Nissan Leaf all charged up and ready to go

Nissan launches its all-new electric car, the Leaf, this month. Matt Joy drives this new green machine.

It's hard to believe the reality of a mass-produced electric car that you or I can go out and buy is here. The electric car as a concept has been around virtually as long as the internal combustion-engined version, but where the latter has been an immeasurably successful the former has never really left the starting grid.

But the Nissan Leaf, launched this month, is different. Selected dealers, including Desira Nissan, are all geared up and customers have laid down deposits.

The Leaf is instantly recognisable by its unusual styling. It's not hugely controversial or radical, but there are some curves and hard edges that are untypical of a regular-sized family hatch such as this. There is sound reasoning behind this though, as firstly anything too radical may alienate potential buyers but, more importantly, the need to make the Leaf as aerodynamically efficient as possible. The lack of an internal combustion engine means a dramatic reduction in noise, which therefore makes any road or wind noise much more noticeable. The sharp creases at the front and the rear cleave the air more cleanly and so minimise wind noise.

Inside the Leaf is a little more conventional. If you ignore the instrument display for a moment, you have a five-seat family hatchback with a typical dashboard layout. It is worth mentioning however that the light cream colour of the cabin is refreshingly bright and suits the car's alternative ethic, and quality is very good too – it feels a cut above the standard fare in this segment. It's also very well equipped – the single model gets climate control, sat-nav and a good-quality audio system.

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Where the Leaf starts to differ from a regular car begins with the instrument display. At the top there is a conventional digital speedo and clock, but below that there is no rev counter or engine temperature gauge. Instead there is a battery temperature gauge – in the middle is ideal for best performance, and on the opposite side there is the equivalent of your fuel tank – the remaining charge. Alongside the range display, this is the crucial bit of information that tells you how far you can travel without plugging in. For sceptics this is the key issue with electric cars, but Nissan has clearly worked hard to deal with this so-called 'range anxiety'.

Firstly the battery charge meter is backed up by a range-to-empty display which is constantly updating to give an accurate picture. There's no physical gearbox although you shift between P, R and D for park, reverse and forward, but there is the option of a an eco mode which puts the air-con into a more frugal mode, ramps up the energy regeneration and softens the actions of the accelerator. Punch a button on the sat-nav and it will put two circles around your current location, giving you a conservative and a more optimistic radius of how far you can travel on the remaining charge, plus all the nearby charging points.

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You as the driver can also have a good deal of influence on how far you can go. For starters, before you even leave the comfort of your charging point you can communicate with the car via smartphone, allowing you to check the charge status, set it to charge at a specific time or even set the air-conditioning working to cool or heat the car before being unplugged – saving a little more juice for driving.

On the go, the Leaf encourages you to eke out every extra mile. The top of the display indicates the power demands according to the actions of your right foot, and coasting or using the brakes activates the regeneration. With the electric motors harnessing the car's motion rather than providing it they can actually add charge back into the battery pack, extending the range by many miles. The Leaf even indicates how well you're doing on this front by awarding you 'trees' in the instrument display as you go.

A real-world test such as this clearly indicates just how much development has gone into the Leaf, and also just how ready it is for the sternest test of all – the customers.

Nissan Leaf

Price: �23,990 (after �5,000 government incentive)

Engine: AC electric motor delivering 107bhp and 205lb.ft of torque

Performance: 0-62mph 10 seconds (estimated); top speed in excess of 90mph

range: 100 miles on a charge

Emissions: Zero tailpipe emissions

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