Thursday, 26 July 2012 2:12 PM
I was behind the wheel of the Nissan Leaf for a few days courtesy of Chargemaster, a company that offers, yes, you guessed it, charging solutions for electric cars. This is the kind of business that will need to expand rapidly throughout London and across all of the UK if electric cars are to be truly successful here. While the manufacturers have not yet mastered a recharging process that makes it about as quick as filling up with petrol, it is important for charging points to become as common as petrol pumps. Access to charging points is part of the equation - governments, local authorities and fuel companies can all do better there - and speeding up the time it takes to charge up an electric car and extending the range are the other parts. That's up to the car manufacturers' to work on and I'm pretty sure that's happening every day in R&D labs.
The Chargemaster solution is pretty simple. I was ushered to a car park in Kingston and there was the Nissan Leaf parked beside a charging point. After a quick swipe of the card, a little door opened and I had access to a socket from which the car could be hooked up to the wonders of electricity. Easy. The only bummer is that it takes seven hours from empty to get a full charge. As I said, this is the kind of thing the boffins at Nissan and elsewhere are looking into. There are also plans afoot at Nissan for using solar power to charge electric cars, such as the SunPower innovation in the US where solar panels are used to generate electricity for home charging points.
Charging the Nissan Leaf at home costs around £2 and the range can be up to 109 miles - and I'd believe that too. After buzzing around South London for a couple of days in the Leaf, I was actually finding it hard to use too much charge. This was partly because the stop-start nature of the traffic meant I wasn't exactly fanging it around town like Fangio. But it was also because of the regenerative braking system which was constantly giving energy back to the car every time I hit the brakes. Which was a lot. Even during the short trip from my house to Homebase and Wickes with five sets of lights, a roundabout where good manners go to die and plenty of stopping, starting and darting around the masses of buses that all stop at Morden tube station, I could watch in marvel at the gauge as the charge levels went up every time I braked. Although it was generally safer to spend more time watching the road. There's some idiots out there! But I digress.
Speaking of idiots, I had my own moronic moment with the sat nav after I picked up the car. Naturally, my parents were in the car with me to add to the comedy value of it all. Having only been through Kingston once in a taxi since 1985, I wasn't entirely familiar with the roads so I set the sat-nav to get me from the car park to my house. So far so good until I misheard the sat-nav voice (I really want a Brian Blessed one, that lady voice goes in one ear and out the other) and accidentally turned into a pedestrian mall. After accidentally scaring a woman who was walking along, minding her own business, I finally found a way out of the pedestrian mall unencumbered by bollards.
Once I was back on proper roads and heading for home, I was able to get to grips with the Leaf. What I've always liked about it is that inside and out, it just looks like a nice car. A pleasantly designed hatchback with a few quirky exterior angles thrown in, a nice, swoopy looking bonnet and appealing lights all round. It doesn't go out of its way to scream "kooky, new-age electric car!" at you. This is something I think the Citroen C-Zero and Mitsubishi MiEV are both guilty of and it'd be great to see their designers not copy the Leaf but to make the next models look like they'll blend in with the traffic without being bland. Here is where Nissan's designers have got it right.
Inside, the interior is calming neutrals, the steering wheel is nice and chunky and the gauges are lovely and clear. While the sat-nav took me to a pedestrian mall (OK, that was my brain fade moment...) and guided me back to my house via a street I'd never use again because of a ridiculously narrow traffic calming device (that didn't calm me down one little bit), it was very easy to use. The dial for selecting park, reverse and drive looks a bit like it has mutated from a computer mouse but once you've got the hang of it, it's quite fun.
Like all electric cars, that instant torque is lovely and there is certainly plenty of power to be had. It didn't once feel sluggish and after a while, the silence aside, you do forget it's an electric car and it simply becomes just a car. And that is the Leaf's greatest strength. My father thought the car was a bit big but, the narrow traffic calming device aside,
I didn't mind the chunky size. And I suspect anyone with a family would like it too. As a bonus, the boot was super-generous and we managed to fill it with an assortment of plants for the garden and general odds and ends that are not fun to take on public transport. Such as a pitchfork.
Nissan are getting it right on a lot of levels with the Leaf. While I wouldn't be too game to try and drive it to my inlaws in the north-east, it'd be an ideal car for zipping around London. But the price does need to come down from the current £26,000 after the £5,000 government grant for plug-ins. There is talk of the price dropping when the new model comes out next year and that'd certainly help pick up sluggish sales - and might encourage more people to seriously consider zero-emissions motoring.
By Georgia Lewis
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