The Nissan Leaf is one of the world’s most recognisable electric cars, and is a common sight on UK roads, compared to most lithium battery-powered vehicles.
The company has sold around 3,000 models this year – far ahead of the next top performing model, the BMW i3 – accounting for around 65 per cent of the UK electric car market. And the secret to its success? Apart from being the first true mainstream mass-produced electric car on sale in the UK, the Leaf is pretty conventional in feel, with just a digital dashboard, an unconventional gearstick and the provision of a charging socket under its nose belying its electric power.
Electric car rivals include the much more striking BMW i3, which offers stronger performance and a more upmarket interior, and the affordable Renault Zoe. Other medium-sized electric cars include the VW e-Golf, Ford Focus Electric and Kia Soul EV, which have all been recently released.
What is it?
The Leaf is Nissan’s bestselling electric medium hatchback and is available from £16,490 (if you rent the battery) or £21,490 (to buy battery and car outright) – after a £5,000 government grant. Drivers opting to rent the battery must pay a charge from £70 per month upwards (£70 applies to six-year, 7,500 mile per year lease), depending on how many miles they plan to cover and the length of the lease.
A variety of models are available from an affordable entry-level Visia model to a top-of-the-range Tekna version that includes a huge amount of equipment including heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel, 360 degree cameras, a speaker system with a boot-mounted subwoofer and autofolding mirrors. Nissan claims that this car can cover 124 miles per charge, though as with many electric cars, the typical figure real drivers get may be far lower than that, particularly in colder climes.
While some electric cars like the BMW i3 offer very contemporary styling inside and out, the Leaf gives the feeling of being a conventional car that happens to be powered by electricity. The styling is bland inside and out, with a silhouette that shares more with mini-MPVs than other coupe-style hatchbacks. However, though most of the car feels very traditional, the dials are all digital and split across two pods.
What is it like to drive?
With electric wizardry powering the Leaf, progress is quiet and smooth. The motor offers instant boost, though the car isn’t particularly quick, especially compared to the BMW i3, which rockets away from traffic lights in comparison.
Switch into ‘eco’ mode and the response from the motor is dulled, and like most electric cars, the Leaf slows quickly when you lift off the throttle, adding a little extra charge to the batteries. As an eco car, the Leaf is much more suited to quiet cruising than fast driving.
There is little road or tyre noise and the motor is silent, with just a little wind noise entering the cabin at speed. Keener driving, however, is met with body roll and though the steering is reasonably weighted, the car doesn’t give the driver much feedback as to how much grip the skinny front eco tyres have left. As a result, those who enjoy driving will be much better served in the BMW i3, though the Leaf does offer a comfortable ride.
There are a few quirks to driving the Leaf; the foot operated handbrake is crude and old-fashioned for a modern car, while the gear selector takes some getting used to. We also found the digital dashboard hard to read quickly, compared to typical analogue dials.
Our top-line Tekna model was packed with high-tech equipment, however, quality levels didn’t seem to live up to that standard, with cheap-feeling materials used across the cabin and doors that shut with an insubstantial thud.
Top-spec models include a touchscreen media system, though we didn’t find this the the most user friendly system. The interior is a blend of conventional and high-tech features, with digital dials and an odd gear selector providing a futuristic feel, though the foot operated parking brake feels very old fashioned in comparison.
Visibility is not great with big pillars front and rear, though there is a reasonable amount of space inside. We didn’t find the seats the most comfortable or supportive, though.
Is it practical?
The Leaf offers plenty of space in the front and more than enough knee room for most rear passengers. However, there is very little footroom, due to the under-cabin batteries cutting down on cabin height.
With a relatively flat floor, fitting five passengers in the Leaf should prove relatively painless, though the rear seat posture isn’t the most comfortable. The boot offers up a reasonable volume, though it is an odd shape, limiting what you can load into it. Our car also had a boot-mounted subwoofer, which further reduced the usable boot space available.
One of the Leaf’s main limiting factors is its range. According to official figures the Leaf can only cover 124 miles between charges. Drive at speed or use many of the car’s electric systems and this figure will tumble further. Consequently, the Leaf isn’t a realistic car for many families.
Charging takes around four hours with a home charger, though topping the batteries up to 80 per cent charge can take less than 30 minutes.
Should I buy one?
The Leaf is a very popular electric car, selling in small numbers, but significantly outselling electric rivals. Buyers after an easy to drive, spacious and reasonably practical car, who don’t cover long journeys often may see this conventional looking machine as a cheap-to-run green machine.
However, those who baulk at the idea of spending around £25,000 (after the government’s electric car grant) on a blandly-designed, unengaging to drive machine, may be more interested in BMW’s i3, which looks a lot more interesting and provides a sharper driving experience.
Judging by the proportion of electric cars that are currently Nissan Leafs, though, it seems to be a prospect that appeals to many buyers after a relatively affordable and practical electric car option.
Don't want to buy new? You can browse for a used Nissan Leaf in our classifieds here.
Nissan Leaf Tekna 80kW
List price: £30,435 (before £5,000 electric car grant)
Engine: Electric motor
Top speed: 89mph
0-62mph: 11.5 seconds
Emissions: 0g/km CO2
Range: 124 miles
Euro NCAP rating: Five-star