Volkswagen ID 3 vs Nissan Leaf: Battle for the EV top spot
29 October 2020 - autocar
Volkswagen hopes its new EV can become the new face of a brand scarred by Dieselgate - upending the Leaf in the process
Brave new world, meet same old world. Electric cars once stood alone (dear early adopter, here is a vehicle unlike any other), but they certainly don't any more. At the launch of the new Volkswagen ID 3, potential buyers could make a shortlist of several similarly priced, similarly specified battery-powered cars. As it is, we've chosen just the one to pitch it against.
Volkswagen says its new zero-emissions family hatchback heralds a third generation for the company, after the eras of the Beetle and Golf.
Like the Golf, the ID 3 is joining an established class. A legend of Volkswagen history, the Golf arrived with a transverse-front-mounted petrol engine, driven front wheels and MacPherson-strut/torsion-beam suspension – specifications that were considered sufficiently 'so what?' that the Citroën CX beat it to the 1975 European Car of the Year award. So joining a game rather than changing it is clearly no barrier to success.
Changing it can work too, mind, as Nissan has found since launching the Leaf in 2010. Built in Sunderland and now in its second generation, it has become the world's most successful electric car to date. It also looks like it has acted as a strong benchmark for the ID 3. Hence it's here, as the Nissan Leaf e+ 3.Zero (but I will just stick with Leaf, if that's okay).
The specification sheets of the new Volkswagen and the familiar Nissan exhibit the kind of closeness that you would find in any other family car twin test. Power is about 200bhp apiece; the front seats, back seats, boot space and equipment levels are competitive with each other; and the price is £35,215 (ID 3) versus £36,970 (Leaf). This test isn't an 'EV thing'. It's just car meets car.
And that's all we can decide for now, by the way. It will take 20 years for us to know for sure whether the ID 3 has firmly established its own piece of Volkswagen heritage.
It looks new, though, yes? Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, Mk1 Golf, lines by Giorgetto Guigiaro, meet Klaus Zyciora's ID 3: attractive, slightly familiar yet also strangely not so, as if somebody has made a squeaky dog toy of a Golf in 1:1 scale. I'm told that it's quite aerodynamic.
Underneath is the kind of EV architecture that's becoming familiar and has tremendous flexibility (of purpose, not structure). There's a relatively long wheelbase for this Golf-sized hatchback, with a phalanx of batteries mounted low and level between the front and rear axles.
This 1st Edition of the ID 3 has a single motor at its rear, driving its rear wheels, but the platform can host one at the front instead or as well, and fewer or more batteries.
If and when EV batteries become solid-state, want less cooling and can be packaged differently, maybe engineers will move them around a bit, but for now this is the go-to layout. It places the cells (and they're the heaviest hardware in an EV) low, which is at least the best thing you can do with them dynamically.
There are different battery packs available on both of these cars, but this ID 3 has a usable array of 58kWh of cells (the total capacity is 62kWh). WLTP range works out at 260 miles.
The e+ version of the Leaf also arrives with a 62kWh battery pack, so the usable bit of it will be a similar amount to in the ID 3 – one reason why its WLTP range is 239 miles.
However, despite this seemingly significant disparity, we saw very little difference between the range of the two cars while they were on test; both will manage 200 miles and a bit, depending on the weather.
The range of any EV will dip in winter. Start your day with a tingly warm battery fresh from an overnight tickle and it will increase. Both of these cars have a Type 2 charger for slow charging; the ID 3 gets a CCS charger for fast charging and can accept a rate of up to 100kW. The Leaf can theoretically reach 100kW too, although it has a Chademo socket, for which most public chargers are still 50kW – and when you do find a 100kW unit, the Leaf's air-cooled battery will stay at the fastest rate for only a short time in order that it doesn't overheat. I think there's a Betamax/VHS thing going on (ask your dad) with these systems and that CCS is winning. Nissan will move its future EVs to CCS in Europe.
Honestly, though; this stuff, eh? Although I do like EVs, the argument "can't I just spend three minutes putting 500 miles' worth of diesel into a tank?" is still relevant.
Anyway, the original Leaf arrived at a time when it didn't pay for an EV to be too weird, and this second-generation car uses a development of its predecessor's architecture, so there's a more familiar ICE-car look and feel to it than there is to the ID 3.
The Leaf's bonnet is just a bonnet (curiously, there's no storage space in the front of the ID 3 either); the batteries sit beneath the floor but a motor and other hardware are all at the front, so it looks much like an ICE car, albeit with a design and creases that appear to have just happened, rather than been made deliberately.
The Leaf's charging sockets are at the front, in the middle, which is in a way very sensible, because some DC fast-charger leads (as a Leaf owner who is often asked if he would mind moving his car across one bay tells me) aren't long enough to swing from one side of a car to the other flank if they're anchored on the 'wrong' side, as if at a fuel pump where the lead isn't long enough.
The downside, of course, is that you have to park the Leaf in a bay forwards, like a savage. The ID 3's sockets are quite near the back, so most charger leads should reach, even if anchored on the 'wrong' side.
I reckon the Lotus Evija is the only EV that gets this right, with a central socket at the rear. Forget 2000bhp, that's what your two million quid will get you: the ability to reverse-park with impunity. Inside these two, though, it's a similar story to the outside. The ID 3 feels new-world; the Leaf doesn't. Its dashboard, materials and interior design could have been adopted from any other Nissan, except several other Nissan cockpits, as in most cars generally, are more interesting than this one.
