All the trees grown in France, in one year. I do love a good statistic, and that was the one chosen by Nissan to illustrate just how friendly to the environment the first-generation Leaf electric car has been. Launched in 2010, the Leaf has found some 300,000 customers around the world, and those people — in spite of a pretty tight 160km one-charge range (and that was the official figure, the real-world number was lower still) — have managed to drive some 3.9 billion kilometres.

That, according to Nissan’s own calculations, has prevented the emissions of some 1.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of all the trees grown in France, in one year.

That’s an impressive stat, but Nissan knows that it must do more if the Leaf, and this, its successor, is to be anything other than a simply interesting sideshow in the motoring world. Those 300,000 customers were largely eager, keen, early-adopters — the kind of people happy to wear the hair-shirt of careful planning and restricted journeys, knowing that they were making a statement about their ecological consciences through their choice of car. That first Leaf’s styling fed into that. It was deliberately odd, purposely polarising, making the Leaf stand out amid a sea of gasoline alternatives.

 

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Well, that simply won’t do for the new one. The second Leaf has to move beyond that pioneering status and make a decisive move towards the mainstream. It has to be more than a mere statement of intent, it has to be a realistic, useable rival to a conventional family hatchback. And the key to that is range…

So, although the lithium-ion battery pack in this new Leaf is the same physical size as the old car’s, it’s packing more energy density, 67 per cent more energy density than that 2010 original in fact, leading to a 40 per cent improvement in the official one-charge range.

Which means, what exactly? Well, under the old NEDC fuel consumption and emissions test, the outgoing Leaf, with the optional 30kWh battery, could go for 250km on one charge. The new Leaf, with its 40kWh battery, improves that figure to a very creditable 378km. Ah, but that’s not the whole story. You see, Nissan is launching the new Leaf with a new set of figures, putting it to the new World Light Duty Vehicle Test Procedure, or WLTP test. The NEDC test has been pretty much entirely debunked as hopelessly unrealistic by now and the WLTP test, still carried out in a laboratory and not on the road, aims to reduce that gap by running the car harder, at higher speeds, for a greater distance.

 

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So, tested to WLTP standards, the new Leaf records a one-charge range of 270km. Disappointing? Not really — if you put the original 2010 Leaf to the same test, you’d end up with a range of just 122km, so the range has effectively more than doubled in eight years.

Does that translate to the real world, though? Yes, partially, but as ever the true, useable range of an electric car depends very much on how and where you drive it. Nissan brought us to the Spanish island of Tenerife to test the car, and that was a brave decision, considering what a mountainous place that is. Thusly, when we set off on our lengthy test drive, with an indicated range showing of 260km, it was all uphill, and electric cars and uphill don’t mix very well.

So, driving relatively normally (even a touch spiritedly at times) we climbed and climbed up twisting mountain pass routes, then back down the other side (plenty of scope for coasting and recharging the battery) and finished with a swift sprint along the motorway. The result? Aside from a brief pang of range anxiety at the top of the mountain, we completed a 160km test route with 55km still showing available in the battery when we switched off. That’s still not insouciant forget-about-it range, but it’s not bad at all.

 

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The Leaf has some other tricks up its sleeve too. It was surprisingly agile and enjoyable on those mountain roads. Power from the electric motor has improved to 150hp, and torque to 320Nm, so the Leaf feels brisk, while the stiffer body shell and faster steering make it feel much better to drive than before. It’s best in town though. There you can truly enjoy its remarkable refinement (Nissan says it’s 30 per cent quieter than any rival, and we’d believe that) and the E-Pedal.

The E-Pedal system kicks in maximum regenerative braking (using the electric motor to slow the car and recharge the battery) as you lift off the accelerator. It feels like reasonably firm braking, and it means you can drive the Leaf, especially in urban situations, with just the one pedal. It does blend regenerative braking with the real, physical brakes, so it can even bring the Leaf to a stop on a 30 per cent slope.

 

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Like the exterior, the cabin also sports a less quirky, more mainstream design

Other than that, the new Leaf looks much more conventional, outside and in, than before. It’s not especially striking looking outside (although there are some nice details, such as the rear lights) and nor is it especially inspiring inside. The cabin quality has improved a lot, though, and standard equipment is good, too. Safety is especially good — the Leaf gets Nissan’s new ProPilot system that helps keep you in lane on the motorway, and can creep the car in heavy traffic too, and there’s standard-fit autonomous emergency braking, with pedestrian detection.

Does the new Leaf do enough to move itself into the mainstream? Just about, yes. A touch more range wouldn’t go astray (and is coming soon with an optional bigger-battery model) nor would a more premium-feel cabin, but this is a truly impressive car, not just an impressive electric car.