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Leaf a mark

It’s not just the fact that it doesn’t pollute. Or that it accelerates smoother and faster than other electric vehicles. Nissan’s new battery-operated car holds out an irresistable promise of a new beginning.

autos Updated: Sep 29, 2009 19:35 IST

In 2010, Japan and America will be the first to see the Nissan Leaf, an electric-powered vehicle that Nissan claims is as regular as the car presently parked in your garage.

The auto industry has come a long way but the limitations of a piston engine remain. When compared to other forms of propulsion, the piston engine is not efficient due to its complexity and the amount of pollution it causes. There have been alternatives, but no one has really pushed hard to make them feasible.

A push for change
Until now that is. The car we are driving is a test mule for Nissan’s new Leaf — it has all the running gear of the car housed in the shell of a Nissan Tiida hatchback. Besides the paint scheme the car looks nothing out of the ordinary. There’s plenty of room for passengers and nothing seems missing or lacking. It even has wide 205 tyres that are sure to increase rolling resistance.

A regular ride?
Time to test how ‘normal’ this electric car can really be. Key turned on, and shift to ‘drive’. As expected, there’s no reaction from the car as it sits impassively on the test track. Time to make it through a section of cones, onto the open track. Dab the accelerator pedal a bit and the Nissan moves forward in a smooth, effortless manner.

Electric motors produce their peak torque right from start-up, so initial responses are very strong. But ask for more acceleration right after that and you’ll be disappointed, as the rate of acceleration drops rapidly as you wind the motor harder. It isn’t the same in this car though.

While progression on throttle may not be as seamless as in a good petrol motor, this car accelerates with only a slight dip in urgency after the smooth take-off. I press the accelerator more and the car finds even more momentum. The 80kW (108 bhp) electric motor accelerates the car past 80 kph, so lay to rest all your doubts about the Leaf’s performance: this Nissan feels as quick as a Honda City VTEC. The rate of maximum acceleration remains constant and there is no gearbox or torque curve.

Smooth technology
Nissan attributes the smooth acceleration curve to its motor control technology, which varies driveshaft torque by varying the amps and volts in the best possible ratio.

Plant your foot flat, and the Nissan goes faster. This is not normal performance for an electric. The mild push in the back remains and the speedo keeps climbing, all the way up to 120 kph and more. On a long corner, I leave the accelerator pedal and start to brake smoothly. This car, like most electrics and hybrids, uses regenerative braking, so the pedal feels spongy. When you’re foot is on the brake, the motor puts charge back into the battery, recovering the kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost.

A good grip
The grip from the wide tyres is good, the steering feels direct, the car doesn’t roll too much and because the car has its heavy batteries mounted under the floor, this car has a firm hold on the road.

The refinement of the electric motor is also very impressive. There is a bit of initial moan and some small amount of whine at start-up and you get a bit of it at higher speeds too, but for the most part it has every petrol car well and truly licked.

The big question, and the most difficult bit, concerns the range of the car. Nissan says the Leaf will travel 160 km between full charges, which is very respectable. What remains to be seen is how well the production car lives up to this claimed range. This can make or break the product, as limited range is one of the major drawbacks of an electric car.
The other is the cost of the batteries. The car uses a unique set of Nissan-designed batteries that use lithium ion as well as Manganese for the positive electrode. Also, Nissan claims the batteries will last four to five years, which is a good thing. Let’s hope they live up to it.

Shape of things to come
The final shape and form of the car will include a tight-fitting bonnet, large rear and distinctive and very techy lights. If you’re looking to drive something that stands out, you’ve got your wish.