Leaf interior

Leaf interior

The battle is on at last. Nissan has started talking up its electric car and is in direct competition with Vauxhall’s  Ampera which has been talked up for longer but which, for the British customer, is a bigger wait.

Yesterday Nissan disclosed that its car will have a range of 100 miles, will have nothing but an electric motor, and will cost no more than a hybrid Toyota Prius. The Ampera will do only 40 miles on a charge. But it does have the considerable comfort of a range-extender petrol-engine on board that allows another 300 miles as the liquid gold recharges the batteries.

Range and its availability is going to become the knock-out blow in the punch-up. Do you really want to sit and wait eight hours to get a full charge for a two-hour, 100-mile journey? You can settle for a fast charge to 80% range in half an hour, but that is likely to degrade the batteries. Or will you settle for the more expensive Ampera’s modest 40-mile range?

Nissan says that it has only really just started out on the trail to better batteries and longer range. They had to freeze battery development some time ago to get this battery pack manufacturable and a lot has happened since. The target for the next car is a range of 300 miles. It’s not there yet, but they are working on it they assure us, and the research tells them that it’s do-able.

In the UK the Leaf will be around GBP28,000 reduced to GBP23,000 by the encouragement of the initial GBP5,000 Government subsidy. There will be a lease plan. Nissan has not said so definitely but it is a no-brainer. The cars will be must-haves for a variety of people.

They will be in short supply and sold below the cost of manufacture initially. There is zero maintenance cost, and the electric fuel cost will be one sixth of the petrol price. Residuals will be very strong  and the monthly cost can be set low.  It is expected that Ampera will opt for a much better trim and finish and sell for 30% more.

Early Leaf models will be built in Japan and sold here in the first quarter next year. British-built green Leafs will emerge in the spring of 2013 from Nissan’s UK manufacturing facility in Sunderland which is also to be a European battery production centre. Construction will begin this month and the facility will start manufacturing batteries in 2012 for both Nissan and its Alliance partner Renault. The facility will have a production capacity of 60,000 units a year.

There was a chance to drive a car around a handling circuit of just a few hundred yards and the  80kW engineering mule showed off the usual electric startling acceleration which would need a 2.5 litre petrol engine to reproduce and vivid handling allowed by the low-down weight of the batteries below the floor.

The same impression is left by the Ampera which Mr Editor Leggett and I drove together late last year. These two cars plus the Mini E, driven in the US, have been great for the soul. Where once we thought of electric cars as something foisted upon us by environmental necessity, we now see a fascinating variety of technical solutions all bearing those fundamental ingredients of pleasure: great handling stability and very rapid acceleration.

And with electric there is an advantage. The power is spookily delivered in near-silence.

Rob Golding

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