Ten years ago, with then all-powerful Carlos Ghosn standing in the foreground to accept plaudits, Nissan revealed its revolutionary Leaf, a Ford Focus-sized hatchback and the world’s first modern mainstream EV.
Its design and development had cost about £4 billion, Nissan insiders boasted, which was around double what they would have had to spend on a similarly sized conventional car. But, they said, their view of the future made that outlay well and truly worthwhile – and so it has proved.
Reception of the Leaf was mixed. Futurists, early adopters and the eco-minded all admired the confidence of Ghosn and co in seeing where car engineering would need to go, but industry pragmatists were much less sure. Where were the customers for this car or the market forces that would make car buyers, always conservative, take it seriously? People rarely change their habits without powerful inducements, and there were none here.
It helped that the world’s motoring journalists were encouraging. Many hadn’t driven a decent electric car until their first go in a Leaf so had laboured under the delusion that an EV would be as sluggish and unresponsive as the proverbial milk float or golf buggy. (A delusion that took longer to shift among potential customers and still lingers today.)
They loved the Leaf’s simplicity, refinement and responsiveness, thus it was voted both Europe’s Car of the Year and World Car of the Year in 2011 – better recognition than even Ghosn and his most optimistic colleagues could have expected.
To underscore the Leaf’s decade of achievements, crowned by the fact that global sales of this UK-made car have now passed 500,000 in 59 countries (and a third of them in Europe), we decided to borrow both an original and a current model from Nissan to view and drive them – and, above all, to compare them for steadiness of concept. After all, many of Nissan’s decisions back in the 2000s, when it was deciding what EV owners would want, were essentially shots in the dark.
The early Leaf we found was a 30kWh ‘station car’ in near-perfect order because of a low mileage and a fastidious owner; the current car was an example of the recently launched Leaf e+, packing more than twice the power and range of that original, and with 0-62mph acceleration that shaved more than 3.0sec off the 2011 model’s perfectly respectable 9.9sec.
Such progress in a decade paints an interesting picture of the speed and direction of all EV development: the latest Leaf may be dynamically more capable but it also, despite growing very little in its exterior dimensions, adds handily to the original’s cabin and boot space.
Given its apparently meagre power, the Mk1 Leaf seems really frisky, although it’s easy enough to see why that is by scanning its specification and seeing that it packs 207lb ft of torque. That’s more than enough when you consider you don’t even have to wait for your engine to climb to the top of a torque curve to deliver the maximum. You’re on top of the mountain without trying.
Mind you, the graduation from Mk1 to Mk2 brings many advantages. One is the seating position: the latest Leaf e+ corrects a tendency for the driver to be set too high. The same goes for the dynamics: compared with the latest Leaf, on lower-profile rubber and with a decade’s development of its chassis, you have to deal with considerably less body roll and a helping of extra steering alertness that have arrived since the era of the original Leaf’s somewhat spongy, tall-wall tyres.
Without meaning to be rude about our original Leaf loaner, the biggest difference across the years is in driving pleasure. The Leaf has moved a long, long way since 2011. Its steering is accurate and not too light but a little languid – not least because the car weighs 1.6 tonnes at the kerb. The ride is pretty good for the same reason, with what feel like quality dampers (better than those on its predecessor) to tame body movements.
As befits a car with a sub-7.0sec 0-62mph time, you can drive the Leaf e+ with verve, provided you’re smooth with it. So-called e-pedal driving, whereby you get powerful retardation just by easing the accelerator pedal (and a stop when you lift right off) is accurate and efficient – although, if you’re like me, you might prefer allowing the car to coast a bit more.
Smoothness is the key – as in all electric cars currently offered in the UK, because they’re heavy and get untidy and unsatisfying if flung about. Drive this Leaf pair together, as we did, and they’re plainly related in response and feel. It’s just that, as you would expect from 10 years of development, with more power and more range, the later car feels much the more capable in a wider envelope of usage. But in both cars, Nissan’s quality is obvious, perhaps the more so in the Mk1 version. It may already be 10 years old, but it’s clearly going to last a lifetime.