It’s more than two years since the first Nissan Leaf electric cars were delivered to customers, and the Japanese company has since sold almost 60,000 examples worldwide, about 10,000 of which have gone to European buyers. Whether you think that equates to a roaring success or a fizzling squib probably depends on your feelings about electric cars in general. There’s no doubt that the numbers lag well behind Nissan’s own early projections – it initially hoped to sell 2,000 Leafs in the UK in year one, but instead took about 18 months to sell half that number.
The stumbling blocks were never hard to see: if potential buyers could get past the limited operating range, long recharging times and an eye-watering price they were faced with one trim grade, featuring upholstery as practical as blotting paper.
Now, Nissan has attempted to ease these and other issues with a thoroughly revised second-generation Leaf, now built in Sunderland in the UK. We travelled to a chilly Norway to sample one of the first British-built Leafs to roll off the production line, to see how much its prospects have improved.
Nissan says it has made more than 100 changes to the Leaf, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot any of them from the kerbside. The Leaf still resembles a giant duck-billed platypus on wheels, although those wheels can now be had in glossy 17-inch alloy format. Much bigger changes have been wrought inside, where there is now a welcome choice of cabin materials.
The old car came decked out in a pale gray velour made from recycled plastic bottles. With matching dashboard and trim it felt about as stylish as your granddad’s elasticated slacks. Now buyers can choose a much darker version of the same, or even splash out on perforated black leather seats.
Nissan admits that a more sober interior was the most common request from its customers, and the new options certainly transform the appeal of the interior.
The Nissan Leaf has always provided a reasonable proposition as family transport, with five doors, five seats, and a 330-litre boot – marginally bigger than the rear end of a Ford Focus, for example. The updated Leaf now boasts 370 litres, enough for a small extra suitcase, as a result of moving a key piece of bulky hardware. Previously, the car’s battery charger lived under a noticeable hump between the rear wheels, yielding a boot reminiscent of a giant, two-sided washing-up bowl. Having shrunk the charger’s dimensions by 30%, Nissan’s engineers were able to squeeze it alongside a leaner drive motor under the Leaf’s sloping bonnet, liberating a bigger and better-shaped luggage compartment.
Revamped front seats are also more comfortable and slimmer in the frame, yielding a smidge of extra leg- and toe-room for rear-bench passengers. The raised rear seats are still tight in headroom for taller adults, however.
Performance & Handling
The Nissan Leaf has always been a surprisingly agile car, helped by the low-down positioning of its 250kg lithium-ion battery, which is mounted across the floor of the car and under the seats at roughly axle height. The new British-built Leaf includes changes to the suspension designed to make the car feel more European than the previous cars, which were assembled in Japan with a wishy-washy global setup. The result is a firmer ride that feels more settled in corners and less floaty at speed, but can still cope with our rubbish road surfaces.
Given the Nissan Leaf’s almost total absence of engine and transmission noise, the quality of the suspension becomes much more noticeable than in other cars. The streets of Oslo feature plenty of potholes, tram-rails and sleeping policemen, but the revamped Leaf kept body movements, noise and juddering firmly in check during our tests.
The Leaf also feels more urgent than figures suggest – the 0-62mph figure has fallen from 11.9 seconds to 11.5 seconds, but whether nipping through city streets or accelerating on faster roads, the Leaf always feels strong and eager. While not quite as much like a startled cat from a standstill as the old car, it felt slightly stronger at moderate speeds. And with no gearbox to introduce delays, the car’s response to throttle inputs remains remarkably quick-witted all the way up to motorway speeds. Flat out is capped at 90mph.
Nissan has also dramatically improved the steering, which was so light and lifeless in the earlier cars it felt like twirling a balloon animal. With variable electrical assistance, the wheel now feels better at all speeds, from parking to lane-changing on dual carriageways.
Economy & Environment
Modest aerodynamic tweaks have soothed away a little drag, powertrain changes have cut an average of 32kg from the car’s bulk, and the revamped braking system is more efficient at grabbing back energy as the car slows down. As a result, the Leaf’s official range has stretched from 109 miles to 124 miles, a 14 per cent improvement.
