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Electric Leaf lands in the UK

Date: 16 May 2011

Nissan's lower medium electric vehicle the Leaf went on sale in March. Rachel Burgess speaks to several key players at the company about the car's prospects

After much hype surrounding the new segment of electric cars on the market, the Golf-sized Nissan Leaf finally went on sale in March this year.

BusinessCar has been lucky enough to drive pre-production versions and then test the final product last year, but never before on UK roads (see below). Since we last drove it, around 150 customers have taken delivery of a Leaf, with another 450 orders underway. Another change has been a £2000 increase in price, blamed on a poor exchange rate against the Yen. It now costs £25,935 after the £5000 Government subsidy.

It's also the Car of the Year 2011, no doubt won, in part, for setting a precedent for electric cars - it is the first fully electric family size car on sale.

Fleets were initially expected to be the dominant buyers, but instead retail customers have led the way. "Electric vehicle uptake for the Leaf has been less than expected in the corporate sector," according to Nissan's EV product manager David Jackson.

Initially, fleet and retail mix was expected to be half/half, but, in fact, private customers are currently accounting for up to two-thirds says Jackson: "We thought that fleet business would be the first to come in because they tend to be more informed and have known usage patterns. But we've had more private customers so far." There is high corporate interest in the car, however, with large companies taking a small number of cars to test the waters. Environmental firms are naturally interested in the Leaf too.

Any normal model

Leasing company Leaseplan has taken a number of the vehicles onto its books. It has so far placed around half of the 25 Nissan Leaf electric vehicles it is looking to lease. "We are taking the risk, and the more exposure you have the more you understand the risk profile so the more confident you will be at setting that risk, but we need to try and make it as attractive as we can for customers," commercial director Matt Dyer tells BusinessCar. "There still needs to be more confidence for companies to make decisions regarding EVs."

Dyer said Leaseplan is treating the Leafs as it would any normal model, and when it last calculated the total cost of ownership it was coming out more expensive, although that was before the recent sharp rises in fuel price. The only main difference from a lease perspective is that the cars are out for two to three years, shorter than average lease times.

"In many ways this is not a fleet car, we're not offering any discount on it. There's no margin as we don't make money on it, but we believe it's at a price to make it affordable," says Nissan's UK fleet boss James Douglas, who adds that the zero benefit-in-kind tax will make the car appealing for corporate drivers once Nissan has got them to drive it and experience how "comfortable, quiet and premium" it is.

Paul Willcox, Nissan GB managing director, says because demand was always going to outstrip supply in the beginning, there hasn't been a huge fleet focus for the EV. However, as supply and therefore volume ramps up, and production moves to Sunderland in 2013, costs will come down and this will start notable growth in the fleet market.

"There is a very strong argument for the Leaf from a personal taxation perspective and company finance perspective," says Willcox. "We have enough demand for now, but for fleets and generally, the benefit of the car is getting people to reappraise the brand and evaluate the environmental credentials of Nissan.

He continues: "Over the next 18 months we will start leveraging our focus with fleet for the Leaf. We will get more volume and move to Sunderland. The cost will come down and the market will open up more to us. From a price perspective, it will be a more competitive cost proposition."

Around 2000 were due to be sold in the first year, but after the disaster in Japan, plus increased demand in that country and the USA, it is now expected to be slightly less, as cars are reallocated depending on demand, explains Willcox.

Behind the Nissan EV wheel

So how does the Nissan Leaf fare on the roads of Britain? In short, well. It has excellent steering and handling and soaks up surface imperfections, although there weren't extensive pothole-ridden roads on the test route.

Silent at start up, driving the car feels environmentally friendly, no doubt aided by it's eerie hush. It is, then, surprising when the Leaf happily reaches motorway speeds; this is predominantly an urban car (in part due to range limitations) and feels like it should not surpass 40mph. But it certainly can when necessary, although it won't do much for the 100-mile potential. Nor will the air conditioning, which during our drive, appears to reduce range by around a third. Interior quality is excellent and there is only one specification, which is high, with satnav (charging points are marked on the map) and an array of other electric-minded novelties including trees on the dash that grow in size the more economically you drive. It's satisfying to see these grow through efficient driving, but whether the novelty would wear off day-to-day is another matter.

Despite being the most normalised electric car on the road today, the Leaf is still distinctive enough to turn heads. Nissan has set a decent precedent for electric cars, but whether the Leaf takes off depends largely on consumer attitudes and reducing prices.