With spring comes a new elec­tric leaf

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Six years ago when Nis­san in­tro­duced its first-gen­er­a­tion elec­tri­cally-pow­ered Leaf it was con­sid­ered some­thing of an in­trigu­ing nov­elty. It’s tes­ta­ment to how much and how fast the auto in­dus­try has changed that the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Leaf that we saw re­vealed in Ja­pan is now con­sid­ered a po­ten­tial core com­po­nent of the brand.

You need to pinch your­self to ap­pre­ci­ate the ex­tent of the change. The first-gen­er­a­tion Leaf may be the best-sell­ing elec­tric car on the road, but lit­tle over 300,000 cars have been sold, less than a hun­dredth of Nis­san’s to­tal pro­duc­tion.

Yet at the re­veal, Nis­san CEO Hiroto Saikawa said that while the cur­rent Leaf was the elec­tric ve­hi­cle (EV) pi­o­neer, “the new Leaf has the po­ten­tial to be­come the core of the com­pany”.

The move to cen­tre­piece en­com­passes a list of changes from de­sign to new elec­tronic giz­mos to spec­i­fi­ca­tion. Power is up in a big way — the 80kW mo­tor has been in­creased to 110kW, and the orig­i­nal 24kWh lithium-ion bat­tery is 40kWh.

The bub­ble de­sign of the first gen­er­a­tion in­tended to high­light the car’s new-age bat­tery-pow­ered drive-train has been jet­ti­soned for zippy moder­nity that looks fresh but un­der­stated.

The new car is packed with elec­tronic bells and whis­tles be­yond bat­tery propul­sion, which Nis­san cat­e­gorises col­lec­tively as “in­tel­li­gent mo­bil­ity”. Th­ese changes are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant be­cause the in­dus­try’s fringe elec­tric car cat­e­gory is on the verge of be­com­ing very com­pet­i­tive.

Years ago, Ernest Hem­ing­way was asked how you go bank­rupt. “Slowly at first, and then very quickly,” he replied. Some­thing sim­i­lar is vis­i­ble in the elec­tric car revo­lu­tion, cur­rently less than 3% of global sales but which may be ap­proach­ing a tip­ping point.

The is­sues that have re­tarded the pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion of the elec­tric car, like range anx­i­ety, are slip­ping over the horizon. The ba­sic propo­si­tion of the first-gen­er­a­tion Leaf in 2011 had a range of 160km by Nis­san’s count, much less ac­cord­ing to the US En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (de­pend­ing on whether you have the heater on, it turns out).

The new gen­er­a­tion has a claimed sin­gle-charge range of 400km. That’s a thump­ing in­crease, so much so that prod­uct plan­ners at the launch event in Tokyo seemed hes­i­tant about whether in most con­texts a larger range would even be nec­es­sary. More than 90% of daily car us­age is sub­stan­tially be­low that level. An even longer-range Leaf will be of­fered in the near fu­ture, but the en­gi­neer­ing prob­lem is one of weight. The higher range comes at the price of a denser bat­tery and there­fore a heav­ier car.

The sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Leaf has a kerb weight of a lit­tle over 1,500kg, sur­pris­ingly close to the orig­i­nal ver­sion which says some­thing about how much more ef­fi­cient bat­ter­ies are be­com­ing. But that’s still about 250kg more than the av­er­age com­pact car.

Cost re­mains chal­leng­ing too, but also may be a de­clin­ing prob­lem. Car mak­ers won’t say whether their ex­ist­ing elec­tric cars are prof­itable at cur­rent price points — most an­a­lysts as­sume they are not and won’t be un­til about 2026. Yet Nis­san is in­tro­duc­ing the new Leaf at the same price as its pre­de­ces­sor, about $30,000, sug­gest­ing mar­gin pres­sure is eas­ing.

The price and range of the new Leaf are im­por­tant in­di­ca­tors in an­other sense too: they com­pare well to the big ele­phant out there, the Tesla Model 3, which has started pro­duc­tion.

It’s hard to miss how irked Nis­san ex­ec­u­tives are about Tesla. They do how­ever em­pha­sise with­out nam­ing names who has sold the most elec­tric cars in the world (they have) and who started se­ri­ously pro­duc­ing elec­tric cars first (they did).

It is ap­par­ent too that the stan­dard model Leaf will marginally out­per­form the stan­dard

model Tesla Model 3 in range and price. Gen­eral Mo­tors also has an EV, the Bolt, with sim­i­lar per­for­mance and price, rolling off pro­duc­tion lines. With al­most ev­ery other car maker rush­ing to pro­duce EVs, the mar­ket is about to get re­ally com­pet­i­tive.

