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Nissan Leaf review: A current affair

With more than 400,000 units in use, the Leaf is the electric car with the best track record so far.

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Singapore

IF YOU drive the Nissan Leaf and have to touch the brake pedal, you're doing it wrong. That might seem a bit dubious, since trying to get by without the brakes sounds like a good way to restyle your car (and possibly someone else's).

But keeping to just one pedal in the Nissan is merely a reminder of what makes the car special. Instead of pistons and fuel injectors, what makes it go are a big battery and an electric motor.

With the so-called e-Pedal system, prodding the accelerator makes the Leaf zip along, but each time you ease up it recovers energy and puts it back into the battery. Working seamlessly with the friction brakes, the system slows the car down all the way to a dead halt if need be.

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It's elegant, efficient and turns driving into a fun little challenge that involves conducting yourself with smoothness and anticipation. Naturally, taxi drivers need not apply.

Other electric cars (those from BMW and Jaguar, for instance) have similar one-pedal driving modes, but in a sense, everyone wants to take a Leaf from Nissan's book. Indeed, tech geeks may get into a tizzy about Teslas, but only Leaf lovers can get loquacious about its lofty location in electric car lore.

After all, the Leaf is still the single best selling electric car in history, with more than 400,000 examples hitting the roads in the nine years that it's been on sale.

And while other car manufacturers are groping in the dark for an electric car strategy, or only just starting to bring battery power to showrooms, the Leaf is already in its second generation.

Perhaps that's why it doesn't actually call that much attention to itself. From the outside, the Nissan is a fairly unassuming hatchback, and if not for the "Zero emission" badges it wears you might never know that it's something out of the ordinary.

But climb aboard and drive the thing, and you immediately twig that the Leaf is from a different evolutionary branch of car.

It boots up rather than starts up, and the whoosh of the air-con is the only aural indication that it's ready to roll. Tickle the accelerator and the Leaf responds immediately, wafting around in total silence like it's floating along on the breeze.

You could recreate the experience somewhat by driving your existing car with your ears stuffed with cotton wool and sealed with duct tape, but there's no substituting pure electric drive for instantaneous response.

Stamp on the right pedal and you're pushed back into your seat immediately, the acceleration pouring out of the car like water spilling from an upturned bucket.

That's electricity for you. It's not like your household lights have to rev up before they illuminate the place. They just do their job at once, and the Leaf is similar.

It's worth a test drive simply for the taste of electric power, and anyway the Nissan's controls are straightforward and familiar, so driving it is unlikely to be befuddling. You can even turn off the e-Pedal if you want.

Leaving the powertrain aside, the Leaf is a perfectly practical hatch. It's actually bigger than it looks in photos, and feels more like a small Sport Utility Vehicle inside. The wheelbase is meaningfully longer than, say, that of Nissan's own Qashqai, so there's plenty of legroom in the back (although the battery, which lives under the floor, encroaches on space for feet).

The boot can take 435 litres of stuff (slightly more than a Qashqai's), and you can fold the rear seats to carry more. Mind you, the cabin plastics remind you that a huge chunk of the car's price must have gone to the battery, which is more energy-dense than the one that powered the first-generation Leaf, but no larger.

With 40 kilowatt-hours of capacity, it should deliver 240km comfortably (perhaps 260km uncomfortably) on a single charge. That's enough for roughly six days' average motoring here, but you would be better off topping up the battery at least every other day instead of cutting things too close.

Of course, that assumes you'll have someplace to charge it. With public charging still in its infancy, electric cars work best for those who have access to their own wallbox. The Leaf does come with one, but you'll need somewhere to install it.

For now, that implies that this is a car for those who own a patch of earth, or who at least stay in a condo with a management committee made up of reasonable, eco-conscious people. With luck, that means hundreds of thousands of people are candidates.

From that bunch, sift out out those who don't want to spew carbon, soot and all the rest of it into the air on their daily commute, or those who find the electric car experience superior to the combustion one.

Then select those who just don't want to drive something Korean, and you're left with the Leaf's buyer pool.

Technophobes have stopped reading by now, but as far as making the jump to electric power goes, the Leaf is probably the best bet for anyone still suspicious about battery power. Leaf owners have collectively covered more than 10 billion kilometres since 2010, after all.

And five years after the Leaf's debut in Europe, Nissan found that of the 35,000 units it sold there, only three suffered from battery failures. Take 35,000 petrol or diesel cars, and after half a decade you're likely to find far more than three have gone kaput.

Pondering those odds makes one thing clear: Even as people start to think that electric cars are the future, the Nissan Leaf is the only one with a past.


NISSAN LEAF

Electric Motor 150hp, 320Nm
Battery Lithium ion, 40kWh
Charge Time / Type 5-7 hours / Wallbox
Electric Range "More than" 300km
0-100km/h 7.9 seconds
Top Speed 145km/h (limited)
Efficiency 17.1 kWh/100km
Agent Tan Chong Motor Sales
Price S$161,800 with COE
Available Now