Nissan: Leaf goes solo in Godzone

By Alastair Sloane

Nissan Leaf. Photo / Supplied
Nissan Leaf. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand is the only country that doesn't offer a government-sponsored incentive scheme for buyers of zero-emission electric vehicles (EVs).

The $59,990 Mitsubishi iMiEV went on sale two months ago and the Nissan Leaf that hits the market in December is likely to be similarly priced.

But the New Zealand Government moved away from incentives, unlike the United States, Japan, Britain, Israel, Denmark and Portugal, which either subsidise the cost of the car or provide tax relief.

The US Government pays roughly US$7000 ($8240) towards the Nissan Leaf's retail price of around US$35,000.

"We are the first country where Nissan has launched Leaf with no incentives and it may well be the only one at this stage," said Nissan NZ managing director John Manley.

"We would certainly like to see a government incentive and Japan is certainly pushing for it."

But the Ministry of Transport says there is already an incentive for EVs. "Light electric vehicles are exempt from road user charges [RUC] until June 30, 2013," it said.

"The Government put this RUC exemption in place on October 1, 2009, to support a new fuel technology and encourage early-adopters.

"The end date will be reviewed as it gets closer."

The RUC exemption hardly encourages consumers to move to EVs, despite the Government agreeing that EVs improve the efficiency of the vehicle fleet, reduce reliance on oil imports and can reduce greenhouse gases and emissions produced by the transport sector.

Manley said: "The RUC exemption is certainly not in line with incentives done by most other countries. One of the original intentions when setting up with ECCA [Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority] was to try and get government to commit to some sort of incentive package.

"But, ultimately, it still comes back to the fact we are importing oil at a cost where we can produce electricity at a far lesser cost with current resources."

New Zealand is considered more "EV-friendly" than many countries, mostly because it uses a 230-volt mains system and upwards of 60 per cent of electricity production is renewable.

Japan and the US are on 110 volts, where an EV might take 14 hours to recharge. The same car will take seven hours in New Zealand.

Manley is still working on the NZ price of the Leaf. "We would like it as low as possible, but we haven't got to that point yet," he said.

"Obviously we are looking at where the Mitsubishi iMiEV is [$59,990]."

What about the advertising campaign? "Leaf is such a strong message for us from a marketing point of view," Manley said.

"Nissan will market it in two ways - one on the environment and one on the technology."

Driven spent 45 minutes in the Leaf alongside Nissan NZ technical chief John Reynolds. Aside from the electrics, it's pretty much the same as a modern family hatchback.

The interior is bright and breezy, with plenty of room and a futuristic feel that goes hand-in-hand with the propulsion system.

Seats are comfortable, head and legroom is more than adequate, and the boot could take one chunky suitcase alongside the kit holding the charging plug and cord.

Push the start button and a jingle tells you the Leaf is ready to drive. The gear lever is a computer mouse that controls forward and reverse and, once on the move, allows the driver to select different modes.

Select "D" on start-up and there's 100 per cent instant torque available under the throttle. Move the mouse to "Eco" mode once under way and the car's computer dulls throttle response and boosts regenerative braking to increase the available range by, in most cases, 10-12km.

Progress is smooth and quiet, with the hint of a whir from the motor. The Leaf's headlight housing has been designed to sweep air past the exterior mirrors to further reduce wind noise.

But it's not that quiet when pedestrians are around: a speaker mounted in the engine bay sounds a low whistle at speeds of up to 30km/h and in reverse. Nissan installed it to answer critics of silent EVs.

Leaf is easy to drive. The single reduction gear eases the car along and the speed-sensitive electric steering suits the powertrain. It is accurate at low speeds, with turn-in aided by the car's low-mounted battery pack, but seems to need more input at motorway speeds.

The car rides on MacPherson struts up-front and a torsion beam set-up at the rear. The suspension provides a comfortable ride on all but rutted surfaces, where Leaf doesn't appear as poised.

The brakes have a different feel to most. There is little pedal travel or room for modulation, but they certainly grab hold of the wheels.

Power play

At first glance, there is nothing about the Leaf to suggest it is powered by anything other than a conventional combustion engine.

In a world of hatchbacks, it's a ... hatchback, with similar dimensions to a Toyota Corolla or Ford Focus.

It's 4445mm long, 1770mm wide, 1549mm tall, and has a 2700mmm wheelbase. The spare tyre is in the boot.

Its body shell is fairly conventional; a straightforward five-door on a steel monocoque platform. But there's a giveaway - no exhaust pipe.

What's under the bonnet is where the real interest lies. The car is powered by a compact electric motor and inverter which drives the front wheels through a single reduction gear.

The AC motor produces 80kW of power from 2370rpm to 9800rpm, for a maximum speed of 145km/h.

Peak torque of 280Nm is available straight from idle through to 2730rpm. The rev limit is 10,390rpm.

The motor is fuelled by 192 laminated lithium-ion cells, totalling 360 volts and 24kW between them, said to give a range of 175km.

The cells are housed in 48 modules under the car's floor and add around 200kg over the weight of similarly sized petrol-engined hatchback.

Beneath a flap on the Leaf's nose lie two charging sockets. One is for charging from a domestic supply, which takes around seven hours for a full charge.

From a designated quick-charging point, an 80 per cent charge can take 30 minutes, claims Nissan. But there are no public fast-charging stations in NZ.

The Leaf is the 2011 European Car of the Year and the 2011 World Car of the Year - the only electric car to pick up the coveted awards. It also has a maximum five-star crash rating from the European new car assessment programme.

Kiwi recharge

The NZ-bound Leaf won't be the most advanced version with a high-end communication system.

A full "telematics" pack links the Leaf electronically via the mobile phone network to provide data on range and energy consumption, as well as give the location of charging stations.

A timer enables the air-conditioner or battery charging to begin at a specified time. The air-conditioner can be pre-set while the vehicle is plugged in to cool the cabin without taxing the battery.

The battery charging can be pre-set to start at a specified time at night to benefit from a more favourable off-peak electricity rate.

But the telematics pack won't be available in NZ. "The mobile phone network is not set up for it," said Nissan NZ managing director John Manley.

The first cars will come with the fast-charge port, even though there are no public fast-charging stations in the country and no plans to set them up.

"In future we could leave the fast-charge socket out," said Manley.

"It's just that we are taking existing specifications for the first shipment and fast-charge is standard equipment.

"We agree with the Government that there is no need for fast-charging stations. The country doesn't need to invest in infrastructure.

"The Government hasn't actually come out and said this. It's an understanding cobbled together from a whole lot of comment from various departments."

Production of the NZ-bound Leaf begins in Japan next month.

The Leaf Nissan NZ is using as a test car a Japanese-spec model with the fast-charge port and telematics pack.

"We brought it in for training and to let people like the fire brigade, police, panelbeaters and transport bodies become familiar with it," said Manley.

"It's an electric car. What happens if it crashes? That was part of the training."

- NZ Herald

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