Thursday, March 07, 2013

Test driving an electric Nissan Leaf

It reminded me of driving a dodgem at the amusements, with the added bonus of a brake pedal and without the sparks.

Foot on the brake, press in the button on top of the stumpy gear stick and pull back into ‘drive’. Press down on the accelerator and the car silently glides forward. Step on it a bit more and the speed cranks up. Steadily. No jerking through the gears like an ordinary automatic. In fact, stamp on the accelerator and the car takes off – instant torque – down the road with an alarming sense of urgency. Yet inside the car, all is calm and quiet.

As part of the eDRIVE roadshow on the slipway immediately behind the Titanic Belfast building, I test drove an electric Nissan Leaf yesterday belonging to Donnelly Group. (The manufacturer didn’t trip when they came up with that name!)

Public test drives will be available again on Friday. Head down to Titanic Belfast during the day, or pre-register online. Don’t forget to bring both parts of your driving licence.

The Leaf is a five-door family hatchback. As the driver of a small Toyota Aygo, I am not a car geek. But I noticed electric windows; built-in GPS and infotainment touchscreen; camera-assisted reverse; air conditioning; and lots of other buttons and knobs. The exhaust pipe is missing from the back of the vehicle.

The traditional fuel gauge is replaced with a range readout of the number of miles left until the large air-cooled battery will be exhausted. The rev counter is replaced with an ammeter showing how heavily your driving is eating into your battery, or whether regenerative braking is actually recharging your battery.

You can plug the car into a standard household power socket. It will take seven hours or so to recharge the battery. A government grant is likely to cover the cost of installing a beefier three phase quick charge station that will provide one hour recharging. See the e-car NI website for more details.

There’s a mobile app - CarWings - to allow drivers to check their car’s range and battery charge state without going out to the garage or driveway. The app will also let you set the air conditioning to heat up or cool your car before you get in while it’s still plugged into the mains, saving vital battery life.

The Leaf is very quiet – inside and out. Very smooth to drive. And quite nippy. Apparently it goes from 0 to 60mph in 9.7 seconds and has a top speed of 93mph, though Titanic Quarter wasn’t a good place to test that out! The car’s maximum range on a full battery is 120 miles. With its linear acceleration, driving in the ice or snow might require adjustment.

Charging stations are becoming more common. Many council car parks now have reserved spaces with charging stations. But anecdotally, the spaces are often blocked by petrol cars. Ideally, you’d want to be able to let your car charge while you were in work (or at home asleep). According to the map on the eCarNI website, Tesco car park seems to be the only public charge point in Lisburn.

While there’s currently a large government subsidy, electric cars are still not cheap. No one knows what the value of a three year old electric car will be. To get around this mystery depreciation, many dealers are offering 1 or 3 year lease schemes. For a Nissan Leaf you might pay £239 a month for 3 years for the privilege of silently slipping around the roads. On top of that you have your petrol costs. On top of that you have your recharge costs of 3-4p a mile (perhaps £350 a year in electricity for 10,000 miles). Nissan’s warranty covers any battery problems.

In my opinion, getting an electric car would have to be a lifestyle choice as well as a economic one.

I was impressed with the short test drive: the Nissan Leaf was a lovely car. I like the concept of an emission-free vehicle. I love the idea of never having to fill up at a petrol station. And since I’ve no sense of smell, I won’t even miss the pleasant whiff of petrol fumes. I commute nine miles in and back out of work each day, so range would fine. I could get to Ballymena and back on a single charge. However, a round trip to Coleraine or Cookstown would require recharging along the way. So it would be impractical to have an electric car as the only vehicle in the household. Which makes it an expensive dodgem.

Update - Donnelly Group had a couple of cameras mounted in the Leaf and have passed on a link to some snippets from the test drive!

As a small car fan, I can’t ever see myself forking out £20,000+ for a car that size. At current specs and prices, it will be a long time before there is a sub-£10,000 two or four seater electric car on the market. That would be the tipping point for me. (Even the electric Smart car is coming in at £15,395 or £12,275 with £55/month battery rental.)

For some people the economics, the eco-credentials and the driving range will make sense.

For me, I think I’ll stick with my three-cylinder, low spec Aygo. Even if it is incredibly noisy inside the car compared with the tranquil Leaf.

The future’s electric. But not for a while.

(Dashboard image by Rudolf Simon via Wikipedia)


Timothy Belmont said...

I still wonder about the car's practicality, were I ever to drive to, say, Enniskillen for the weekend; or somewhere remote, like Florence Court.

I also wonder if there's enough confidence, yet, in electric cars, given their maximum range, depreciation, battery life, etc.

In principle, I'm keen and enthusiastic, apart from these hurdles to overcome.

Unknown said...

Disciplined economics says you buy what appreciates (capital gain) but rent/lease what depreciates -- £239/month appears very reasonable in this circumstance, as it is more likely that the model you lease today will be replaced by a far technically superior version 3 years later (unlike vast majority of petrol cars, whose engines haven't radically altered in my 30-year driving lifetime.

It's the limited range, or rather lack of ready access to quick charge points for long journeys, that curtails its appeal.

Thanks for this write up!

Unknown said...

Very interesting post, Alan.

I work in Titanic Quarter and live in Cookstown, so this would be right on the edge of practical for me, given the stated maximum range.

But install a charging point or two here at the Northern Ireland Science Park (which seems an obvious site for same to me) and I could recharge while I'm at my desk. Now it's suddenly a potential commuter option.

I'd point out that the map on the eCarNi website seems out of date, by the way. There are at least two charge points in Cookstown/Moneymore which I have seen for myself, which are not shown online. That such basic information is not being kept up to date doesn't inspire confidence in me.

Perhaps once there are some of these on the second hand market I might be tempted to look again. Who'll fix it if it breaks down though. I can't see my current mechanic doing a course in DC motors, somehow!

Dkimlaw said...

They say that this type of car will reduce traffic accidents, but I don't believe it, it always depends on how it is handled.