Nis­san does still have a prob­lem with Tesla. There is no deny­ing the rock-star sta­tus of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the dra­matic changes in prod­uct in­no­va­tion that the Tesla range has brought to con­sumer ex­pec­ta­tions. In a sense, Nis­san and Tesla have ar­rived at the same place from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions.

Nis­san has in­tro­duced the elec­tric car con­cept, build­ing from the bot­tom, think­ing es­sen­tially of a com­muter con­ve­nience car with a tech-trendy buzz. Tesla came at it from the top down, in­tro­duc­ing an ex­pen­sive sports car, then a sedan and now the Model 3.

Now the two car mak­ers are head-to-head in the five-seater, com­pact hatch cat­e­gory and they also face com­pe­ti­tion from new en­trants like the BMW i5 re­vealed in Frank­furt this week and oth­ers.

EVENLY BAL­ANCED

In some ways, Tesla might be win­ning the race for the head­lines, even though the tech­nol­ogy race is ac­tu­ally more evenly bal­anced than it might seem.

The com­pe­ti­tion doesn’t stop at range and price is­sues. The new Leaf in­volves three new tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions.

First, there is ProPilot, a so­phis­ti­cated set of driver as­sis­tance and au­ton­o­mous driv­ing sys­tems which of­fers fol­low­ingdis­tance con­trols, mitigation of “cut­ting in” prob­lems and which helps driv­ers stay in their lane.

There is also an auto-park­ing sys­tem called ProPilot Park, al­though it seems to be re­liant on ac­cu­rate road mark­ings.

The big tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion is called e-Pedal which al­lows the driver to con­trol the car us­ing a sin­gle pedal. You ac­cel­er­ate nor­mally, but brak­ing is ini­ti­ated by lift­ing your foot off the ac­cel­er­a­tor and it’s pos­si­ble to stop the car us­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal alone. The sys­tem is de­signed to make driv­ing an eas­ier and safer ex­pe­ri­ence and will be use­ful in traf­fic jams.

One big prob­lem with elec­tric cars re­mains charg­ing, mainly be­cause it’s hard to beat the five-minute re­fu­elling typ­i­cal of a petrol or diesel-en­gine car.

The new Leaf has two plugin points, one for nor­mal power and one for rapid charg­ing. The first-gen­er­a­tion Leaf took seven hours to charge from zero to full on a 6kW plug-point, and the new ver­sion takes about an hour longer for 40% more out­put.

Do the maths. It’s ob­vi­ous the new bat­ter­ies are more ef­fi­cient per kilo­me­tre trav­elled, but only a hyped EV fa­natic would not recog­nise that even the new gen­er­a­tion is not ex­actly a con­ve­nience break­through.

Quick-charg­ing from “alert” to 80% takes about 40 min­utes, but then you need a quickcharg­ing sta­tion. Car mak­ers are fran­ti­cally in­stalling them and plead­ing for govern­ment help to do so to off­set the ex­pense of launch­ing the new tech­nol­ogy.

In Ja­pan there are now more EV charg­ers than petrol sta­tions, al­though it’s not an ap­ples-with­ap­ples com­par­i­son be­cause it takes longer to charge an EV.

The up­side is that it is cheap. Even us­ing com­par­a­tively ex­pen­sive Eskom power, the cost-per-kilo­me­tre of elec­tric cars is typ­i­cally half of a Toy­ota Prius and a third of a com­pa­ra­ble petrol en­gine car.

EX­CEL­LENT FEED­BACK

Put this all in a bag and shake it about and what you have is a tip­ping point loom­ing. Nis­san has been mon­i­tor­ing cus­tomer feed­back on the first-gen­er­a­tion Leaf and that has been ex­cel­lent, which is partly why the Leaf is be­ing po­si­tioned at the cen­tre of the range.

The cars are turn­ing out to be cheap to run, reli­able and early prob­lems are dis­ap­pear­ing. De­pend­ing on how the elec­tric­ity is pro­duced, they can be en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.

The long-term con­se­quences of elec­tric cars that drive them­selves makes your mind bog­gle; will we be send­ing our cars home to park rather than go­ing around the block for hours? Will we co-own cars? Will we share cars with oth­ers?

The new Leaf will be sold in 60 mar­kets world­wide, start­ing with Ja­pan in Oc­to­ber. It will most prob­a­bly be avail­able in SA late in 2018.

Nis­san has given the new Leaf more of a sim­i­lar look to its other mod­els this time around.

An­gles and creases are dif­fer­ent to the first­gen­er­a­tion Leaf. The in­te­rior, left, is con­ser­va­tive to make po­ten­tial own­ers more fa­mil­iar with it.

The im­proved mo­tor and bat­tery com­bi­na­tion pro­vide a claimed range of 400km.

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