7 days living with ... the Nissan Leaf
The cost of fuel is going up, the impact of emissions on the environment and our own health has been charted, but until recently, there really wasn't a viable and attractive alternative. This isn't the first electric car to appear by a long shot, but the Nissan Leaf is heralded as the one that will help transform our attitudes to the electric car.
So I wanted to find out for myself, living with the Nissan Leaf, the company's first electric car, to see if it could convince me to move off diesel. Parking the family Golf to one side, I wanted to see if the criticism of electric cars really rang true.
It's the big day, my first day, and I awake to the knock on the door bright and early. The car has arrived. Normally when cars are delivered for test they arrive with a man who then wants a lift to the station so he can get home again. Not so today. Because of the range of the Leaf (104 miles), it has come on the back of a trailer so I get the maximum charge of the battery from the get go. Ironically, the truck pulling it, a Nissan of course, is a real powerhouse and one that guzzles fuel.
Ten minutes later and I am in the new car getting a quick overview. The first impression is that there is loads of room. Aside from the rather futuristic dashboard, the car looks like any normal car. Questions like, "Where's the lightweight cheap plastic so it goes further?" and "Why are there so many lights, won't that drain the battery?" run through my head. I keep quiet. I've got a week to play with it and there will be plenty of time for discovery and the chance to "break stuff" when the man has gone.
Our drop-off guy, as I've decided to call him, explains that it's all very easy - although he, too, is confused as to why reverse means pushing the automatic gear stick forward and drive pulling it backwards.
"Drop the keys on this tray," he starts, before telling me that you don't really have to do that. But he likes to so he doesn't worry that he has lost his keys. Of course in reality there isn't even a key, just a fob.
It's the first big change for me. On a normal day I drive a Volkswagen Golf Estate - diesel at that - and the notion of a not having to put a key in a steering column is still fun. I know lots of cars don't require you to have a physical key these days, but it still makes me feel like being part of something futuristic.
"Now put your foot on the brake and press this button," instructs drop-off guy.
I do, and the dashboard lights up like I am powering up a spaceship ready to set off for to the Alpha Quadrant. It's a lightshow enough to impress anyone.
"The engine is on now," drop-off guy adds.
He has said this for effect, clearly. There is no noise. He is trying to blow my mind. It is a trick that I soon find I use to impress friends, too.
The notion that something can be on without making a noise is not new, the laptop or smartphone you are reading this on doesn't make a noise either, but once upon a time your big desktop with that massive fan did, and the experience is the same here.
That is compounded even more when I slip the car into gear, pull the small lever for the handbrake and start moving. A smile comes across my face. This is going to be fun.
Ten minutes later and the drop-off guy is gone. I head back into the house and am greeted by my coat and Mrs Pocket-lint eager for me to take her for a spin in the new motor (can you even call it that). She wants to play. This is unexpected.
I'm immediately playing the drop-off guy roll, dropping the keys on the tray, pressing the button and telling her the engine is running. She doesn't believe me, but soon does when we start reversing. She is smiling too.
A second large touchscreen display springs into life and a video camera shows me what's behind the car. The Golf doesn't have this so I habitually ignore the new technology in favour of looking out the back. I'm sure that will change. We silently glide down our cul-de-sac towards Ascot high street at the bottom of our road.
Bang! A man steps out into the street, and I hit the brakes. Not hard enough to send Mrs Pocket-lint flying, but enough to chalk up a potential hit had I not been playing attention. The guy looks puzzled with that, "How did you get there, I didn't hear you coming" face plastered on him. It's a theme that continues across the week.
We pull out into the traffic and off we go.
It's the last day of term before the Easter holidays and I opt to take my 6-year-old daughter to school. We've already explained over dinner the night before that the new car "daddy has on loan" is an electric car and that's got them very excited. They don't get this excited over the Golf.
The Nissan Leaf is a five seater, and fitting the two largish, but standard booster seats in the back is no problem - you don't get that option with the G-Wiz.
The kids jump in, and immediately start playing with the windows. I can lock them, but interestingly that locks all the windows, front passenger as well, apart from the driver's.
School is just 2 miles away so it doesn't take long. The drive feels futuristic. Yes I know that is clichéd, but that's just how it feels - I blame films like Minority Report, A.I., Demolition Man or Total Recall.
