Turning over a new Leaf

NISSAN’S EV FOR THE MASSES GOES IN SEARCH OF A HIGHER POWER

WORDS ASH WESTERMAN PHOTOS ALASTAIR BROOK

STATISTICALLY, in Australia, you are more likely to live next door to a redhead than you are to the owner of an electric vehicle. Actually, let me crunch those numbers a bit harder: you’re more likely to live next door to a redheaded bloke named Mike who hates cats than you are an EV owner.

For all the airtime EVs generate; for all the discussion about charging infrastructure, environmental benefits, and whether or not they should make bleeping sci-fi noises to avoid skittling distracted pedestrians, the reality is that the take-up of EVs in this country has been minuscule.

Part of that, of course, has been lack of affordability. Our COTY winner of 2014, BMW’s i3, while excellent in many ways, is really an urban runabout. And a premium one at that, courtesy of a $64,000 sticker. Tesla, meanwhile, has focused even further upmarket, meaning the ‘affordable’ end of the EV segment has pretty much been a black hole, with the only pinpricks of light being the 635 sales since 2012 of the firstgeneration predecessor of this car – the Nissan Leaf.

Now, with an August on-sale set for the ZE1 Leaf II, and other rivals rolling out from Hyundai and Kia, the talk of the impending EV wave continues to gather volume from both industry and observers. But is Australia ready to surf it? According to what we found in our EV and hybrid megatest in our 2018 Yearbook edition, the answer from dep ed Andy Enright was a flat no. The cover line of that issue – ‘The truth about electric cars, and why Australia isn’t ready’ – struck a chord with you, our readers, and saw us cop plenty of sprays from those in the business of pushing the EV bandwagon.

So why are we back again now?

Two reasons. The Leaf is the world’s best-selling EV, and Nissan, in partnership with energy provider ChargePoint, reckons that by the time it’s on sale mid-year, there will be sufficient charging infrastructure to make range anxiety a hiccup from yesteryear. But while we knew we were jumping the gun on that, this was still a chance to take the Leaf out of its urban comfort zone well ahead of its official launch.

In terms of destination, a visit to a couple of renewable energy providers seemed logical. It’s all fine to wear ‘zero emissions’ badges, as the Leaf does, on its flanks and rump, but if the energy used to charge it is coming via the burning of fossil fuel, surely those decals need an asterisk: *at least not at the tailpipe.

But beyond that is the true big picture; one where the debate about delivering on Australia’s energy needs and the reality of what our politicians are doing actually intersect.

So first stop for us would be the Taralga Wind Farm in the southern tablelands of NSW, to check out the 51 wind turbines that have been producing zero-emissions energy since the massive blades started turning in 2015.

From there, we planned to drive into the ACT to visit Australia’s largest solar farm, in Royalla, around 30km south of the nation’s capital. Wouldn’t it make a great drone photo, I thought, to picture the white Leaf nestled in among some of the 83,000 photovoltaic panels staring hungrily up at the sun?

But more important was to try to better answer the core question: are these two renewable sources, as trumpeted by the environmental lobby, really the low-CO2 solution to Australia’s increasing energy demands?

All we needed was a basic itinerary that linked recharging stops in a loop out of Sydney and back, and of course a schedule that allowed the required time for those electrons to flow. How hard could that be?

ANALYTIC THINKING and strategic planning have never been my strong suit. If you’re looking for someone to plot, say, an invasion of Indonesia, then I’m probably not your guy. Even when it comes to road trips, a large part of the enjoyment for me comes from being unplanned; to just wing it, follow your nose, enjoy the route that life throws at you, and figure out the eating and sleeping stuff on the fly. This is not an ideal mindset to bring to an EV road trip, especially, as we’ve established, the fast-charger ‘network’ outside the Sydney metro area is more like a bunch of random dots on a map, as opposed to a neat and logical trail of breadcrumbs.

Anyway, when we collect the Leaf near Sydney’s Mascot airport, it’s fully charged and indicating a range of 288km.

This should be ample to get us to our first recharging point – a fast-charger in Mittagong, 110km away – then we’ll have no trouble for the 127km run to Taralga via Goulburn.

First impressions, then. The wheel doesn’t adjust for reach, so my optimum driving position will remain elusive for the duration. Also, this is a UK-spec evaluation vehicle, so the sat-nav thinks we’re on the edge of the Irish Sea. Australianspec cars will know exactly where you are, but you’ll need an app, via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, to assist with your journey planning in terms of range and recharging options.

