Nissan Leaf AT-EV review
We drive the unique Nissan Leaf AT-EV a Mongolian Rally contender...
Matt Robinson
Matt Robinson

Published on April 28, 2017

Chris Ramsey doesn't look like he has particularly lost his marbles. Affable and eloquent, the amiable Aberdonian explains very carefully why he's about to do what he's about to do, and the reasons he's so passionate about doing it. He's also adamant that he's going to finish his impending undertaking, too, which is a mighty bold prediction, all things considered.

But what, you ask, can he possibly be contemplating that has us obliquely questioning his sanity? Well, Chris is going to take part in the 2017 Mongol Rally. As its name not-so-subtly suggests, this is a 16,000-kilometre endurance marathon of utter car punishment, that starts at the home of Lord March in the UK - Goodwood - and finishes in a remote, unheralded town called Ulaan-Ude in South Siberia... but, quite obviously, it passes through most of Mongolia, including the capital Ulaanbataar, along the way.

This chaotic annual quest into the distant realms of far eastern Asia originally began as a banger rally, requiring entrants to adhere to three rather straightforward, if cheerfully threatening rules: one, the car had to be 'farcically small' and, er... well, we'll say 'rubbish', to be polite, although the organisers used a far ruder word; two, everyone in the rally was on their own - the organisation of necessary paperwork, border crossings, routes, logistics, fixing knackered cars at the roadside in the middle of nowhere, indeed everything, was all on the shoulders of each and every participant, making it feel more like a genuine adventure with proper peril ever lurking in the background; and three, each team entering had to raise around €1,200 for charity, a rather noble aim amid the insanity.

It has, apparently, evolved a little more since then to be more inclusive of less catastrophically crap machinery. But, despite this, it would seem Chris wants to make his life even harder. Not for him the easy route of picking something powered by a fossil fuel (petrol, presumably, being easier to come by in the depths of Kazakhstan than decent diesel) - no, Chris is going to do the entire trip in a fully electric vehicle. A Nissan Leaf, no less. The rather chunky looking Leaf you see here, which goes by the name of AT-EV: All-Terrain Electric Vehicle.

But don't be fooled by the clever war paint (note the pixelated mud splashes aft of its wheel arches) or its purposeful roof rack, or the knobbly gravel tyres it's wearing: this is, to all intents and purposes, a standard 30kWh Nissan Leaf. Of the type we've driven on various occasions and had cause to talk about 'range anxiety' while doing so; most recently, when Mr Briscoe worried about getting from Belfast to Dublin and back on a single charge, and how it would affect his coffee consumption otherwise.

Chris has slightly more on his plate than whether it'll be Americanos or skinny lattes all the way, though. Like, how is he going to get volt juice into the car in a reasonable enough timeframe on some of the more rudimentary electrical systems beyond the eastern fringes of Europe? Which border crossings can he actually use to get into Mongolia? What happens when he's invited to Astana, the Kazakh capital, on a diplomatic/PR mission of furthering the cause of EVs and renewables? Why can't he go into Belarus and then into Russia, or vice versa? And how is he going to keep his wife, who will be co-driver and logistics organiser for the entire jaunt, happy for 16,000km of torturous, rough-roads driving?

But Chris just smiles. "Oh, she's as big an electric cars fan as me," he explains. "Years ago, she had a MINI and was absolutely adamant she was never getting rid of it. Then, one day, she used my Nissan Leaf to go to work. She came home that night and insisted the MINI was sold so she could have an EV too."

Chris, of course, will be the first person ever who is demented... sorry, we mean, determined enough to take a pure EV on the Mongol Rally. He's done these sort of treks before, albeit on a slightly more manageable scale: first up, he went from Land's End to John O'Groats and back again in 48 hours in a Leaf; and then he did the epic North Coast 500 route in his native Scotland in Nissan's popular EV. But, even with that admirable CV, which has resulted in Chris' social media-based brand called Plug-In Adventures - "I just love driving electric cars great distances to disprove the notion of range anxiety; even when I was doing the Land's End trip and the NC500, the eventual aim was always to do the Mongol to change people's perceptions on EVs and whether they can do this sort of long-distance trip" - the daunting Mongol is something else entirely.

"I reckon I will get 145-160km out of each charge," he says candidly, "as I have to balance driving progressively with maintaining battery power. Luckily, it's not a timed rally, so we've got six to eight weeks to complete it and I don't have to drive flat out all the time, which isn't any good for an EV's range.

"You can also go any route you like and we're planning on doing something like 12,000km in total, although we've been invited to Astana to promote electric vehicles and renewable energy as part of the trip." Chris pauses at this point, then adds thoughtfully: "It's a strange thing saying you've got good contacts high up in the Kazakhstani government, I suppose."

