Every time I get my hands on a new car, I always try to look for the extraordinary story in it. And you'll be surprised at how even the most pedestrian car, SUV, van, crossover, pick-up, sportscar, or basically anything with wheels, has an unusual and interesting story worth telling.
That was my goal when Nissan said I'll be flying out to try the Leaf. We've done it before in Japan, in Singapore, and even in Hong Kong, albeit for rather short stints in a closed course and with the steering wheel on the right side. This time, we're flying to Madrid and, guess what, we won't be in a parking lot or special course; we'll be on public roads, and the steering wheel will now be on the correct side: the left.
Yet despite the amazing roads, the gorgeous scenery and the abundance of beautifully cured jamon, I'm struggling to find the extraordinary I set out to find. Only later at the end of our drive will I realize it was staring us in the face all along.
Depending on how much you've been following the automotive industry, you'll notice that in the last couple of years, nearly every major automaker has been talking about 'the next big thing'. Each carmaker is different, but generally speaking, many are talking about leaps and strides in vehicle safety, highly connected technology, self-driving systems, and electric or electrified cars.
Truth be told many find it to be a bit much already myself included. Press sites and websites are full of the stuff, and it's as if we're being told that the end is nigh for internal combustion. And naturally, those of us who grew up with ICE are forming something of a resistance, albeit mostly on social media.
People are asking where we are going to charge it because there are less than a handful of publicly-accessible fast charging stations in the capital. People are saying that our driving skills are going to stagnate with autonomous tech. People are saying the future of automobiles looks uninspiring, drives boringly, and has no sound to get you excited.
Maybe the second generation Leaf can soothe our ruffled feathers.
Our first time with a Leaf was when it was still a first generation model in Japan. At the time, Nissan was already laying the groundwork for communicating what their vision of electric motoring is all about, but the visuals looked absolutely harmless.
Don't get me wrong, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by the drive of the first gen Leaf when we took it for a drive around Nissan's test course in Oppama, but to say it looked awkward is quite an understatement. It's the kind of car you'd park at the far end of the parking lot, and maybe toss a cover over it. Nope, it won't make you the talk of your circle of petrolhead friends in any way you'd like, nor is it likely that the Leaf could help you get the number of the cutie at the bar.
When we witnessed the world premiere of the all-new Leaf, we knew Nissan had nailed it. Okay, so the car isn't exactly what we would call virile, but it's a huge leap (leaf?) forward from its predecessor that was reminiscent of sterilized leftover from the Star Trek. The Picard-era.
The first time we saw the Leaf and the handful of times we drove it, they were all finished in white. But walking up to the fleet of Tekna variants we were to try out in Spain, I was glad they picked a different color: Rojo Fusion, a darker shade of red.
We turned on our respective Leafs (Leaves?), put the little mushroom-looking shifter into D, and pulled out of the parking lot and onto Madrid's roads. The convoy of Leafs really shimmered nicely in the Iberian sun, a nice contrast to the classic architecture of this historic city -one so closely connected to our own history- for long. Our route would take us on the expressway, a bit further north past Jarama, and onto the beautiful backroads that offer a fantastic view of Spain's countryside.
The first thing that got to us on our way out of the capital was the practical comfort of the Leaf, and the silence. There is barely any noise from the motor or the other systems that make up the Leaf. In fact, they have to have a speaker in front to synthesize a noise so pedestrians (and jaywalkers) will know there's actually a car coming.
Perhaps what I enjoyed the most, especially in the mid morning traffic heading out of Madrid, was the extremely responsive acceleration. I'm not talking about the 0 to 100 km/h acceleration time (it's 7.9 seconds), instead I'm referring to the quickness by which the Leaf lurches forward when you tap the go pedal. The reason is simply because automotive applications of electric motors generally have maximum torque at zero RPM. Not even one of the most popular diesel cars in our market can compare (the Accent) because the Leaf has 320 Nm of torque, and the delivery is instantaneous. This can make a stoplight to stoplight dash rather fun, and once on the highway (in this case, the Autovia) the Leaf's acceleration and ease by which it overtakes are surprising traits.
One feature I did like was the ProPilot system. Essentially, it combines several intelligent features to generate a measured degree of self-driving. First of them is the smart cruise control that automatically maintains a preset distance to the vehicle ahead. Secondly, if there's traffic on the highway, ProPilot can come to a full stop, and can fully resume when it senses the vehicle ahead has moved forward. Third is its ability to control steering and keep the vehicle perfectly in the middle of the lane.
In the future, Nissan plans to have a ProPilot system that can change lanes if needed and ultimately take you to your destination without a hitch. The system can achieve all of these functions that are essentials of driving autonomy, and it's quite neat on long highway drives, but you do have to be careful when using it on roads that aren't consistently marked, and you do have to keep your hands on the wheel at all times.
So it may sound that the Leaf is a diluted drive with these features, but it's really not. The Leaf has decent speed and acceleration, but let me tell you now that this EV has the ability to excite you behind the wheel. Out of the expressway and onto the fast and twisty backroads that line the countryside near Jarama, the Leaf surprised us with its pep and verve. This thing can turn pretty nicely, with the torque is plenty to rocket this fully loaded hatchback out of the corners.
