The Nissan Leaf is not like other electric cars – or so the makers hope we will think. David Wilkins reports

It's about the same size as a Volkswagen Golf, with five seats, a top speed of 90mph and the acceleration power of a conventional 2.5 litre engine. No, the new Nissan Leaf does not look or drive like the electric cars British motorists are used to seeing. In fact, at the launch yesterday, the only thing to identify it as an electric vehicle was its sound – or, rather, the lack of it.

Nissan yesterday showed off a similar prototype, called the Tida, at the O2 centre in Greenwich. If the brief test drives were any guide, driving and living with the Leaf will involve few sacrifices. Like other electric vehicles being readied for production, such as BMW's Mini E and Mitsubishi's i-MiEV, the Leaf provides creature comforts such as air conditioning that were absent from earlier electric models such as the G-Wiz. Unlike the Mini E, which gives up its rear seat and boot to batteries, the Leaf is a full five-seat hatchback.

In terms of performance, it couldn't be more different from electric vehicles such as milk floats and golf buggies. Electric motors deliver most power at low speed so in terms of initial acceleration, at least, electric cars can easily beat some of today's high-performance vehicles; Nissan says the Leaf's mid-range acceleration is comparable with that of a conventional car with a 2.5 litre V6 engine, a claim that seems plausible on the basis of a brief test. At all times, the Leaf is uncannily quiet – almost silent, in fact.

The biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles is their limited range and the related difficulty of finding suitable recharging points. As Jerry Hardcastle, Nissan's vice president for vehicle design and development in Europe, said: "We can't do the electric vehicle on our own," by which he meant that a wide range of partners need to be recruited if electric cars are to be a success.

Local authorities, large employers, supermarkets and utility companies will need to be involved in adapting today's power supply infrastructure to the needs of electrical-vehicle users. The Leaf has one clever feature designed to combat "range anxiety" ; the map on its sat-nav system is capable of showing how far you can go before recharging.

After the £5,000 subsidy that the Government will offer buyers of new electric vehicles from the beginning of 2011, it is expected to cost about the same as a Toyota Prius hybrid – about £19,000. That makes it much cheaper than Mitubishi's i-MiEV which will cost more than £30,000.

The Leaf will be made at Nissan's Sunderland factory from 2013, producing about 50,000 cars a year. A separate new plant, also in Sunderland, will produce lithium-ion batteries for 60,000 cars per year, and will also serve Nissan's partner Renault, which has an ambitious electric vehicle programme of its own.

Nissan's £420m investment in the UK represents a considerable boost to the campaign by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson to make Britain a centre for the production of electric vehicles. The next big potential prize is to secure UK production of the Vauxhall/Opel Ampera, a European version of General Motors' Chevrolet Volt, an electric car fitted with a small "range extender" petrol engine. GM has hinted that the Ampera may eventually be produced at Vauxhall's Ellesmere Port plant on Merseyside but has made no final decision yet.

The leaf in brief

*Seats: five

*Body: four-door hatchback

*Range: about 100 miles according to US LA4 standard

*Charging time: about eight hours

*Top speed: 85-90mph

*Tailpipe CO2 emissions: zero (impact depends on fuel used at power station)

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