TEST DRIVE: Nissan Leaf 2013

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Two years after it went on sale in Europe, Nissan has revised its electric car the Leaf in reponse to customer feedback. Les Oliver drove it to check out the changes.

SHOPPERS stopped in their tracks at the sight of a “half car” driving past them in a cordoned-off shopping mall.

Nissan produced the vehicle with one side completely stripped away to show that the Sunderland-built all-electric Leaf might look the same but there were many changes beneath the surface.

When I first drove a Leaf I concluded I wouldn’t buy one until it was much cheaper and the driving distance range on a single power charge had been substantially increased.

The revised Leaf has been given more than 100 changes, the main one to increase the driving on a fully-charged battery from 109 to 124 miles. It’s a start, but still not enough to make me part with hard-earned cash.

However, if I lived and worked in London and did little driving around the country, I might be tempted as the emission-free Leaf is also free of the London congestion charge, as well as enjoying zero road fund tax.

Nissan say they have made the changes in response to feedback from predominently satisfied customers.

They’ve reduced the weight by 33kg, changed the heating, improved brake regeneration and reduced friction, all to help boost the driving distance.

The new heater takes heat out of the atmosphere into the car, increasing the efficiency of the heating system by 70 per cent, saving on electric power.

This builds on the ability to start warming up the Leaf by means of a smartphone, tablet or PC. before you even get in it while it is plugged in at home,

The advantages on a frosty morning is that while your neighbours are out there scraping, you press a button and while you are having your breakfast the heater is warming the car up and de-icing the windows.

The power is drawn from your home electricity supply, not the car, so it doesn’t reduce the distance you can travel on your fully-charged battery.

Nissan have introduced three equipment grades – Visia, Acenta and Tekna. The entry level, with the Government electric-car purchase incentive, costs £21,000.

There is now also an option to lease the battery, bringing the purchase price down to £16,000.

They’ve introduced a top-specced grade too to cater for customers downsizing from larger, extensively-equipped cars.

The new top grade Leaf, the Tekna, costs £25,490 and includes leather upholstery, a Bose stereo system, an around-view monitor with a 360-degree parking camera system, similar to that fitted in the Qashqai.

The suspension has been tuned for UK roads by Nissan Technical Centre in Cranfield near Milton Keynes. Firmer springs and dampers give a little less body roll and less of a floating feeling when you go over a crest.

The seats too have been made more supportive for European tastes, freeing up some space allowing rear passengers to get their feet under the back of the front seats.

Inside, the light grey interior has been given a more durable black, treatment making it less likely to show small marks.

There is now the option of a higher-power onboard charger. You can install a 32-amp charger at home and this takes charging time from eight to four hours.

“We recommend you get a home charging unit, which at present, is free from British Gas,” said Gareth Dean, electric vehicle communications manager. “You can have a 16-amp unit for free which charges for up to eight hours. Or for £99 you can have a 32-amp charger for the faster charge.”

Other improvements after listening to customer include an, illuminated charge port compartment now opened with a key, saving drivers having to reach into the car. And the cable is locked away with an electromagnetic lock instead of the previous padlock.

If it is being charged at a public charger and there is any interruption, the car can send a text to inform you.

The powertrain was revised to make it easier to install the battery on the same line as Qashqai at the Sunderland plant.

It enabled moving the onboard charger from the boot to under the bonnet, freeing up 40 litres of boot space - about the size of a carry-on suitcase.

This gives the Leaf more luggage space than a Ford Focus and about the same as a VW Golf.

The electronic parking brake is replaced by a footbrake in the revised Leaf.

There is now an “eco button” which desensitises the throttle giving less power, but a longer drive.

You can also switch into a higher braking regeneration mode to extend battery range in stop-start motoring when you can afford to sacrifice a little acceleration power.

Leaf sales are on the increase month on month with more than 65,000 customers globally.

The number of fast charging points in the UK is also growing rapidly, with the North East leading the way.

The Japanese company has invested £420million in plant and machinery to make up to 50,000 Leafs a year in Sunderland, supporting over 2,000 jobs in the UK automotive sector, including more than 500 directly at the Sunderland plant.

Nissan’s battery plant in Sunderland’s will also supply units for the NV200 electric van Nissan are to build next year at their commercial vehicle factory in Barcelona.