When the Nissan Leaf blew into my life for a week, it was a whirlwind romance — fun, fast and lustful.
My preconceived notion of electric-car drivers was formed by an image of Leonardo DiCaprio hugging a polar bear and giving eco-warriors the thumbs up.
But when the nice people at Nissan asked if I would be keen to try it out, I thought, sure why not? It could be fun? And maybe Leo would let me hug the polar bear? Also, I could save a few bucks on petrol.
And since driving cars and writing about them isn’t my usual gig, I consulted the resident motoring guy.
He was nice about it until he said I needed a special permit to drive an electric car. Yes, of course I believed him. He was useful though, he told me that the car was affordable and even gave me a quick tutorial in the parking lot to sharpen my skills.
Maybe I was a little bit over my head. When the Nissan peeps — they sent an entourage — came to our offices in Rosebank to hand over the keys, I was slightly over-confident about my driving skills.
It took me a good 30 minutes to shift into gear. Or maybe it was 35 minutes. I’m not sure. It was lunchtime and I hadn’t eaten. It was an automatic and the handbrake was a footbrake which confused me because it was located were I would normally find the clutch.
And the darn car was so silent I didn’t know it was switched on. According to a report by the BBC this week, a US road-safety body has demanded that electric cars travelling at low speed make a noise to warn pedestrians.
Apparently the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the rule was needed because these battery-powered vehicles are too quiet and pose a threat to blind pedestrians. I agree. The silence is great because you can hear the birds but it could freak out people who wouldn’t notice you sneaking up behind them like a cat.
After fumbling about and mumbling to the Nissan peeps about how I am really a good driver, I eventually pulled out of the parking.
In my defence, I didn’t realise my own car, a Mazda 2, was a relic. It still uses a key to start. The poor Mazda has no Bluetooth features or the camera thingy to help you reverse. No, it is very old school and I wasn’t prepared for the Leaf’s cool tech.
Nissan, with its keyless push-button tech, is pretty intimidating.
The on-board camera, which switches on when you reverse is so amazing, you’ll never need a car guard.
Driving this electric beauty once you’ve worked out the footwork is pretty fun. It’s easy, light and eases through traffic like a cool kid at the matric dance.
My road rage completely disappeared that week. I’m not sure if it was the gentleness of a soundless car or the plush leather seats, but my infamous potty mouth was gone.
The car was great for my self-esteem too. Or so I thought when a cute boy in the next lane edged forward to look into the window of the Leaf. But it was the car he was staring at and not my freshly blowed-out hair. For a week, I was cool and calm and even Prius drivers looked at me with envy.
These are the things that won my heart:
The boot is enormous; you can fit in a body, a yoga mat, gym bag, multiple pairs of shoes, jackets, and all your shopping. Space for days.
The seats. Amazing luxurious leather, and they adjust easily for short folks. Also, they’re heated. Nobody should ever live without heated seats. It should be mandatory. Like a by-law.
Radio consul. Touch screen and easy to navigate.
The battery charges while you’re going downhill.
But with the good comes the bad. Things I did not like:
Range rage. It’s a thing, apparently. Lying on my yoga mat during corpse pose when you’re supposed to meditate, instead I’m wondering: do I have enough power to get to Woolies and then home?
The charger is heavy. It takes a great deal of strength to wrestle it out of its pouch in the boot. And then later you have to get it back into the pouch.
Charging the Leaf using a regular wall plug takes at least seven hours, and gives you a range of about 195km. For a high-speed 30-minute charge, you need a Nissan dealership.
Driving home during a torrential downpour, with flash floods everywhere, I wondered: will I be electrocuted?
Apparently over the seas electric cars are all the rage in Europe, and in Amsterdam there are plug points all over the city. You can smoke a blunt while you charge your car.
Without a doubt this is the future of car travel. It makes sense — no carbon emissions (from a petrol engine at least, although let’s not think about Eskom’s coal-fired power stations), easy to service, and no stops at the petrol station. You can charge it at your mate’s house during a braai, next to your cellphone.
I’m not sure if South Africa is ready for the electric car just yet. We need more charging points so we can travel to Pretoria or Durban, for starters. Until then, I’ll hold on to my Mazda. – Monica Laganparsad (Laganparsad is a senior news writer at the Sunday Times neswspaper). Pics (Nissan and Cornell Tukiri).