December 10, 2020

Two weeks to go before Christmas isn't a great time to be out driving just for the heck of it. Traffic is atrocious. Heavy rains and a late surge of typhoons battered up a lot of roads. And of course, there was the stress of a pandemic looming over much of the Christmas season.

This may seem like the worst time to test a car, but in many ways, it was also the best. You want to make sure a car can perform in the worst conditions. Yes, carmakers test cars in snow, in inclement weather and in very hot and dry environments. But we would contend that traffic -our kind of stress-inducing traffic- is right up there.

That's why we chose to take out the Nissan Leaf for a drive around Metro Manila today. And we opted not to avoid the worst bits. We wanted to see how it really performs in EDSA traffic, the kind that involves the pre-holiday rush and as it turns out, quite a bit of rain

Time check: 10:30AM

We should have left by now, but a series of minor communication SNAFUs meant I was still in Two Parkade standing next to a pair of Leafs. Or is it Leaves? No matter though. I'm still excited to try it out.

The Leaf isn't new to us though. I've driven this model on several occasions before, up to and including the first generation Leaf several years ago at Nissan's test track in Yokohama. That one was really more like an experiment for Nissan, given that it had a look that resembled a futurized version of the Nissan Verita, or maybe something out of Star Trek. A shuttlecraft, perhaps?

The new model is far more conventional in looks, and that makes sense: this is much more of a commercial model, and Nissan would be doing it a disservice by making it look too radical. A car won't win over customers if it looks like an oddball on the showroom floor, much less something you'd want to be seen driving in.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

The interior is likewise familiar and conventional; again, that's a good thing. The steering wheel is the newest from the Nissan parts bin, and something we'll be seeing more of in other models as soon as they get updated. The instrument panel, while different, isn't overwhelmingly so; a large multi-info display on the left with a standard analog speedometer on the right. There's the Nissan touchscreen multimedia system that's easy enough to use and has good resolution. You have a brake pedal, and you have a throttle (not gas) pedal.

Yes, the Leaf isn't a car that you'll need to read a manual to get going, but you really should read it. The only thing really that's very different from any other car is the shifter, or drive selector. Even when compared to the Prius (undoubtedly the one that pioneered the drive selector used on quite a few of hybrids and EVs) this one is still somewhat different. Instead of a knob, you get a hat-style switch. If you've played with a fighter-style simulator joystick (i.e. a Thrustmaster) you'll know what I mean. The gates on it are similar to the Prius with R, N, D, and B. The button to engage P is on top. There are a few more switches and buttons above it, one of which is Eco. The other is the E-Pedal, but we'll talk about that later because my team finally arrived so we can set up some cameras.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

Once out of BGC, I can finally get a feel for the Leaf on local roads. The last time I was behind the wheel of this car was in Madrid last year. While it was definitely enjoyable there, that drive doesn't really relate do how it would perform here. Their roads are far smoother, and their traffic is definitely lighter and not cutthroat like ours. There's also the issue of temperature, as batteries do get affected by hot temperatures, but not so much of a problem today.

Therein lies the key to the Leaf. If you're unfamiliar with the Leaf, this is Nissan's BEV or battery electric vehicle. There is no engine like a full hybrid (i.e. Prius) or a plug-in hybrid (i.e. Outlander PHEV). This runs on pure electricity, and you get that by hooking up the vehicle via the mobile charger to an outlet in your garage, or via a fast charger that has been installed in commercial outlets like service stations.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

The powertrain of the Leaf generates 148 horsepower. Actually, since it's electric, it might be better if we use the 110 kilowatt output rating instead of horsepower. While it may have the same power as a modern 2.0-liter naturally aspirated petrol engine, the Leaf does have far more torque at 320 Newton meters. That torque is more similar to a small turbodiesel.

The transmission is actually a single speed gearbox. There are no reduction gears; this is pretty much direct drive, and you can feel it. You see, unlike a traditional gas or diesel engine, max torque is available the moment the engine starts turning. You don't have to imagine the feeling of max thrust; just prod the throttle and you'll feel it for yourself. That's why EVs are fun, despite the many detractors.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

That's something we can enjoy in stoplight to stoplight traffic. The initial lunge is actually intoxicating; and mind you, this is just a rather normal EV. In something far more performance oriented (i.e. Porsche Taycan) it can get ridiculous. On EDSA, however, we can't enjoy that quality of the Leaf. This is crawling traffic, and a perfect time to really try out one key function not found in other vehicles: E-Pedal.

When you toggle the E-Pedal switch just forward of the drive selector, you can drive the Leaf just by modulating the throttle pedal. You won't need to brake, as the Leaf will come to a stop almost immediately, but smoothly. Think of it like an auto engine brake mode, but with full braking. I've tried it before and thought it was gimmicky. It wasn't practical in places like Madrid and was really more of a parlor trick when we used it on Nissan's test track in Japan. But on an EDSA crawl, it actually works like a weird but welcome dream. We'll call it the EDSA-Pedal from now on.