We get to school the kids are desperate to tell the entire school that we've got an electric car. Parents, friends, teachers, none are spared. It's a strange experience. Suddenly we are getting a lot of attention, people are interested, they want to know more. This didn't happen when I bought the Golf.
The entire school and faculty now know that I am driving the Leaf, so I make a quick exit before I end up spending the day doing test drives and demos.
My brother lives 5 miles down the road so I head to him for a coffee. He's a gadget fan and I want to show him the new ride. He'll be impressed.
He runs a dive centre (divecrew.co.uk if you're interested) and so I visit him at his shop. He doesn't realise it is an electric car. He is impressed. So impressed that the first customer that walks in while we are having our coffee is dragged out to see his "brother's new car". We all jump in, and I do my "look it's running" gag. I am getting better at the build-up, picturing myself as the drop-off guy, and they both smile. This is a very smiley car.
I say goodbye and drive off. As I look back they are both laughing. Later I phone him and ask why?
"It didn't make a noise on the outside either, that's bonkers."
If you are wondering why I haven't been driving around the countryside trying to run out of battery, that's because that's not what I do in my normal car. I'm trying to fit the Nissan Leaf into my everyday life just the same way.
Like many families, the car, when you really analyse it, isn't used that much. When was the last time you drove more than 50 miles in one go, turned around and came back again? We drop the kids off to school, see some friends, go to the supermarket and maybe an outing for the weekend. The distances covered over the course of my average week never really amount to much, making this a perfect fit. This isn't a car for the on the road warrior that travels 36,000 miles a year. This is the local run around.
That said we are off to Newbury today to the theatre.
According to Google it is a 70 mile round trip. The range meter on the Leaf says we have 72 miles before we need charging; although I've noticed that that can fluctuate depending on whether you drive in Eco mode, have the air conditioning on, or whether you drive like you own a BMW.
That means in principle we could make it there and back if I drive efficiently, or at least hope to find a charging station at the other end. With two young kids and a day of other stuff to be done, Mrs Pocket-lint isn't having any of it. We take the Golf.
And there lies the biggest problem and the easiest one for naysayers to target. While the Leaf is great around the local villages, the moment I suggest we take it somewhere that would push the limits, old school mentality kicks in, and you have to resort to regular alternatives. If that sounds negative against Mrs Pocket-lint, it shouldn't be, but it's a fear I had too. Sitting on the side of a motorway with two young kids in the dark waiting to be picked up because we'd run out of battery isn't how I wanted to spend my Saturday night.
We're off to church. It's 2 miles down the road. The Leaf does nicely. So do the reactions at coffee afterwards, and once again I am quickly becoming the talk of the room, thanks to a combination of an over eager friend who wants to play, and my kids still bragging that we've "got an electric car".
A couple of spins around the village later and we all set off home, before heading to the supermarket for the weekly shop.
I pull out of the driveway and slowly drive past two guys walking in the road. They don't hear the car coming. When they eventually get out of the way I get the same look I've started noticing all week: "Where the bloody hell did you come from?"
"You in stealth mode?" One asks. "Yes," is the cool reply. I am getting good at this. I get to the end of the road and again almost hit someone. This is starting to become an issue.
Ten minutes later and we are in Waitrose car park. We've chosen Waitrose in Bracknell specifically because I've previously noticed when driving past that the new flagship store, which opened in November 2011, has a couple of dedicated electric car parking spaces complete with charging stations.
I haven't charged the Leaf yet and the concept of charging while shopping seems to be too good an opportunity to miss.
We park up all excited (sad, I know) and get the cable out of the back of the boot. You get two cables with the Leaf, one that lets you plug your car into a standard three-pin plug socket you'll find in your home for trickle charging, and a second that is designed to be used to "quick charge" the car when out and about.
I go to the charging station to investigate. It wants an RFID tag to start. I don't have one. The website on the charging booth isn't very helpful (corporate spiel) and the phone number goes through to voicemail. Bugger.
"Waitrose will know what to do," I say to Mrs Pocket-lint, and head over to the shop. I get to customer services and am met with puzzled expressions. A few calls and it quickly transpires that nobody knows what's going on. The suited men sent to help come back older and older. "We've never been asked before," I'm eventually told: the shop has been open for 6 months.
One call to head office later and it turns out that I need to be part of a third-party scheme that costs £20 a year to join to get a key. Even then the charging station isn't the "quick charge" option, but the slower three-pin plug option, so while it might get me enough to get home, it isn't really going to give my battery a massive boost. A full charge is recommended as an overnight thing. Frustrating.
