New Nissan Leaf vs Renault Zoe vs Volkswagen e-Golf

With an improved range between charges, Nissan’s new electric Leaf promises to be more usable than ever. Is it better than the Renault Zoe and Volkswagen e-Golf, though?

Words By What Car? team

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The contenders

Nissan Leaf 110kW N-Connecta

List price Β£30,490

Target Price Β£25,990*

New British-built Leaf is packed with technology and promises a great range.

Renault Zoe Q90 ZE40 i Dynamique Nav

List price Β£29,020

Target Price Β£18,719*

Cheaper than the Leaf and aims to get you almost as far between charges.

Volkswagen e-Golf 136PS BEV

List price Β£32,190

Target Price Β£27,690*

Revised electric Golf has already seen off the BMW i3. Has it finally met its match here?

  • Includes Β£4500 government grant

If you think electric cars are a new invention, prepare for a shock: they actually date back to Victorian times.

Yep, there were battery-powered horseless carriages whining around the streets of London and Paris well before the turn of the last century, and electric cars even dominated land speed records until 1902.

But there’s a good chance that the first electric car you’ll have actually heard of is the Nissan Leaf. Launched in 2011, the Leaf made other battery-powered options of the time seem like golf buggies, because it looked, well, like a proper car. It drove like one, too, with nippy acceleration and a top speed that meant you could get to where you were going faster than you could on a bike.

Things have moved on, though, so while the original Leaf is, perhaps surprisingly, still the best-selling electric car in Britain, its maximum range between charges now seems rather meagre. That’s one of the main issues this new model aims to solve, along with significantly improving performance and safety.

It’ll have its work cut out to beat the Volkswagen e-Golf, though. Revised earlier this year to provide a greater range between charges, the e-Golf is an extremely compelling proposition for all of the reasons a regular Golf is.

Don’t forget about the Renault Zoe, either. Our 2017 Electric Car of the Year looks cheap in this company and promises a cracking range between charges.


Performance, ride, handling, refinement

Some people still associate electric cars with milk float performance, but that really couldn’t be further from the truth. Modern electric cars actually feel remarkably nippy, because they can produce all of their torque (which is a lot) the instant you push the accelerator pedal. That makes them great for squirting away from traffic lights or onto roundabouts and means that even the Zoe, the slowest of our trio, is anything but a slouch.

That said, the Zoe does quickly get left behind by its rivals when accelerating above 30mph and is the least suited to outside-lane motorway driving. The Leaf, the most powerful car here, is easily the fastest; you actually have to be a bit gentle with your right foot when accelerating out of junctions or you’ll spin up the front wheels.

Unlike in most petrol and diesel cars, when you lift off the accelerator pedal of an electric car you feel yourself slowing down quite quickly as the regenerative brakes harvest energy to replenish the battery. You can increase this effect in the Leaf and e-Golf by moving their gear selectors to B mode, but the Leaf goes one step further with something called e-Pedal. Press a button between the front seats and the regenerative braking becomes so pronounced that you barely have to use the brake pedal at all.

However, when it comes to electric cars, performance isn’t just about how quickly you can speed up and slow down; it’s about how far you can get between charges. Nissan makes the boldest claim of 235 miles. Admittedly, that figure is based on a wholly unrepresentative official European test called the New European Driving Cycle, but it’s still better than the 230 and 186 miles achieved by the Zoe and e-Golf respectively in the same test.

The thing is, though, Renault and VW are at least honest about the misleading nature of the official figures and quote real-world ranges accordingly. VW claims 125 miles, while Renault actually gives two ranges: 174 miles in the summer and 112 miles in the winter. Still not satisfied, we decided to put all three cars through our own range test at our facility in Bedfordshire so that traffic conditions wouldn’t influence the outcome.

Our test route included a simulated mix of town, rural and motorway driving with the three cars in convoy, and we swapped drivers and running order after every circuit (about eight miles) to keep things as fair as possible. The temperature during the test was 3-5deg C – far from ideal for battery performance – and all three cars were tested with their headlights on, the air conditioning set to 21deg C and normal (rather than eco) driving modes selected. The fact that the e-Golf managed just 93 miles on a full charge is a bit disappointing. The Leaf gave up the ghost next after 108 miles, while the little Zoe kept whirring along for 131 miles – enough to get you from London to Birmingham.

All things considered, the e-Golf is the best to drive. It feels a touch wallowy through tight corners compared with petrol and diesel Golfs – blame the heavy battery pack and high-walled tyres – but it’s still agile enough and smooths over lumps and scars on the road with a sophistication its two rivals can’t match. The Leaf is far from a hot hatch, but it does stay slightly more upright through corners, while its steering is a match for the e-Golf’s – less natural-feeling but meatier and more precise. Although you feel more of the bumps as they pass beneath you at low speeds, the ride is never too lumpy and the Leaf is hard to fault for comfort on the motorway.

And the Zoe? Well, it’s outclassed here for both ride and handling. It trips up over bumps that wouldn’t even register in the e-Golf, so you find yourself doing a nodding dog impression along most urban roads. It’s never truly uncomfortable, though, and while it undoubtedly leans the most through corners, its steering gives you a decent sense of how much grip is available.

Next: Behind the wheel >

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