THERE’S SOMETHING special about driving in Madrid. There’s a historic connection that exists between us and this city. Our countries, after all, are intertwined by a history that spanned nearly four centuries. That’s why the worlds are very familiar and why the predominant religion is the same. We were linked, right up until Dewey uttered the famous words: “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
But there’s also something special about what I’m driving: the Nissan Leaf. To most, it just looks like a car, but it is by no means ordinary. It runs only on electricity. No internal combustion. No noise. No vibrations. No tailpipe. No emissions.
There is an unusual connection to be made here between Madrid, the Leaf, and our own cities 11,650 kilometers away. And maybe, just maybe, we can learn a thing or two about how we can emulate how this old town is embracing a new kind of drive.
The Leaf isn’t available yet in the Philippines. Nissan promised to offer their groundbreaking EV later this year, but there is still much apprehension about it. Cities don’t care much for cars because rail is the answer and there is so much traffic due to our dependence on automobiles. Our country doesn’t care much for electrified cars (the term they use for full electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles) because of the costs involved. And a large portion of our energy is not of the renewable kind.
The odds are stacked against the Leaf, yet Nissan wants to forge a new way forward, one that I flew halfway around the world for, because—as chance would have it—I was in town for another sporting event. And there it was in a basement garage, waiting to be driven out into the beautiful Spanish sunlight.
When you see the Leaf for the first time, the most remarkable thing about the car is how normal it looks. Films of decades past have inculcated in our minds how automobiles are supposed to look very futuristic. Frankly, that’s not true, as hyper-stylized automobiles are either low-volume supercars, or concept cars that we won’t see on roads.
The Leaf is a future car, but it’s not alienating in its appearance. That’s important. The first generation of the Leaf that Nissan offered in other countries didn’t exactly look like something we’d want to drive, much less own. This new one is far more conventional, and would look at home in your garage because you’re not driving an eco-status symbol like the Prius.
The more I examined this red car, the more I realized how familiar it is. Apart from the different gear selector, there’s nothing unusual; it’s got a steering wheel, a few buttons here and there, an audio system,
an automatic A/C, five seats, cupholders, two pedals, and a pretty spacious boot. That last one was odd because being an electric vehicle means it has to carry big battery packs all the time, and there’s a penalty both in terms of weight and trunk space. Not so in the Leaf; the boot is deep and very useful for much more than just a weekly grocery run, or having a couple whole legs of jamon Iberico in the back to bring home.
Many petrolheads who swear by internal combustion see electric cars as mere oddities, but the Leaf simply isn’t. The important thing about the car is how it dispels myths and misconceptions about electric cars, and how surprised you might be. The steering is surprisingly direct and the handling is fun on the bends outside of Madrid. It’s not slow by any means given how the electric motor makes max torque at the moment it accelerates. On the Autovia (the Spanish highway system), the Leaf impresses with its speed and smoothness.
The range is perhaps the most important; you can expect anywhere between 200 to 250 kilometers in urban conditions on a full charge. That’s plenty for the city commute; my normal drive back home is about 50 kilometers maximum. And that’s a roundtrip already, meaning its very unlikely you can finish a full overnight charge on a typical daily urban drive.
The only real drawbacks with the Leaf can’t be found in the car, but the location in which it will be driven. In the Philippines, with importation duties and everything else, electric cars can be prohibitively expensive. The government has already waived the excise tax on electric cars, but we still don’t know what it will cost.
The other problem is more fundamental: a lack of charging stations. There aren’t many yet, or at least not anywhere near the number required to prevent uncomfortable range anxiety. But change can happen, and Madrid is proof of that. This historic city is gradually adapting to an electric future as gas stations are starting to install more and more fast charging stations that can achieve an 80-percent charge in about 30 minutes or less. With time, we can too.
After a day’s worth of driving out of the city, into the mountains to the north, and back into town, I parked our Nissan on the side of the road just to stretch my legs. As it turned out, the place the Leaf ended up in was unusually apt: the Avenida delas Islas Filipinas.
You see, beyond the historic architecture, the gorgeous weather, the exceptional food, the beautiful people, and the overall welcoming atmosphere, Madrid was once home to a lot of our heroes. Illustrados like Luna, Lopez Jaena, del Pilar, Ponce and more walked these streets, along with Rizal. In fact, the replica of his monument in Luneta was just across this street.
The motoring world is going through a revolution as the industry and public perception shift towards electric. Many are apprehensive about electric vehicles and rightfully so. It’s still fairly new, and the technology is evolving more quickly than production lines and schedules can keep up with. But the Leaf and cars like it show a lot of promise, and are aimed at showing us a different way without giving up what we motorists have become accustomed to.
Judging by how fun it is to drive and how practical it is as everyday car, the coming future is very bright. And quiet.