Our route today is fairly simple: BGC to EDSA northbound, past Monumento, onto the old C-4, then up to R-10, go around Intramuros, Rizal Park, go back to Roxas Boulevard, left on EDSA, and back to BGC. Basically it's a big loop around Metro Manila.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

My goal for this drive was to see what range we can get in terms of percentage. I had actually requested that the Leaf -if possible- had a 100% charge, meaning a total of 40 kWh. That means we can put the claimed 300+ kilometer range to the test. We got the car at 72%; that'll have to do. Of course we won't be able to consume the whole thing, but it'll give us an idea of how the Leaf does in extremely heavy holiday season traffic, and with a lot of stops for photo and video shoots. We will be making every effort to not be efficient. No special hypermiling tricks. We want to be as casual as possible, and see what we get in the end in terms of battery percentage vis-a-vis range.

Once past Monumento and onto R-10, the road opened up a bit. I was a bit surprised at how wide the road is now here. This is my first time in this part of town since maybe 2002 and 2003; back then we would regularly go to Manila Harbor Center for the PDRF and ProSpeed drag races. Now, that place is gone; it's really a full blown commercial container complex now.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

One thing I wasn't doing with the Leaf was babying it. I wasn't going to be soft on it. When I test cars, I try not to avoid bumps and uneven surfaces on the road; the only thing I really dodge on the surface are tire-damaging potholes. The reason why I don't take evasive action on bumpy surfaces is that a vehicle must perform well even on bad roads, and this goes double for hybrids and EVs. About 10 years ago, I tested the third gen Prius, and found it to be overwhelmed when driving on bumpy provincial roads. The suspension travel on the heavy hybrid was reaching max; like, I can feel the bump stops on the shocks because they can't cope with third world roads.

On that front, the Leaf excels. The suspension, even on this vehicle that was really meant for more developed cities, was coping very well on bumpy EDSA, and over the railroad crossings past Monumento and onto R-10. Even on the cobblestone streets of Intramuros there was no rattling, no signs that it was overwhelmed by our patchy roads. There was also an instance that I wasn't able to avoid a pothole because I was talking on camera, but the Leaf took it like a champ. That was surprising.

Once I got past Rizal Park, it was really pretty much all crawling traffic, so I took down our mileage for the drive. I had consumed 17% of the battery capacity at this point with the trip meter at 35 kilometers total. If we extrapolated that consumption vis-a-vis range, that means the Leaf under those heavy traffic conditions that means a total extrapolated range of just over 205 kilometers. It sounds quite short of the 300 claimed, but do keep in mind that we averaged only about 8 km/h because we were stopping a lot for photos and video, and I never turned off the Leaf so the A/C was on pretty much the whole time.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

The question remains though: can the Leaf actually succeed in Metro Manila, much less the Philippines?

In all honesty, we can't answer that yet. Yes, we figured out what it may be able to actually do in terms of realistic range, but the deck is really stacked against cars such as the Leaf succeeding in our market.

The first issue is pricing. Now Nissan hasn't released the pricing of the Leaf yet, but we're not expecting it to be comparable in price to similarly sized petrol engine compact hatchbacks or sedans. Yes, under the TRAIN Law, EVs are 100% exempted from excise taxes but that might not be enough. There are many other tariffs and duties to be considered, and the Japan-made Leaf doesn't qualify for JPEPA because there is no engine, and there's isn't any kind of means to equate its motor to a 3.0L engine or larger for JPEPA.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

The second issue is infrastructure. Being that the Leaf isn't a hybrid means it cannot benefit from existing infrastructure because fast charging stations practically don't exist in Metro Manila, much less the country. That is perhaps the biggest hurdle, as EVs are limited by a theoretical radius to the nearest charger.

Now Nissan is looking at ways to have charging stations installed at selected dealerships, but even that might not be enough. Some gas stations do have fast EV charging stations (i.e. UniOil has two), but I was informed of a legal impediment: only Meralco can legally charge a fee for electricity in Metro Manila. That means extra hurdles for setting up already costly EV charging stations at gas stations. For now, the only sure way is to use the charger that the Leaf comes with and plug into your garage outlet; that will take a long time to fully charge. Overnight might not be enough if your battery is fully consumed.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

The third, however, is something a bit more fundamental: is an electric vehicle really and truly zero emissions? That's a question for the truly environmentally-minded out there, the ones that would naturally be the target market for the Leaf. Vehicle manufacturing is an industry. And like any industry, emissions are generated by the manufacturing process whether it be the raw materials or the vehicle assembly itself.

Then there's the issue of where our energy comes from; much of our electricity comes not from renewable sources, specifically coal. Here's an interesting bit: the chargers at UniOil are not hooked up to the main grid. Given the legality that only Meralco can charge for electricity here in NCR, the UniOil charger is hooked up to a huge diesel generator.

First Drive: 2021 Nissan Leaf in Manila image

Despite these problems, there is hope. Perhaps it was fitting that earlier in the day I drove past one of the most notorious ecological sites in Metro Manila: the original Smokey Mountain. It wasn't like what I remember it to be. It has changed dramatically. Instead of big mounds of horrendous trash that I remember from my youth, it's now a green landfill. Unusual isn't it? A sight that's green, built upon the mistakes and consumption of the past.

Let's not have any illusions about it: the Nissan Leaf and other vehicles like it aren't going to be the pure green saviors of motorized mobility. Instead what these electric and electrified vehicles represent is the ability of the auto industry to drive change.

No, the solutions now aren't perfect, that much is clear. There are always ways to dismiss the potential for innovation and change. But if there's a conscious effort in society to drive change in legislation, energy, and the like, innovation are possible.

We just have to really want it.