We’re hardly on many UK automaker PRs’ must-invite-to-all-product-launches A-list (Z-list, more like) but, full credit to Nissan, just about everyone here has been on at least one Leaf EV event or another and Had a Go. And we all liked this first step into a brave new world.
Way back at the first event, at Nissan’s Europe HQ in Switzerland, we got a taste of the Leaf drivetrain in a CUBE ‘mule’ body (no peeking under the bonnet), liked electric motoring on first encounter and were impressed with the automaker’s complex plans to introduce and market the forthcoming car worldwide.
But, even then, we sensed a little nervousness at the automaker and an insider admitted as much – sooner or later after the launch a TV camera would catch an out-of-volts Leaf at the roadside and it would be time to implement Damage Control.
As it happens, last Sunday night was that time for the UK as, on the immensely popular Top Gear TV show on the Beeb (BBC ), presenter Jeremy Clarkson ran out of juice and had trouble finding somewhere in Lincoln, of all places, to recharge.
Renowned daily newspaper The Times has come to Nissan’s defence and a nice little row has begun.
Whoa! Time out. Clarkson, controversial as ever, is unrepentent, telling The Times: “The piece was about the difficulties of recharging the electric car. At no point did we mislead the viewers [about the available range of up to 100 miles, after setting off with just 30 miles of charge remaining].
“Top Gear’s job is to say to everybody, ‘Just a minute, do not believe [electric cars] can be run as simply as you have been told. Charging them up is a pain in the arse’.
“If I got into a car with a petrol engine, should I explain to the viewers that I only had three-quarters of a tank?”
Clarkson reportedly admitted electric car owners were likely to check the vehicle’s range before embarking on a journey.
“Yes, they trim their beards and wax their armpits and off they go.”
Certainly, all-electric EVs (as distinct from GM’s new Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall/Opel Ampera range extender) are currently no direct replacment for a petrol or diesel car.
A hundred miles (if you’re lucky) is no substitute for at least 300 in a petrol (hundreds more in some diesels) and you can refuel in minutes at most supermarkets (even if thousands of private gas stations in smaller towns and villages here in the UK have closed in recent years). After your 100 miles, an EV could take up to eight hours to recharge, always assuming you can find a public recharge station and they’re still thin on the ground or all but non-existent, outside London.
Nissan would argue its Leaf is not for spontaneous, never-mind-the-gas-gauge-we’ll-refuel-on-the-way trips such as Clarkson appears to have attempted.
It would, instead, probably suit perfectly my routine twice-a-week 42-mile round trip to the office and supermarket and a little sub-50-mile additional evening and weekend running schlepping Mrs Deputy Editor and kids, mostly around my small market town, always returning to the convenient park-on-the-driveway recharge point I would have if I bought such a car. But that is not going to suit everyone in the same way a petrol or diesel car can. And I still reckon I’d have at least a little ‘range anxiety’, especially if I got stuck in traffic. Which wouldn’t be the case in a fully-fuelled Volt.
Nissan has always argued the Leaf would suit a particular set of customers, and not all. For longer trips, it planned an alliance with a rental car firm so buyers whose Leaf was their only car could hire a conventional vehicle at special rates. As I’d probably do for the odd long holiday trip when a larger vehicle to haul all the kids’ stuff would be handy as well.
The Leaf is but a first step and experiences such as that with Clarkson and Top Gear will help Nissan and other EV makers further along the rocky path towards the ultimate goal of battery packs good for petrol/diesel car ranges and a ‘refuelling’ speed close to that of pumping 50 litres or so of liquid into a fuel tank.
For progress towards the latter, Nissan needs look no further than alliance partner Renault and what it is working on with Better place in a number of countries. Drive in, drop old battery pack, collect new, pay, drive on. And one day, maybe, your EV will charge by induction as it drives along the road, using the sort of contactless technology that keeps your electric toothbrush charged up and, in GM cars, will soon recharge your iPhone or MP3 player placed on a special mat.
Yes, it’s all a huge infrastructure ask, and it’ll take years. But they’ve already thought of it.