It was the look on the gate guard’s face that did it. I’m not one normally given over to schadenfreude (Yes you are – Ed), but the look on his face as he turned around to see a mid-sized hatchback had crept up silently behind him underlined the sheer novelty value of the car I was driving. Different, and – shamefully – fun.

Yes, the new Nissan Leaf is the perfect getaway vehicle for South African criminals. The 100% electric drivetrain isn’t just nippy, it’s also virtually soundless. Inside the cabin, travelling at 120km/h down the highway, the only noise is the occasional thump of cracked and pitted tarmac beneath the wheels. It’s a commuter experience par excellence, the town car of the future.

If only it weren’t so expensive.

Electric cars are the current darlings of the motor world. Less resource intensive and polluting to run than traditional vehicles built around an internal combustion engine, they’re seen as the answer to the human race’s diametrically opposed needs to move around more and conserve the last of our waning materials. Electric cars are capturing the public mood everywhere from South African Elon Musk’s Tesla sports coupes in California, to the typically French Autolibs which are available for hire on the streets of Paris via a smartphone app. Electric cars are the future, everywhere.

Everywhere, that is, apart from Johannesburg, surely? Our tough guy roads are no place for namby pamby electric vehicles, are they?

The history of the electric car

Despite the perception of electric cars being the Next Big Thing, they’ve actually been around for as long as the horseless carriage itself. It wasn’t long after the introduction of the first motorised vehicle that people started experimenting with powering them using electricity. The first recorded electric vehicle surfaced in 1888 – just two years after Messrs Daimler and Benz showed the world the first horseless carriage. Even back then, it seems, burning things was old fashioned and inefficient compared compared to electric power.

Electric cars make sense. From a resource point of view, it’s vastly more efficient to generate electricity at a power station than it is to carry around a tank of petrol and burn it on an ad hoc basis. Almost 80% of the energy stored in fuel is wasted during the internal combustion process, while even coal-fired power stations get around 45% efficiency. And electricity, of course can be generated from a variety of sources, including renewable ones. Once gasoline is gone, it’s gone.

The biggest technical challenge for electric cars, however, has been storing energy in a safe and portable form. That’s the sole reason that we’ve not seen successful commercial electric vehicles until 120 years after they were first considered. Storing enough electricity to efficiently power an electric car for a realistic distance – that’s been the biggest obstacle.

At the 1972 Olympics, in its home city of Munich, the Bavarian manufacturer paraded its BMW 1602 kitted out with an electric motor. That car produced a peak of 32kW (or 43 horsepower, if you prefer), but its lead-acid battery pack weighed 350kg and was only good for 30km of driving.

It’s only recently that battery technology has struck a balance between lightweight, high capacity, and high current. Battery packs are still heavy – but at least now they have the capacity to power cars for a week’s worth of commuting, and at speeds faster than walking pace. This has led to renewed interest in electric vehicles (EVs), and brings us to the Nissan Leaf: the first EV that many will be exposed to, before others arrive in years to come.

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As I stand looking at the Leaf, even though I’ve covered electric cars extensively in the past, it’s hard to shake off those initial concerns that the it will be a boring electric car. But the Leaf is fun to drive because it uses no petrol. During our test we just went exploring down the roads and avenues of urban Sandton and Johannesburg’s northern suburbs because it was free to drive. When’s the last time you drove somewhere just for the heck of it, without worrying about fuel costs? It’s a real concern, nowadays, and more often than not the monthly fuel price adjustments from the Department of Energy are upwards. People think twice before putting foot; and that’s not a concern in the Leaf.

Welcome to the future

Just as Toyota’s Prius wasn’t the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle to go on sale outside of Japan (that honour goes to Honda’s Insight) the Leaf is also not the first EV car to go on sale in many markets. In Japan and the US, for example, it was beaten by Mitsubishi and Tesla.

But just like the Prius, the Nissan Leaf will be remembered as the car that started the electronic mobility revolution. It will be the benchmark; and the face of electric vehicles.

You may have already seen them on the roads of South Africa. Eskom has a fleet of Leafs which it’s been driving around for the last few months in order to gauge the effect electric cars might have on the already ailing power grid and Nissan started selling the Leaf to the general public last month. Next year,  it’ll be joined by BMW’s all-electric i3.

