a bit disappointed to learn it will take longer to charge the new high-tech lithium-ion battery pack - up four hours to 16 on a home socket from zero. It takes up to eight hours with a 6KW home charger. But you'll get a quick charge to 80% on the public system in 40 minutes.

Towards the end of next year, or early 2019, there will be a higher-power version with larger battery capacity, longer range and higher price.

It's a fresh-looking departure from the current car and feels larger inside though it is only a small bit longer, wider and lower. It is built on the same platform as the current model.

Visually it is now designed, inside and out, to look more like the rest of the Nissans. It reminds me of the Qashqai and Pulsar from the side and the Micra from the back. We tried it for size and found decent rear legroom for a tall passenger. The dash is slightly stepped so there isn't a big slab of plastic. The instrument and central infotainment screens are embedded and add rather than detract from the look (as is the case sometimes) at the front. Decent seats too. Nissan claims there is room for five; four adults I'd say.

There is a large boot, though what we saw was pre-production so space-saver wheel and/or other stuff will take up room.

Apart from the electric-vehicle side of things there are some important technologies:

* The outstanding one is the e-Pedal technology. It allows you to start, accelerate, decelerate and stop just by adjusting the pressure of your foot on the accelerator. When the accelerator is fully released, both regenerative and friction brakes are applied automatically to gradually bring the car to a stop. Nissan says the car holds its position, even on steep slopes, until you press the accelerator again. Of course, you still have to use the conventional brake pedal for sudden stops. It takes a little getting used to (I tried it on a simulator) but it works.

* A ProPILOT driver assistance system, for use on single-lane driving on highways, is claimed to make driving easier in heavy traffic. ProPILOT Park can control steering, acceleration, braking and gear selection to automatically guide the car into a parking spot.

* There is also a new interface on the smartphone app so you can monitor the car's state of charge, find the nearest charging station etc. And there's a new-look 7ins, full-colour (TFT) display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto feature in the infotainment system.

Since the LEAF first came on the Irish market in 2010, around 1,200 new models have been bought but used imports are soaring of late.

Nissan expects new LEAF buyers to at least double next year depending on the market and import levels. I think a critical area will be how much people can expect for their trade-ins of current LEAFs. Imports have hit values. Therefore, cost to change will be critical, so will the price of the new car.

Luckily, by the time it gets here we'll have had the Budget. If rumours are true and BIK is added as a further electric car incentive, the landscape would be far more encouraging.

The government has to do something significant on top of current incentives and commitments if it really wants to really kick-start the electric era. Otherwise they are merely paying lip service.

Road tax will be €120, like the current one, due to zero emissions, and the €10,000 combined VRT rebate and SEAI grants will apply.

Motorists have been slow to pick up on electric cars despite those incentives. Total electric car sales this year are running at 531 (versus 361 for the corresponding 2016 period).

The LEAF still leads the way (231, down from 327) but there are 242 used LEAF imports (up from 97). Hyundai's electric IONIQ is second with 223 new sales. The next year or so will tell a tale about our overall attitudes to EVs, and the LEAF will be a major part of that story.

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