I actually expected that it would be out of its element once we got out of the city, but the Leaf proved it belongs here. The engineering of the Leaf gives us the first clue: weight distribution. At about 1500 kilograms, the Leaf isn't light. Actually, the curb weight is about the same as an X-Trail while similarly sized models like the Sylphy are at about 1200 kilos.
What Nissan did to counter the problem was to cleverly position the heaviest components of the EV. The assembly of the 110 volt electric motor sits almost directly over the front axles, bringing that big weight penalty as far back as they can. If they positioned it more forward (like where a typical engine with a transmission would be), then the weight would be ahead of the wheels; that results in more difficulty in cornering at speed. We call it understeer, and it's not good.
The other heavy bit in an EV is the battery pack. The way Nissan positioned it also helps a lot to enhance the driving experience as they installed the pack underneath the floor, specifically under the front seats, the rear passenger seats and floor. In car geek terms, this keeps the center of gravity low and keeps this big, heavy mass in between the front and rear wheels to reduce the weight penalty on how it drives. The suspension settings are balanced for the car, and while I think the feel of the steering could could be better, on a winding road, this can put a smile on your face.
In all honesty, we haven't been paying too much attention to being actually economical. When the road had straightened out and our speeds lessened, I was able to take a peek at our remaining battery life: 62%. Considering we were having a lot of fun for about 100 kilometers and we have another 83 to go, that wasn't too bad at all.
We pulled into a Repsol station (if you're a MotoGP fan, you'll know who they sponsor heavily) to take a look at the availability of charging stations. Right there, towards the back of the station was a Repsol charging station with three different ports: AC, CCS, and ChaDeMo. Moreover, they actually use a smartphone app to be able to find a charging station, and it also serves as somewhat of a point-of-sale system for the charger to activate. The first two can be used with the Leaf, but the one you really want to use is the ChaDeMo system. It is by far the quickest: it can easily boost this electric Nissan to 100% in an hour or achieve an 80% charge in about half an hour, depending on how low your battery is on juice.
On the way back to the Spainish capital, I can't help but wonder about the problems of a battery electric vehicle (BEV) like the Leaf. The way I see it, there are three: the first of which is the charging time. That's one of three rubs if you're living with an EV: “refueling” it is not going to be anywhere as quick as sticking a nozzle into a fuel tank and pulling the trigger. But we won't mind too much if there's a good coffee shop in the station, or if you're charging at a mall.
The other problem with an EV is the availability of a charging solution (especially a fast one). That will really be the prime consideration whether it can suit your lifestyle. Charging isn't that big a problem for people who own actual houses where they have outlets in the garage or can run an extension out there, but what about those who live in condominiums that typically do not have a power outlet near every parking slot, if at all?
That's going to be the issue, but Nissan is working on a solution for our market: they're looking at installing fast chargers at Nissan dealerships as the Leaf's introduction draws near. Fuel stations are also looking at getting charging stations installed, but right now the going rate for a charging station that can hook up to two cars simultaneously is about PhP 1.2 million. A hefty investment for any fuel company. The one we're hearing more and more of is that one of thr major mall chains in the country is supposedly seriously considering installing EV charging stations and special parking slots in selected locations. Fingers crossed, then.
The final rub is not so obvious: a majority of our energy in the Philippines is not renewable. A majority of our power grid is mostly comprised of non-renewable energy sources: diesel, natural gas, and especially coal. They make up close to 80% of our power needs, with our highest capacity facility being a 1294 megawatt coal power plant in Pangasinan. Wind, hydro, and geothermal (no solar) makes up the rest. That really needs to change, and hopefully soon, because ideally, we'd like to be able to drive zero emissions electric cars with power from zero emissions sources.
Despite those, the Leaf is undeniably a leap forward in electric mobility, and it really is our infrastructure that has some serious catching up to do. But let's not lose hope: Madrid is a much older city than Manila, and even then they're catching up in terms of EV infrastructure with chargers popping up in fuel stations, parking lots, malls, and even on some sidewalks.
As we re-entered the city with 28% to spare after 183 kilometers of driving, my question still stands: what's so special about the Nissan Leaf?
My answer is simple: The extraordinary thing about the Leaf is how ordinary it feels.
This is no longer some Japanese engineer's wet dream. This is a stylish, practical, usable everyday car. I can see people commuting to the office in it. I can see parents dropping off their kids at soccer practice. I can see moms getting groceries with it. I can see people living their lives with the Leaf, and that's what counts most. The exceptional storyline of the second generation Leaf is how it can enhance our everyday lives by being a fantastically normal car. This one just so happens to be electric.
We head back out to the city, and we realized how fitting it was that we drove the LHD Leaf here. Our ties to this city, to this country, and its people go back almost 500 years. Rizal spent a good part of his life here, so much so that there's a replica of his monument in Luneta here, and without any photobombing condominiums in the background.
And perhaps just like the revolution our Hero helped spark through his writing, maybe the Leaf too -in its own way- can spark its own revolution in Philippine mobility.