3 things you should know

...ABOUT THE SECOND-GEN LEAF

one BATTERY

First-generation Leaf was fitted a 24kWh battery; this second-gen car runs a 40kWh pack. Part of the gain is due to improved chemistry of the lithium-ion cells, which Nissan claims are also more durable. The new battery is no larger or heavier than the original, highlighting the improvement achieved in eight years.

two RANGE

New AC synchronousmotor is more powerful than that fitted to the original Leaf. Th new car’ power output of 110kW is a hefy 38 percent gain, while torque of 320Nm is 14 percent greater. First-gen car had an NEDC range of 170km; this figure is now 270km on the WLTP test.

three CHARGING

Three options are available for charging. Using a conventional 240v outlet, Nissan claims 24 hours for a full charge. We achieved 70 percent in 13 hours. Using a 7kWh garage wallbox, charge time from empty to full is 7.5 hours, while a 50kWh DC fast-charger takes around 60 minutes to achieve 80 percent from empty.

Hyper miler

THE REAL COST OF BEING COOL

Driving an EV brings into stark focus the energy required to run a car’s climate-control system. In the Leaf, there’s an energy-use page on the multimedia screen that shows, along with the motor’s consumption, how much further you can travel if you can survive without air-con. Typically, it’s around five percent.

As we creep almost silently into Sydney traffic, I’m reminded again why the doubters really need to drive an EV in an urban environment before throwing around the dismissive ‘glorified golf-cart’ quips. While there’s little pleasure to be had from an ICE powertrain in stop-start driving, the inverse is true of an EV. The Nissan’s torque of 350Nm is ample for the car to be stealthily alert, eager to zip up to speed or lunge to grab a gap in traffic, provided you’re happy to kick past the throttle indent that would seem to be there to discourage this and conserve charge.

But two other points are almost as noteworthy as the lack of engine noise: the absence of a shifting transmission, and the effects of regenerative braking. If you’ve never driven an EV, the combined effects of these two elements may be enough to sway your thinking, and convince even a hardcore ICE addict of an EV’s merits in the urban jungle. It’s the very epitome of point-’n’-shoot driving, except the shooting part happens in an aural vacuum, and you barely have to bother braking after you’ve taken the shot.

No matter how good a modern transmission is – CVT, dualclutch, torque convertor – it’s no match for no transmission at all. Okay, that’s not technically correct (EVs have a singlespeed reduction gear) but the smoothing effect of not having to kick down a gear, and eliminating the flaring of revs on an upshift, is transformational. Likewise regenerative braking, activated here by selecting the Leaf’s e-Pedal button. The system delivers up to 0.2G of retardation, meaning easing off the throttle is like a progressive application of brakes in a conventional car. Step back into an ICE car after a drive in a well-sorted EV like the Leaf – at least in an urban environment – and it feels a bit like going back to a regular toilet after using one of those clever Japanese ones that take care of all the hygiene chores.

IT’S THE VERY EPITOME OF POINT-’N’-SHOOT DRIVING, EXCEPT THE SHOOTING PART HAPPENS IN AN AURAL VACUUM

The ride of the Leaf has a cushy compliance at urban speed, and the steering is agreeably direct and slack-free.

The selectable driver information system feels logical and comprehensive. Apart from the slightly quirky toggle gear selector, it all feels as if it’s been designed to appeal to a fairly conservative mass-market audience, rather than push the buttons of tech-savvy early adopters.

As we feed into the M5 tunnel, and join the conga line of lumbering trucks and various diesel belchers in one of the most air-polluted tunnels in Australia, I hit the climate control’s recirc button like a professional fly-swatter, and take a moment to bask in the smugness that comes with the thought of not contributing to the problem. Well, not at the tailpipe, at least.

But there’s potentially even more smugness for the EV owner who drives past an automotive service centre and thinks about the oil changes, new spark plugs, valve adjustments and muffler replacements they won’t ever be hit for.

A little of the smugness evaporates as we aim to sit at the 110km/h speed limit, climate control running, on the expressway headed south. As with other EVs in our experience, the predicted range doesn’t have a particularly robust grasp of actual operating conditions, so that figure and the actual distance travelled on the trip computer appear locked in a silent squabble, like a cranky old married couple over the breakfast table.

