For the past couple of years, automakers have been harping on about electric vehicles. In some parts of the world, the idea of 'recharging' your car has gained widespread acceptance. Perhaps it's safe to say that the West, and some parts of Asia, have accepted the electric car with open arms.
This got me thinking, what is it like driving this kind of car? Will it feel different from driving a normal gas or diesel vehicle? With no sound, will it be a dull experience? My curiosity was satisfied when I had the chance to drive the all-new Nissan Leaf in the brand's home base in Yokohama, Japan.
According to Nissan, the Leaf is the world's best-selling EV with nearly 300,000 cars sold worldwide since 2011. Needless to say, this is a very important car for the brand and it has to be a very good one if it wants to retain the crown of top-selling EV.
On first impressions, the Leaf looks like your standard family hatchback. It has a hood, just like a car with an engine and it even rides on low-profile tires, as if it were a sporting variant. If you don't tell anyone that it's a pure electric vehicle, people will likely say that it's a handsome looking hatch from Nissan. Really, the only cues you have is the flush, 'grill' panel and the lack of an exhaust pipe. If anything, it no longer looks like a lab experiment on the road, unlike its predecessor. It looks more normal; it looks like a car (in a good way, of course).
The outside looks pretty normal but will there be quirks on the inside? In a nutshell, no. Just like the exterior, the cabin of the second-generation Leaf is what one would call 'familiar'. The ergonomics are logical with switches and dials exactly where you expect them. Even the steering wheel is as conventional as they come; you have audio controls on the left and cruise control functions on the right. Of course, there's the novel gear selector wherein you press 'P' for park, push up for reverse and down for drive. To sum up, the Leaf won't scare the technophobe and bombard them with information that may prove to be too much.
So far, it looks like the electric car impressions haven't proved to be intimidating. In fact, it feels just like every other car I've looked at and sat in, that is until I turned it on.
The Leaf comes to life with a push of a button but you won't hear or feel anything. The only way you'll know the car is on is with a beep and the instrument cluster lights up. There's also a green car icon to tell you that you're ready to hit the road. True to Nissan fashion, the air-conditioning is strong, in this case, the heater.
If there's one piece of technology (aside from the electric motors) that was of amusement in the Leaf, it would be the e-Pedal. In essence, one pedal handles both acceleration and braking. Stepping on the pedal at a consistent pressure maintains your speed while stepping on it deeper will increase speed, just like an accelerator. However, the moment you fully release the pedal, it then activates the brakes, bringing you to a gentle stop. Think of this then as something similar to a golf cart. That said, there's still a good old brake pedal for emergencies and for when you turn off the e-Pedal mode.
And now, it's time to answer this question: What is an electric car like to drive on the road?
To be honest, it feels like a conventional car, albeit much quieter and loads more refined. With the Leaf's e-Pedal engaged, it was surprisingly easy to drive with the system's integrated braking system up to the task of bringing the car to a halt. There's no need to lunge for the brakes, all you need to do is to slowly release pressure on the pedal to control your rate of slowing down or stopping. It worked like a charm in Tokyo traffic too as you don't have to keep shuffling your right foot between the 'accelerator' and the brake pedal.
What was surprising was the way it drove. There was feedback in the steering wheel, impressive given that it's an electronic assist system. With its electric motors, it was eager to get off from a standstill thanks to the lag-less nature of the electric drive system. A bit of care is needed however, as it puts out all its torque in an instant. Other than that, it felt pretty normal to drive and it's easy to get used to within minutes. In other words, it wasn't daunting at all. In fact, it's like driving a conventional car, albeit a much quieter one.
We also had the opportunity to test out Nissan's semi-autonomous driving assist. Dubbed ProPilot, the system works in both city and highway driving situations. Like typical cruise control, simply set the speed you want and disengage if you want it off. However, ProPilot will go as far as keeping a consistent gap between you and the car in front, accelerating or slowing down if needed. But the main party piece of the ProPilot system is its ability to stay in the middle of the lane at all times.
It can easily take on gentle curves and it was rather amusing seeing the wheel turning by itself with no input from you. That said, ProPilot will remind you to keep your hands on the wheel. With the system on, your the steering wheel essentially becomes hand rests. As a disclaimer, it is not a fully autonomous system and it still demands attention from you in case you have to do emergency maneuvers. Think of it this way, commercial airplanes may have autopilot but human input is still a vital component. The same applies for ProPilot.
After a brief 30 kilometer drive, I could say that the electric car is a familiar yet new experience. It drives just like the gas-fed daily driver I use back in the Philippines but with heaps more refinement. If you were expecting a surreal experience, you won't find it here. But perhaps that's a good thing.
On a global scale, the electric vehicle is no longer a niche. Making the electric car feel like current cars have perhaps helped it reach an even wider audience. The familiarity the Nissan Leaf offers won't alienate a lot of people. But underneath that conventional-looking body is likely to be the way of the future. That said, there's no need to fear the electric car. Think of it more as an adjustment stage as we transition to more advanced tech and progress is always good.
Who knows? Maybe we'll have the infrastructure to support EVs in the future.