It is indeed, but beyond the whit of merely negotiating the labyrinthine bureaucracy of various countries dotted along the course, how is he going to manage the actual process of repeatedly charging the Nissan in a timely enough fashion? "In the UK and Europe, it's no problem, there are plenty of rapid chargers and we can replenish the battery in 25 minutes," he explains. "That means we should be able to do up to 645km per day."

"Out of Europe, there are still plenty of fast chargers, but once you're onto three-phase electrical supplies, as in Kazakhstan, it'll be up to three hours per charge. We'll also be camping and staying with various local people on the trip, so we can recharge from the mains overnight for ten hours, but we've also spoken to a lot of large businesses along the way who have fast chargers we can use to help us keep up the pace. Having said that, we anticipate doing more like 320km at most in Kazakhstan and Mongolia."

"It's taken me ages to research and organise the route, but that's part of the fun. For example, European citizens cannot go into Russia if they've been in Belarus, and it's the same going the opposite way. Only some of the border crossings into Mongolia are open to us, not all of them. And the roads further along the route are extremely poor in places, so I've got to consider the car's mechanical well-being. But, driving at 65-80km/h in Kazakhstan is the ideal speed for an EV, so it will maintain battery charge for longer. I've planned out 57 charging stops so far, although that number is likely to increase while we're underway, depending on deviations from the route and unforeseen circumstances and so on."

It's an incredible logistical feat in and of itself, without having to worry about how your lithium-ion battery is getting on as well. But perhaps this is a good time to talk about the car's specification. As Chris and his wife are going to be spending a long, long time in the Leaf, it's actually as close to standard as possible. However, some modifications were obviously necessary and, as a result, the late-2016-model Leaf was handed over to highly respected engineering outfit, Ray Mallock Limited (RML Group), for the build, with the key changes made as follows: spacers have been inserted into the suspension to improve the Leaf's ground clearance; the entire underbody has been clad in 6mm aluminium plate to protect the chassis; the wheels and tyres are bespoke gravel rally items; there's a roof rack with a full LED light strip on it for night-time driving on apocalyptically cratered roads; and the rear seats have been stripped out to save some weight, while a wide variety of charging cables (designed to fit almost every conceivable recharging socket) are amassed in the rear footwells.

But other than that, up front the cabin is standard. Same comfy chairs, same dashboard, gear lever and steering wheel. Same battery pack and electric motor. Same everything, really. It is simply a Leaf with a little added purpose, rather than a total re-working of Nissan's EV pioneer. Looking at it up close, it is almost unthinkable to imagine trying to drive the thing halfway around the world and into inherently inhospitable terrain in the process. But Chris reckons he's going to do it, and do it in style.

Incredibly, he is also trusting enough to hand the car over to yours truly for a brief spin around a rock-strewn rally stage in the south of England, not too many miles distant from Goodwood, from where he will set off on the Mongol Rally in the middle of July. There's something very cool about an EV that's slathered in a thick layer of grime on the outside, and when you clamber aboard its cabin bears a thin film of dust cloaking every part of the interior. There's something also very uncool about the thought of crashing this irreplaceable one-off Leaf into the Sussex scenery and ruining Chris' Mongolian dream before it even begins.

Nevertheless, pilot nervousness aside, it proves to be something of a gem to drive. Even on rough, rubbly surfaces, it finds loads of grip and rides with a smoothness that the standard car can't match when rolling along tarmacked roads, while there's a lovely fluid manner to the way it turns in on gravel-thick corners. It'll traverse pretty bumpy terrain with little difficulty if you treat it gently, it can ford water of a depth that would make a Nissan X-Trail think twice and of course its instant torque, one-gear driving style makes it incredibly easy to modulate speed for the nitty-gritty of off-road work. It remains utterly eerie, though, to be in something so obviously single-minded in purpose yet which whirrs through the rough stuff in a completely soundless, vibration-free fashion.

Thankfully, I hand the AT-EV back to Chris in the same shape I drove it away from him, albeit it's just a little dirtier now than it was 10 minutes before. He's still grinning broadly, though, and delighted to hear the praise for his brilliant Leaf. Which leads on to the inevitable question: if driving the Mongol was always the ultimate goal, what could possibly top this extraordinary feat? With a twinkle in his eye, but playing his cards close to his chest, Chris says in an enigmatic fashion: "Well, let's get through this one first, eh? And then see how things lie. I've got a couple of ideas in mind..."

There's no doubt about it; he's mad. Brilliantly, fabulously mad, granted, but mad nonetheless. And yet we admire him enormously for what he will undoubtedly achieve by completing the event and for this superb AT-EV he has created with which to take the gruelling journey on. Maybe Nissan will take note and consider a jacked-up, 'soft-road' version of the Leaf, based upon his valiant car, for the showrooms, if Chris makes it to Siberia's Ulaan-Ude. What higher praise for his madness could there be but that?