It’s clear in these driving conditions, especially as the overall gradient rises over 1000 metres in the run from Sydney to Goulburn (meaning regeneration opportunities are negligible), that the actual range is a bit less than 200km. The display on the multimedia screen helpfully suggests we’ll do about five percent better without air-con, so as it’s a mild day, we comply, and make do with cracking the windows every 15 minutes or so.

It’s a reminder that unlike ICE cars, which are at their most efficient at a highway cruise, EVs are not. Still, as we seek out the charger listed online as being at the Mittagong Visitor Information Centre, we still have 47 percent battery power remaining, having travelled 102km, so no problem. At least until we try that charger, only to find it’s not compatible with the Leaf’s CHAdeMO plug.

Salvation comes at the Mittagong RSL Club, where the shiny white 50kWh NRMA-provided DC fast-charger stands in the parking lot, like a proud soldier poised to conquer an untamed future. The two bays on each side are free, so I dig out my credit card, curious to learn how this electron-pumping saviour wants to be paid for its mobility-providing service.

What!? Not a cent? That’s right; for now at least, this particular fuel is free, as the NRMA does its bit to persuade the motoring world to consider switching to an EV.

We order lunch inside the club, with an expectation that it will take around 20 minutes to bring the Leaf up to the max of 80 percent of its capacity. This is the prescribed limit to avoid battery damage on the fast cycle, so now our range is potentially down to around 170km, depending on how we drive. Still, we are learning plenty about EV road-tripping, and you can’t argue with the energy price.

We settle for 90km/h and no air-con for the leg from Mittagong to Taralga (130km), as there is currently no fast charging available in the regional centre of Goulburn unless you’re a Tesla owner. The lower road speed only further reduces the already well-contained road and wind noise, so the serenity does help offset the longer travel time, says the optimist in me.

It also gives me time for a phone chat with a couple of Taralga locals, to learn about life under a wind farm.

Unsurprisingly, there was plenty of opposition when the project was first proposed. Ultimately the locals’ objections were overruled in the Land and Environment Court. Land owners are paid between $6000 and $10,000 a year to host the 80m-tall generators on their properties, the huge blades turning at around 25rpm on a breezy day.

But it’s the ability of these behemoths to deliver reliable base-load power that plenty of people question. The Chinese company that now owns the wind farm quotes an output of 106.8 megawatts; enough, the company claims, to power 45,000 average Aussie homes per year. But coal-fired stations typically deliver 10 to 14 times that amount, meaning you’d need 500 turbines, not 50, for every 1000MW coal-burner you decommissioned. Then there’s this, as Taralga local Fraser Stronach observes: “Some days the turbines don’t move; other days it’s too windy for them to operate and they have to be shut down.” Hence this debate about reliable base-load power is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

BY THE TIME we finish our photography in the fading light in Taralga, the Leaf is down to 15 percent charge and we have no fast-charging option. We accept Fraser’s offer to plug into his shed overnight and get rooms at the local pub. It’s clear we’ll have to shelve our plan to get to the solar farm.

SPECS

Model Nissan ZE1 Leaf

Motor AC synchronous

Battery 40kWh lithium ion

Max power 110kW

Max torque 320Nm @ 0rpm

Transmission single-speed reduction gear

Dimensions (L/W/H/W-B)

4481/1791/1560/2700mm

Weight 1560kg

0-100km/h 7.9sec (claimed)

Economy 15.4kWh/100km (tested)

Price $49,990

Plug standard CHAdeMO

On sale August

Next morning, 13 hours on regular 240v domestic power has replenished the battery to 86 percent. Fraser calculates that this charge, on his electricity plan (which suggests only 10 percent is from renewables - thanks for nothing, turbines), will add around $8.10 to his power bill. It will give us around 150km of driving, meaning a cost per km of 5.4 cents. By comparison, a turbo-petrol hatch, using around 7.0 litres of $1.30 unleaded every 100km, would have cost us 9.1 cents per kilometre. So yes, depending on your energy provider, actual EV running costs will be significantly lower than an equivalent ICE car.

So Royalla eludes us for this trip, but a better run back to Sydney with gradient in our favour nets us an actual distance travelled much closer to the predicted range. We leave the Mittagong charger with the 80 percent max, drive 104km at 110km/h with climate control running, and hit Sydney’s outskirts with a claimed range of 113km remaining. Clearly there are variables that you barely even think about in an ICE car that have a very real effect on Leaf’s road-tripping ability.

But it’s only when we’re properly back in the traffic scrum of Australia’s most populous city that the Nissan EV’s core abilities can be best appreciated.