Nissan Leaf: Start of an electronic Odyssey
I am about to get hitched to an electric car. This morning came the pre-nups, the installation of the charging point outside my garage. I've always wanted my very own filling station.
The petrol guzzler was sold last week and a new, pearl-white Nissan Leaf Acenta is due to take its place on the drive in the middle of April. I have 18 months to give the Leaf a thorough test and I shall be reporting on my experiences.
Electric cars are by no means mainstream and some doubt that they will ever become so until battery technology takes a big jump forward. The Leaf, for instance, has a claimed maximum range of 124 miles. In the real world, however, the range is unlikely to be more than 85 miles, depending on driving style and conditions. Contrary to petrol or diesel convention, electric cars are at their most economical in stop-start city driving and at their worst on the highway at steady speeds. Heating and air conditioning also have a significant effect on range.
And running out of juice isn't just a matter of stopping at the nearest petrol station to top up the tank. Refuelling points are few and far between and charging can take up to eight hours. That's a long time to tarry over a skinny latte at a roadside Starbucks―even if you can find a vacant point. Nissan main dealers offer a rapid 30-minute boost but this is hardly a receipe for covering longer distances.
As a result, the range is academic since it will be necessary to plan journeys that do not depend on squeezing the last amp out of the batteries. At the outset, I am prepared to accept that I cannot venture with confidence more than 30 miles from my front door. Lots can be accomplished within a radius of 30 miles, however.
The big question is whether or not I can live with this restricted range. Before the car arrives, I believe I can. Most of my driving is local and it is very seldom I need to travel more than, say, 50 or 60 miles in a day. I also hate long-distance driving on crowded motorways and, usually, prefer public transport. Only last month I had to travel up to Lancashire from London and debated whether to drive or take the train. In the end, as usual, I chose the two-hour train journey over the four or five hours of stressful jockeying along the M40 and M6. Not only is the train more relaxing, with the chance to work or read, it is also cheaper, especially for one person.
In London we face other challenges: slow, heavy traffic, lots of stop-start and the £10 charge for driving into or across the centre of the city. Electric cars are in their element and are most economical in town. They are also exempt from the congestion charge, thus making them much more versatile and useful.
Aside from its limited range, the Nissan Leaf is a perfectly respectable and attractive four-door car with all the comforts and electronic gizmos we have come to demand. This is no third-world sqeakbox on trolley wheels. The performance belies the relatively staid 11.9-second 0-60 mph acceleration figure and, on the test drive, I was amazed by the smooth, seamless delivery of power, the overall quietness and the general refinement of the car. My conclusion was that this is going to be a very easy vehicle to live with. It is also made in Britain, so I can at last wave my little Union Jack when driving down the high street.
You might imagine me to be some died-in-the-sandals eco-fanatic, prepared to pay through the nose for the street cred of driving a zero-emissions car. Far from it. I am not a fan of green taxes (especially when I have the temerity to fly anywhere) and I make few concious efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of my size elevens. No, my motivation in trying the Leaf is purely selfish. I just have an electric car itch that needs to be scratched and I think it is an interesting thing to do.
Over the next year I will be reporting on Sparky as I get to know him more. I shall not be blinded by green considerations and will be looking at the Nissan as an alternative to petrol or diesel without any of the policital baggage that usually surrounds vehicle use. If Sparky can win me over, old sceptic that I am, then the electric car might just have a future.