Shopping done and it's a good chance to prove that the boot is ample size to get a week's shopping in without any problem. The arguments that electric cars aren't good enough to take on "normal" cars on the size stakes are rubbish.
I use the car to go for a run before heading to the shops. Again the car is perfect for this, it's quick, nimble, light and agile and for short journeys perfect for what you need. Eco mode does suck out some of the fun so you get more range, but for the most part you won't notice. The journey is uneventful although, yet again, someone steps out in front of me.
With school holidays in full force, I use the car to run Mrs Pocket-lint and the kids to the cinema 4 miles down the road. Coming back I notice that the car could do with a charge, not that it needs it.
Charging, when you aren't doing it from a charging station that isn't keen for you to play nice with, is incredibly easy.
A press of the button in the car releases the hatch for the charging points at the front, and the 6m long cable is more than enough to reach inside my front door to the power socket. If I was to have an electric car all the time I would install an outside socket. Those with a garage will find it even easier. If you live in a flat, or don't have a drive, however, you are going to run into problems.
Mrs Pocket-lint and the kids off to visit family in Milton Keynes. It's 63 miles away, plenty of scope for the Leaf to get there no problem and charge at the other end. I'm not going so we don't take the Leaf but in a situation like this I would be more than happy to.
You have to plan ahead, make sure you have a full charge before you set off and that, like charging your phone, will mean remembering to plug it in the night before.
I stay at home and use the car to run out in the evening to the local Chinese take-away.
I'm going to really see how far I can push the Leaf. I used to commute into London every day. It's a 70-mile round trip, but the appeal is that there is no Congestion Charge to worry about and if I can find a charging station near where I am going, then the range isn't a problem.
There are a number of schemes in London and these range in price - electric might be the greener option but you still have to pay.
Westminster Council offers charging stations throughout the borough but you have to be a member - £75 a year. A cheaper option and one that looks to be much better is the Mayor of London and Transport for London backed Source London scheme. It's a tenner for annual membership and that gives you access to some 361 (and counting) charging stations.
I go to get in the car, ready for the big adventure, but there is a man standing in my drive. Nissan have come to pick up the car already. It's been seven days and my time is up.
The week has flown by and the idea of letting me interrupt their busy schedule just so I can drive 80 miles to charge a car isn't now going to be possible.
I hand back the keys. I am no longer smiling. Neither is my 4-year-old son, who seems even more downbeat about the fact that the drop-off guy from Nissan is stealing our electric car. I explain that it was never daddy's in the first place.
There are two easy complaints you can level at electric cars: range and price. It is easy for the Nissan Leaf to fall into both of those if you are trying to tell someone that they shouldn't bother. The model we had for the seven days will set you back £26,297 and the furthest you can go in it is somewhere between 80-104 miles depending on how you drive.
At £26,000, it sounds expensive until you start to look at the sums a bit more closely. There is no car tax to pay, it is insurance group 24, and it is exempt from the London Congestion Charge too. To fully charge it will depend on how much you pay for your electricity, but Nissan says its experience is that a full charge for a completely depleted battery is £1.90. Add in membership to a charging scheme and it is still very affordable - plus you get to feel you are doing your bit for the environment.
As for the range issue, it did stop us going to Newbury, but I think that was because of a fear rather than a fact. When we got back home, looking at what we had done in the Golf, it would have been possible. It is also worth pointing out that the drive to Newbury is the furthest I've been in my Golf this year in a single journey. It might be worth asking yourself the same question, if you're interested in an electric car.
So that leaves us with the positives and they are plentiful. I've never driven a car that has garnered so many looks, so many questions, and so much interest. People genuinely want to know what it is like, whether it epitomises all the bad things we've been told about electric cars and whether they should get one.
For many the price will be the deciding factor. Nissan says there aren't really any on the second-hand market because the car is only a year old. This is still very early adopter stuff, and while the car isn't really to be faulted on what it sets out to do, the infrastructure is still trying to catch up. An outside plug and a membership to a charging scheme in the places you drive are a must.
Family Pocket-lint is a one-car family and I am not sure I am ready to go fully electric just yet. If we were a two-car family, however, that decision would be a lot easier. With the Nissan Leaf, the company has shown that you can have your electric car and drive it.