We recently took Nissan up on their offer of a 7-day test drive on the LEAF.
Our first observation is that this is a really impressive car to drive. More than anything else, it reminds me of my old Jaguar XJ6; it has the same smoothness and silence. Of course, the difference is that Jaguar invested tremendous effort into disguising the effect of reciprocating pistons and escaping exhaust gases. Like every manufacturer since, they worked hard to make a crude process appear sophisticated. With the LEAF, there is nothing to disguise.
The second observation is that you cannot expect to put 300 miles’ worth of energy into the car in five minutes, as you can with petrol. There are three ways to charge a LEAF, two standard and one optional. The slowest and fastest charging methods are standard. We were recommended to go straight to Baldock Services and use their public rapid charging point. These provide up to 125 amps at 500 volts, and will completely recharge the car in about 45 minutes. The power from them is provided free of charge by Ecotricity, who state “We have no immediate plans to charge people to use our network. We want to encourage as many people as possible to join the electric vehicle revolution.”
Public charging points are not all the same. An optional charging cable gives access to the majority of them, which are typically rated at 32 amps. This means a few hours for a full charge, useful if you are leaving the car parked whilst shopping or dining, but not for a quick top-up on a long journey.
The slowest way to charge is to use a domestic socket at home. This is an order of magnitude less powerful than the rapid charger, and a full charge takes about ten hours. Several bloggers have written that they think of the car as a big laptop or mobile phone, and charge it overnight.
We were confident that the car’s range would be ample for our daily commute to Stevenage; the main purpose of the 7-day test was to see whether it would also be useful for travelling further afield. According to the official figures, there should be no difficulty travelling to Cambridge and back, so this became our first test run. Not wishing to take any chances, we drove to Cambridge Services, a few miles north on the A14, and left the car on charge while we went inside for a coffee. We then headed into Cambridge, parked on the street, went to the theatre, and returned home afterwards, with no difficulty whatsoever.
Another regular journey takes us to a friend’s house in Norfolk, in a village near Downham Market. On the Sunday, and despite not having any contingency in case the experiment failed, we decided to see whether the LEAF would be suitable for this 62-mile journey. We set off with a full charge and were relieved to see the projected range holding up fairly well. Although in theory we should have been able to complete the journey on a single charge, we again stopped for electricity and coffee at Cambridge Services. We began to wonder whether we would end up spending more on coffee than we currently do on petrol.
There are at present only two rapid charging points in Norfolk, one in Norwich (much too far) and the other at the Green Living Centre at Swaffham. This was only a few miles past our destination, so we decided that we would go there, charge up and perhaps top up at the house before returning home. I estimated that, after the trip to Swaffham, there would still be a few miles’ charge to get us home in case the rapid charging point happened to be broken.
“Broken? Of course it won’t be broken,” came the reply.
And so it wasn’t. However, it was closed, with a padlocked gate across the entrance to the Green Living Centre car park. Of course, it was our own fault. We should have checked. The excellent interactive map at www.zap-map.com states that it is open from 10am-4pm, Monday to Friday. You may consider this a daft policy – and we had some choice words to say about the Green Living Centre – but we cannot deny that it was there in black and white. We now had 16 miles’ charge with which to cover 12 miles. With extremely gentle driving, the range seemed to go down exactly as fast as we covered the distance: so far, so good. But then the car refused to to commit itself for ranges below 10 miles, instead merely showing a row of minus signs. We breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at our destination and put the LEAF on charge.
Compared to the rapid charging points, which do so much to make electric cars viable, charging from a domestic socket is like filling a very small petrol tank from a pipette. It must severely hamper the sales of electric cars in North America, where they have only half our voltage and a full charge takes 20 hours instead of 10. I can see why Tesla place such emphasis on their Supercharger network; the cars must be all but useless without them. We plugged in at 1:15pm, enjoyed a leisurely and delicious lunch at the pub opposite, watched an afternoon and evening of TV and set off just after 10pm with a 77% charge. We knew that the fully-charged LEAF had taken us from Cambridge to the house, including a 24-mile detour to Swaffham, a total of some 70 miles. Now we had no detour, but we also had less charge and it was colder, down to -2ºC. We drove as gently and steadily as possible, earning three trees on the dash display as a result, turned the heater off when we could bear to, even stopped using main beam on the headlights. We began to understand how the Apollo 13 astronauts must have felt, turning off everything that could be turned off, though admittedly without the risk to life. At last we arrived at Cambridge Services with a nominal 15 miles remaining and a further loud sigh of relief.
Despite our close shave, which is only the consequence of unfamiliarity, our impressions of the car were overwhelmingly favourable. There must, after all, have been a time when Norfolk had only two petrol stations, but motorists coped all the same. Nissan have now sold over 150,000 LEAFs worldwide, evidence enough that the technology is proven. Meanwhile, Tesla have sold an estimated 70,000 Model S’s and Roadsters, with a much longer range but at a much higher price.
This is to internal combustion what digital photography is to film.