That’s going to be a challenge for Nissan. The Leaf commands a price that might see people do a double take, and BMW as a brand has more chance of getting people to spend that sort of money. Ironic, given that Leaf stands for Leading, Environmentally friendly, Affordable, Family car.

So what is the price? R446 000. Ouch.

The conventional, petrol-powered cars the Leaf competes with are machines like the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, and Volkswagen Golf. Those cars cost between R250 000 and R280 000 (when equipment levels are on par with the Leaf) and any sane person will point out that the price difference – some R180 000 – buys you a lot of petrol. Not to mention, you have an extensive refuelling network to take advantage of, thanks to a century of development for that infrastructure. And you can go a whole lot longer on a tank of petrol than a charge of an EV’s batteries.

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One of Nissan’s quick chargers will get you charged to 80% in just half an hour.

Nissan’s website says that the Leaf can do 195km on a single charge. Or about one third of what people are used to from a single tank of petrol (and a fifth of the range if you have an efficient turbodiesel engine). Then, when you’ve depleted the battery pack of the Leaf (or any EV) you have to plug it in and wait, rather than reaching for a fuel hose at Shell.

To that end, though, Nissan has installed nine fast chargers across Gauteng, at all the dealerships that sell the Leaf. These high-current, high-voltage DC chargers kick out in excess of 100 amps at 400 volts, and will juice a Leaf up to 80% capacity in just 30 minutes. Cape Town and Durban will also get these fast charging points when the car goes on sale in those cities, next year.

Of course, charging at home is also an option – but not from a wall socket. Not yet, anyway, because Eskom is still working out the technicalities of using a conventional charging lead that plugs into a wall socket. Nissan has partnered up with a company that will install an EV charger at customers’ homes for R20 000. These are capable of filling the Leaf from near empty in around four hours. That might sound like a hassle, but in reality the car would need a charge on a Sunday evening to be ready for a week’s commuting, and again on a Friday night to get energy for the weekend’s driving. Leaving the charger on overnight will take care of that – after all, cars spend only two to three hours a day in use, and sit around for the other 20 hours. What difference does it really make if some of those 20 hours are used to charge it?

The Leaf also has a built-in a charge timer. Get home and connect the car to a charger, but it won’t draw any power until the programmed schedule – and with our electricity grid currently in a fragile state, that makes a big difference. It is possible to have the Leaf charge itself during off-peak hours, and not affect the reliability of the grid.

A high price, limited range, and cumbersome refuelling process doesn’t make electric vehicles sound too appealing. How will the Leaf succeed?

Because it’s awesome

The power unit for the Leaf - an electric motor that's as powerful as a 1.6-litre turbo diesel engine, with even more torque.
The power unit for the Leaf – an electric motor that’s as powerful as a 1.6-litre turbo diesel engine, with even more torque.

The obvious answer to that question is that it probably won’t. The price really is too high. But it does have one thing in its favour. It makes driving fun. Lots of fun. And even if you’ve got 95 octane running in your veins, there’s no way sitting behind the wheel of Leaf will fail to put a smile on your face. It’s no hot hatch, but it’s such a different, exhilarating experience to driving a traditional car that you’ll fall in love.

The instant surge of torque from the electric motor (which produces 80kW and 280Nm) means that it’s quick off the line, up to about 80km/h. Having it all happen in silence is also a new experience – and a refreshingly pleasant one.

Given that the Leaf is a city vehicle, aimed at commuting around town rather than track days, that performance is more than ample. And because you’re aware of the limitations (read: range), I found I ended up more driving more sedately than usual, and not missing the usual-seat-of-the-pants ride.

There are some things that take time to adjust to. The gearbox, for instance, only has a single forward speed and a reverse gear. Engaging gears involves shifting the mouse-like controller to the side and either up (reverse) or down (drive).

There is a a second driving mode, however, called B-mode. This is activated by selecting drive again and is far more aggressive than normal when it comes to recovering energy through braking. Simply lifting off the accelerator slows the car down and lets energy be recovered into the battery pack through the braking system. Find a big hill and coast down it, and you can get back some of the energy you spent to get to the top.

There’s also an Eco mode. When activated on its own, it helps capture more energy from braking than the car does in normal driving modes, as well as changing the throttle sensitivity to coax drivers into not using all of the available power. Eco mode also takes control of the heating and cooling systems in the car, conserving energy when it deems necessary. Used in conjunction with the B-mode, and driving around town, you can adapt your driving style to be very efficient and possibly delay a visit to the nearest charging station.