However, it's steadily functional and built from semi-premium-grade materials; soft surfaces abound and what isn't soft is at least nondescript. And it works. There are big simple buttons for the ventilation, really old-school rocker switches for 'hi' or 'lo' seat heating and – get this – literally no reach adjustment for the steering wheel, like it's 2004 or something. Shame. I like the wheel otherwise.
The ID 3 is a different matter. It has an uber-clean interior with a minimal number of hard buttons. And one of the ones it does have – for the 'ignition' – you don't even need, because you put your foot on the brake and the car is alive, ready for its dashtop gear selector to be swivelled into Drive, B (for stronger regenerative braking) or Reverse.
That's just as soon as you've set the temperature, of course, which is harder than it is in the Leaf, because that car – imagine this – uses real buttons. Or once you've turned off the lane-keeping assistance system, which is several submenus away on the touchscreen, even more infuriatingly. Still, nice steering wheel. And it moves in and out.
Other ID 3 cabin materials are a mix. Some are pleasant but many are hard and a bit scratchy. I don't know whether it's cost, recyclability or weight that mandates the choices (both of these cars are heavy yet want to tread lightly), but if you've come from a £30,000 Golf, design aside, you might expect plusher in here.
The advantage is still to the ID 3, but I can't help feeling it hasn't put a huge gap between itself and the Leaf.
And so to how they drive. Which is? In a largely refined manner. Who would have thought it? No engine, not a lot of noise and, although the propulsive silence serves to amplify road and wind noise, both of these are quiet cars.
Both also have similar accelerative response. The Leaf is more powerful, at 214bhp versus 201bhp, and has a faster official 0-62mph time, at 6.9sec to the ID 3's 7.3sec. It's also lighter, weighing 1634kg while its rival is 1714kg – a curiously big difference. But the Volkswagen never feels like the slower car, partly because its rear wheels are driven, so it gives them a harder time less often, and because its throttle response seems more linear.
Perhaps the Leaf ekes out its 251lb ft of torque more gently from rest for fear of lighting up its front tyres and Volkswagen needs to worry less that the 229lb ft will overwhelm the ID 3's rears. But the ID 3 feels a more responsive car from step-off.
Where the Leaf retains an advantage is in its throttle operation when you want greater retardation during throttle lift-off. Both cars have a standard setting that's fairly easy – it feels not unlike lifting off and gently decelerating in an ICE car, but while a flick of the gearlever only gradually increases this in the ID 3, a flick of a dashboard switch in the Leaf puts the throttle pedal into a much more responsive braking mode, so that you can come to a complete halt under steady braking without using the brake pedal at all.
Around town or at lower speeds, this one-pedal driving style quickly becomes incredibly intuitive, to the extent that you wonder why all EVs don't offer it.
To the credit of both cars, though (and this is a real pleasure of electric driving), you can swap from reverse to drive and vice versa at low speeds, making for brilliantly simple turning and parking manoeuvres.
The ID 3 also gives great visibility and, with no front-wheel drivetrain to worry about, a 9.9-metre-between-kerbs turning circle (the Leaf needs a still-sound 11.0m), which would make it a terrific city car were its width not more than two metres.
This ID 3 wears 19in alloys shod with 215/40 tyres, which look rather cooler than the 17in wheels and 215/50 rubber on the Leaf, but I do wonder if they affect the rolling comfort. The Leaf rides reasonably well, albeit with a spot of underlying thump and bump and with a slightly unsophisticated feel. Over ripples and rough edges, you can catch sight of the rear-view mirror shimmying in your eyeline, like in a convertible, or feel the steering wheel kick back over bigger surface imperfections.
It also feels low-slung, though, and although the front wheels do all of the heavy lifting, the overall weight distribution is likely pretty even, thanks to the battery cells in the middle, so it turns willingly (for a 1630kg hatchback) and hangs on gamely. You can detect a spot of torque steer on the way out of a bend and there isn't the poise, agility or fun of, say, an ordinary Ford Focus or Kia Ceed, but it's not unwilling.
The ID 3 is more engaging, though. It feels more torsionally rigid and smooths sharp edges better, so although there's more vertical body movement and more 'head toss' on roads that give different inputs to each side of the car, the body's inherent isolation and steering that's more linear and not corrupted by power help the ID 3 provide a more isolated and predictable drive.
It's also not without fun. It's taller than the Leaf, so there is some body lean, despite its low centre of gravity, but it turns quite happily and then tends to push up against the grip limits of its front wheels.
I dare say that weight distribution is more even than in an ICE car, but there is a bit of rear-engined character; light steering signals that you've nudged up against the limits of the front tyres, then it feels good to just lean against the grip of the rears as you accelerate out. We're talking elements of Renault Twingo or Smart Fortwo rather than Porsche 911, but still, it's a relatively pure experience.
The ID 3 isn't a lot more fun than the Leaf but, coupled to the small advantage it draws out with its cabin, it's enough to make the Volkswagen the choice of the two. It's better to be in, better to drive and competitive in other areas. Game changer, revolutionary or outstanding class leader it may not be. But maybe good enough is enough.