Electric cars have been around for a long time. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when internal combustion engines were unreliable and messy they were a popular choice. They've resurfaced at various times – usually in response to fuel crises – but in recent years have always been rather oddball choices like the G-Wiz or Renault Twizy, suitable only for short trips around town. The Leaf is Nissan's attempt to take the electric car into the mainstream. Launched in the UK in March 2011 it's a practical five door hatchback with a 100 mile range and it can be charged from a conventional plug socket.
Bang for your buck
The Nissan Leaf looks like any other hatchback so you're not going to stand out as driving a "weird" electric car. A full 8-hour charge gives you 100 miles of range, it'll do 0-60 in 11.5 seconds and has a 90 mph top speed. You won't pay any road tax and if you charge it overnight using off-peak electricity then running costs should be minimal. There is a fast charge feature that will give you an 80% charge in half an hour but you'll need to have a special socket installed or find a public charging point to make use of it.
There's only one trim level with the Leaf but it's well equipped. Satellite navigation is standard along with a rear parking camera, LED headlamps and Bluetooth connectivity. It also comes with a system called Carwings, this lets you monitor charging status and control heating and air con settings remotely via a smartphone app. The Leaf has a 5-star NCAP safety rating.
What you'll pay
The approved used Nissan Leaf has never been cheap, at launch it cost £25,990 new (including the £5,000 electric car grant from the government) though a later price cut brought it down to £23,500. Used values hold up quite well, an 11 plate car will now cost you around £17,000, a 62 plate around £20,000.
What to check
The battery life is liable to deteriorate over time, especially if fast charging is used frequently, so check for reduced range. Use of the heater in winter can also lead to shorter range.
There are fewer moving parts in an electric car and you don't have to worry about things like oil and filters. Services are at 12 month or 18,000 mile intervals. The main wear and tear parts will be brakes, expect to pay around £80 for pads and £180 for a disc.
How it drives
The first thing you notice about the Leaf is the way it goes about its business in a ghostly silence. There's a gentle whine from the electric motor and the rumble of the tyres on the road but that's it. It's so quiet that Nissan has fitted a speaker at the front to make a noise at low speeds to warn pedestrians of its presence. The electric motor delivers its torque instantly so it accelerates strongly and is great for the cut and thrust of urban traffic. Regenerative energy from when you coast or brake feeds power back into the battery and you soon learn to adapt your driving to eke out the range.
Out of town the Nissan Leaf corners well with minimal roll – helped by the batteries below the seats that give it a low centre of gravity – and steering is responsive and light. The car also has a smooth ride making it relaxing and comfortable to drive.
Inside the Leaf is roomy and the boot space is similar to a VW Golf's. The controls will mostly seem familiar to drivers of conventional cars with the exception of the gear selector which is more like the mouse on your PC – move it down for drive and up for reverse. The digital dash is easy to read and keeps you apprised of the all important battery status and range.
For the most part the Nissan Leaf has minimal drawbacks compared to a conventional car. If you can live with the short range and the time taken to recharge it then the Leaf is a practical and attractive choice. If you want to undertake long motorway trips on a regular basis though you'll need to stick with petrol or diesel for now.