Keeping the car cosy in winter is one of the most noticeable drains on the 24kWh battery’s reserves – ask for warm air and the range prediction on the electronic instrument panel will immediately drop by a cautious chunk. So it’s no surprise to see Nissan borrowing a page from the Renault Zoe manual by offering a new combined heating and air-conditioning unit, which uses a clever heat-pump approach to become 70 per cent more efficient than the old heater, which was a mildly massaged unit from an ordinary car. As a result, range falls by a much smaller margin in the winter months. Nissan says that in minus 10 degrees chill, the old Leaf would manage about 62 miles on a full charge, whereas the updated car should reach 77 miles.
If the range prediction starts to look dicey, there are steps the driver can take beyond shivering, slowing down or phoning the AA. The old car’s comprehensive Eco mode has now been separated into two parts, with additional regenerative braking accessible via the transmission selector, while more modest throttle and ventilation responses can be summoned via a wheel-mounted button.
Equipment & Value
Despite much engineering effort, the biggest changes to the Nissan Leaf probably lie in its brochure. There are now three trim levels to choose from, called Visia, Acenta and Tekna, plus the option to either buy the battery along with the car for £5,000 or to lease it from Nissan as a separate item.
The leasing trick works miracles on the starting price for Leaf ownership, which falls from £23,490 for the old car with battery included, to just £15,990 for the new car, without battery. Both prices include £5,000 of help from the government’s Plug-in Car Grant.
However, on top of the lower price new owners must add at least £70 per month for the battery, under a three-year commitment capped at 7,500 miles per annum – the same as it costs to lease the slightly smaller battery in the more compact Renault Zoe. Further miles or a shorter contract will see the lease costs rise accordingly. Owners who intend using the car heavily or keeping it for a long time may be better off buying the whole car.
The sub-£16,000 price is also for the lowest Visia trim level, which has been pared back compared to the previous single UK specification. The Visia version is not compatible with fast chargers (unless optioned), must make do with the older and less efficient heater, lacks remote control over charging and pre-heating or pre-cooling of the cabin, and rolls on 16-inch steel wheels.
The mid-range Acenta edition costs £18,490 after grants (or £23,490 with battery) and gains all of the engineering updates as well as the familiar remote-control features accessible via a smartphone app, now tweaked with more detailed options. Cruise control, a reversing camera, automatic lamps, folding mirrors, an upgraded stereo and 16-inch alloys complete the checklist.
Finally the top level Tekna trim costs £20,490 (or £25,490 with battery) and adds LED headlamps, a Bose audio upgrade with subwoofer in the boot, heated leather-trimmed seats front and rear, 17-inch alloys, additional charging options, and a clever surround-view system that uses wide-angle cameras mounted on the nose, boot and door mirrors to give a complete view around the car while parking or manoeuvring.
Worries about battery longevity will be Nissan’s responsibility for those owners who opt for leasing, while outright buyers get a 60,000-mile, five-year battery guarantee that includes replacement due to loss of capacity as well as more showstopping faults. With the current Leaf fleet having logged a cumulative total of around 80 million miles, including a few examples that have gone around the clock, Nissan says it is confident that battery failures will be rare.
All Nissan Leaf trim levels include the full complement of safety equipment as standard with front side and curtain airbags, ABS, EBD and brake assistance, and an electronic stability programme. There are no structural changes since the first-generation Leaf was crash-tested by Euro NCAP last year, when it became the first battery-powered vehicle to gain a full five-star rating. The Leaf achieved a very similar set of Euro NCAP scores to the newer Renault Zoe, tested earlier this year.
Of all the changes that Nissan has made, the most important is to cut the entry price by adding the option to lease its battery. Wary of overstatements in the past, Nissan executives refuse to be drawn into predictions about the relative appeal of battery leasing versus outright purchase, but it seems safe to assume that potential owners will be reassured by a lower entry bar and the option to duck responsibility for the expensive battery.
Changes to the car itself are all sensible and welcome, making the Leaf much better to drive, more appealing to ride in, and – importantly – less likely to induce range anxiety. Like all electric cars the Leaf remains a vehicle with only niche appeal. But it fills its niche much more persuasively than before, and will no doubt find a few more buyers as a result.
Model tested: Nissan Leaf Tekna
Engine: Synchronous electric motor powered by a lithium-ion battery
Acceleration: 0-62mph in 11.5 seconds
Top speed: capped at 90mph
Driving range: up to 124 miles per charge
Price: from £20,990 after government grant (£25,990 before grant) battery included