Plugging in the Leaf to charge at the end of the day is about as much hassle as putting your phone on to charge - gotta be done

Plugging in the Leaf to charge at the end of the day is about as much hassle as putting your phone on to charge - gotta be done

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Fresh off the delivery driver's trailer, just as I was about to leave for the office by routine petrol power, the Nissan Leaf, fully charged, reckoned it was good for 62 miles before recharging. Twenty-one miles to the office later, the range was down to 53 miles. Stopping on the way to work out how to change to 'Econ' mode (slower acceleration, increased regenerative braking) must have helped. Such is the fun you can have eking out the volts in an all-electric car.

Normally I take a bit of time to familiarise myself with a press vehicle before setting off but the car's arrival coincided with off-to-the-office time and, having driven a Leaf before (starting and getting going is very similar to driving a Prius), it was simply grab key, set seat and mirrors and go.

“Mind pedestrians,” cautioned the delivery man. “They're not used to quiet electrics.” He was right. Four hundred yards down the close a schoolboy walked right across the road in front of me – he'd clearly not heard the Leaf approach without the familiar combustion engine sound and was noticeably startled when I slowed and carefully passed him.

If EVs catch on, there's a worrying trend automakers will appreciate; freeloading motoring writers actually paying for more of their press car motoring charging up at home. I have driveway parking in front of a garage too small for a real car and there is a power point just inside and enough space for a thick cable under the door so home recharge was not a problem.

UK 240V domestic systems apparently have enough amps; in some 240V markets a special plug needs to be installed with tougher cabling and those in 120V areas like the US and Japan will find recharging takes longer. Buy a Leaf and you can also get a subsidised home charger with quick and fast charge facilities. Actual charging procedure is no more difficult than hooking up a caravan; you pull a lever under the dash to open the nose-mounted charge point cover, remove protective cover from the appropriate point (there are two; one for a fast charger and one for the standard lead), plug in, insert the other end in a domestic socket and switch on. Three blue dashtop lights which glow in sequence as the battery charges up provide an easily-seen-from-upstairs monitor of state of charging play. The car also has a dashboard display that estimates recharge time.

Long lead-up

Nissan first started talking electric cars to media several years ago, long before the production Leaf was revealed. At a one-day presentation of an EV utopia where cars would one day be rechargeable virtually anywhere you parked, or by induction as you drive along, I had a go at the Leaf drivetrain on Swiss roads in a Cube 'mule', listened to the various presentations and opined even back then that the '100-mile' range would probably suit about 95% of my driving needs. And so it proved.

That 100-mile driving range is now officially 69 miles in the US by EPA ruling and the test Leaf displayed anywhere between 69 and 80 miles availability first thing after an overnight charge for the week we had it.

Typical journeys for me include mile-and-a-half round trips to children's nursery or supermarket which are both hell on petrol engines and the environment. The engine suffers more wear and is less fuel efficient when cold and the catalytic converter doesn't work properly until hot so emissions are higher. And there's really not much heat in the heater till you're on the way back. For such running, the zero-emissions-at-source EV makes much more sense and the Leaf can be programmed to pre-heat (or cool) its cabin while still plugged in (you programme in departure time and it sorts the rest) so it's toasty warm in the cabin by the time you load in the kids and/or shopping bags yet the motive battery still has full range left for actual driving.

My longer run – the twice a week trek to the office – is 42 miles round trip and I usually got back with around 20 miles of range showing but 'range anxiety' does start to kick in – what if I get caught in traffic, what if I divert to that shopping centre on the way home? Run the battery out in the UK and there is a roadside rescue service that can give the car a boost charge to get you home.

Practical hatchback

In most other respects, the Leaf is a very practical, family-friendly C-segment hatchback. The not-insubstantial GBP25,990 price tag, after the UK government GBP5,000 EV grant is applied, would get you a very nicely optioned Golf, Focus or Astra, mind, but the Leaf does come very well equipped with specially adapted navigation including charge points, full Bluetooth for hands-free phone use and audio streaming, automatic climate control (which usually kept us too hot or too cool and needed manual intervention for effective demisting), keyless entry and start and automatic-release electric parking brake among the features.

Seating was comfortable and the rear compartment more than adequate for both adults and little people in their child seats – tinted side and rear glass is standard. Theatre lighting is a nice touch, stop the car and the interior lighting comes up to a dimmed level; open the doors and it all goes to full brightness. The boot was also large enough to take a nursery run load of folded buggy and day bags or a full load of shopping. Cream upholstery and little people with muddy shoes are not compatible, though, and a dark grey, or black trim colour option, as preferred in Europe, would be welcome.

Handling and ride, though sure-footed and comfortable, suggested US-like settings with a softer ride and more body movement than normal in the class in Europe.

Of course, the absence of mechanical noise is the most noticeable difference in the Leaf. Actual driving is much like a Toyota hybrid – press start button, await 'ready' chime (which you can change), select forward (with Eco option) or reverse and press accelerator. Until then, the car is all but silent, progress is accompanied by an electric whine and steadily rising road and wind noise. Roll to a stop and it all goes uncannily quiet. I found myself recalling the trolley buses in which I used to ride as a student. And my four year old is still talking about the 'quiet new car which you have to plug in'.

Zippy mover

Acceleration to 60mph is officially around 12 seconds but the Leaf always felt much faster. Electric motors have maximum torque off the line and the Nissan always seemed to manage to scoot away ahead of the traffic light pack, especially in standard rather than Eco mode.

So, bottom line, is an EV a practical family car just yet? For the one-car family like mine, no. Twenty-six grand is just too much to outlay for one car that will still have to be supplemented by something from that nice Mr Hertz down at the station should we need to do more than 70-80 miles round trip. And there just aren't enough recharge points around our region (nearest was 19 miles away according to the satnav) and recharging takes too long.

A plug-in hybrid, or a range extender, as Toyota and GM, among others, are soon to introduce here, would make far more sense for me. Do the short-run stuff on cheap home-charged, enviro-friendly 'lekky', and the longer runs on petrol once the volts-only supply ends for the day. No more range anxiety.

As a second, town-based car, though, the Leaf makes a lot of sense. It's a perfectly practical C-segment hatchback after all, and 80 miles is a lot of local school run and shopping trip schlepping.

More importantly, though, it's a very impressive, first-out-of-the-box example of what an automaker can do when it puts its mind to EVs and Nissan can take a bow for that. Longer range, faster charge and possibly battery pack swap-outs taking no longer than a petrol/diesel refuel will come. Eventually. What automakers cannot control is how the electricity used in their cars is generated. Fossil fuel is threatened, a little, but hardly dead, so to speak.

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