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Nissan Leaf: Car of the Year

Worthy winner, but it’s not really a ‘proper’ car

When is a car not a car? When it is a Nissan Leaf, according to some of the 58 judges for Europe’s annual Car of the Year contest. The radical, purpose-designed, all-electric family car scored the most points to gain the accolade of Car of the Year 2011, yet it also gained more zero point scores than any other car in the seven-strong shortlist except the bargain-SUV Dacia Duster.

I did not put the Leaf top, not least because I didn’t include it in my own nominations. (Each judge nominates seven cars, and the seven most-nominated form the shortlist.) But neither could I dismiss it as irrelevant, as four Italian and four Spanish judges did with their zeropoint scores.

There is no doubt at all that the Leaf is a significant car, and the most technologically forward-looking out of all the past year’s new cars. Car of the Year should reward innovation, but too often the winner in this perfectly democratic process –as with last year’s Volkswagen Polo – is simply the car that the greatest number of people like enough not to penalise with a low score.

Radical cars are more likely to polarise opinion, so their victory is all the sweeter. The Leaf’s win is a narrow one, its 257 points just nine ahead of the second-place Alfa Romeo Giulietta (248) and 13 ahead of the Vauxhall Meriva in third (244).

For the record, the other scores are 224 for the Ford C-Max, 175 for the Citroën C3/DS3 pair, 145 for the Volvo S60 and 132 for the Dacia Duster. So, where’s the controversy with the Leaf?

This is what I said in my citation: “Some will put the Leaf first, because it’s both electric and a ‘proper’ car which looks good and feels good to drive. But it is very expensive unless subsidised, and if it comes to a halt after 60 miles and is then immobile until recharged, it doesn’t do the full job a car should do. Excellent effort, but not there yet.

It is, therefore, a local commuter car at best.That was my view, and no doubt that of the more negatively inclined zero-scorers (I gave the Leaf four points; each judge gets 25 points to spread between at least five cars, with no joint first places and a 10-point maximum score). All that said, the Leaf is still a worthy winner for the way it signposts the future. Besides which, the competition wasn’t exactly fierce this year.

My personal shortlist included four cars which didn’t make the final cut. One of these, the Jaguar XJ, surely deserved outright victory for its aluminium construction, its fabulous interior and its class-beating driving characteristics, but perhaps it’s too indulgent for these austere times. I also nominated the Peugeot RCZ (the most entertaining Peugeot in years), the Nissan Juke and the splendid Saab 9-5. Instead of these four, we had the Duster, the Volvo S60, the Meriva and of course the Leaf.

In the end, my top vote went to the excellent Ford C-Max. Here, then, are extracts from my citations for the Ford and the other cars, with the scores awarded.

Ford C-Max (8 points):Where it really scores is in being a total delight to drive, with a near-miraculous combination of incisive handling and a supple ride that makes family motoring a pleasure for all aboard. For me, the sportier five-seater C-Max, with 1.6 Ecoboost engine, is the most complete new car of 2010.

Citroën C3/DS3 (6 points): The C3 is a pleasant super-mini with old-school French suppleness, more appealing to me than last year’s Polo winner. The DS3, however, is a joy. PSA has rediscovered what makes a good sporting hatchback, while adding a fine dose of quality and sophistication. In the DS3, something of the Peugeot 205 GTI returns.

Alfa Romeo Giulietta (4 points): It could have chased overall victory with its MultiAir engine option, svelte looks, keen handling and supple ride, but is spoilt by silly mistakes: illegible greyon- black instruments, a seat-recline wheel covered by the seatbelt. Also, what should be the most desirable version, the Cloverleaf, rides the worst and feels the clumsiest.

Opel/Vauxhall Meriva (2 points): Looks great, the rear-hinged rear doors work well, interior is cleverly planned. But it’s adull drive with lacklustre engines.

Dacia Duster (1 point): Old technology repackaged as a bargain-basement SUV. It works very well, with an appealing simplicity in an overcomplicated world. A fine antidote to excess, but hardly a Car of the Year.

Volvo S60 (0 points): A likeable car but there’s nothing special here. The Saab 9-5 is much more interesting.

The coming year, then, belongs to the Nissan Leaf. Soon it will be joined by another pair of purpose-designed electric cars from the Renault-Nissan alliance, the cute Renault Zoe hatchback and the Twizy city car/scooter.

If they catch on, and buyers accept the limited range on one battery charge, then maybe a purely electric car could indeed be viewed as a proper car. As yet, I’m unconvinced.