The gear shifter - one forward speed, but many driving modes.
The gear shifter – one forward speed, but many driving modes.

Obviously, it isn’t free to run. Energy costs across the country vary, so we used the costs of a unit of electricity according to City Power, which services the City of Johannesburg. In this case, on the second pricing tier, it costs 97c for a kilowatt hour. Since the Leaf’s battery pack stores 24 kilowatt hours, that makes it about R50 for a full charge. This doesn’t take into account things like the efficiency of the charger, though, but it’s a nice round number to work with. (As an aside, charges at the Nissan dealerships are free – for now.)

Nissan’s quoted range was not quite what we got out of it in real world driving. Using the headlights, air conditioning, and so on, expect closer to 150km before needing to reach for the charger. So let’s say that works out to six charges per month, which makes for an energy bill of R300 (for 900km of travel). Now, assuming urban consumption of eight litres per 100km, and the current petrol price of around R13 per litre, it would cost R1463 to drive 900km in a petrol car.

There's enough tech inside to make it feel like one big gadget on wheels.
There’s enough tech inside to make it feel like one big gadget on wheels.

Very few people only drive around town, though. Thankfully, the Leaf can do highway driving, cruising comfortably at between 100km/h and 120km/h. While that first 80km/h arrives quickly around town, the 100km/h mark does take 10.5 second to reach; and the car’s top speed of 145km/h arrives a while after that.

The leather seats are comfortable – even for the long distances it can’t do – and there are enough toys to make this car of the future at least feel the part, inside. A touch-screen infotainment system gives access to radio, CD, and MP3 playback. There’s a USB port to hook up a storage device or your iPhone. It even has heated seats (for front and rear passengers) and a heater steering wheel to help make winter more tolerable.

And where you’d find the speedometer and tachometer in normal cars, the Leaf has its futuristic, digital dashboard. Given the lack of drama and noise when driving it, there’s a pleasant little chime every time you hit the starter button and everything lights up in a pleasant blue. The top stack of the dashboard has the current speed, temperature, and time – alongside an eco meter that builds little trees as you drive along. The idea is that the more economically you drive the more trees are being saved. Really, then, Nissan has a R446 000 driving game.

A digital dash - but will it look cheesy a decade from now?
A digital dash – but will it look cheesy a decade from now?

The lower part of the instrument stack has all sorts of measurements for energy consumption and battery capacity. Given that there’s no norm that it has to adhere to, unlike petrol-powered cars where drivers have become used to two dials, Nissan’s made everything look as space-aged as the idea of an electric car alludes to.

Is it a good car? Yes. It has loads of space. It’s great to drive. It uses no petrol. It feels like the future.

Yet, Nissan does face some obstacles. The majority of buyers in the local market still turn up their noses at efficient hybrid or electric vehicles, regardless of brand. Toyota and Honda have eco-friendly hybrids, while Lexus, BMW, and Porsche have performance models with electric motors that supplement petrol engines, helping to reduce fuel consumption in town driving. Those cars, like the Leaf, are priced at a premium. There’s also a stigma attached to owning a hybrid or eco-friendly car, which is curious, since we weren’t raised in a country with powerful V8 engines – though South Africans are fans of speed and performance.

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Warning. This car accelerates from here in a hurry.

Perhaps it’s the notion that these new, efficient cars are limited. Limited in capability. Limited in speed. Limited in space. As a nation that not only enjoys, but relies on driving long distances, those limitations spell a lack of freedom.

The Leaf, though, spells the start of an era where we’re free of a reliance on petrol. And take it from this petrol head and sports car owner – that’s a big deal.

Eleven years ago Christo started writing about technology for one of South Africa's (then) leading computer magazines. His first review? A Samsung LCD monitor. Hey, it was hot news, back then. Nowadays he gets more excited about photography, cars, game consoles, and faster internet connections. He's sort of an Apple fan, but will take any opportunity to remind you about his Windows-powered home theatre PC and desire to own a vanilla Android tablet.   Currently uses: Apple 13-inch Macbook Pro with Retina Display, Apple iPhone 5, Microsoft Laser Mouse 6000, Audiofly AF78 Earphones, Xbox 360, Nikon D50.