BBC’s Top Gear Laughs at Nissan LEAF’s Expense

The Nissan LEAF - range panned by BBC's Top GearI’m going to make an assertion here. Any car enthusiast is, by definition, a fan of the BBC show Top Gear. Unless of course, such a person hasn’t seen it, and to that individual I say, check it out on BBC America sometime, you’ll love it!

The show has gained so much international acclaim that the franchise has spawned an Australian and US version. The reason the show is so popular is that it’s pure entertainment. Take the most exotic cars, throw in a few well known celebrity guests, undertake any number of “do-not-try-this-at-home” antics, then combine it all with some well-crafted videography, and you’ve got a winning formula.

But remember, it’s really all just entertainment. It’s not about being fair and balanced.

This is because any story they tell only works providing it meets one of two imperatives – excitement or humor – preferably both at the same time. Enter the Nissan LEAF, and the producers decided to serve the humor imperative.

You see, they can’t help themselves from banging on about an electric vehicle’s limited range, and it’s just too funny to watch the host, Jeremy Clarkson, running out of battery power in the middle of a small English town. There he is, bemused at the lack of abundant charging stations, while helplessly holding the plug in his hand, on a grass-bank, by a canal. Really, he’s the idiot – but he’d like you to think Nissan is.

Nissan however, were not amused. As this piece details, the company claims the show deceived its viewers – the telematics system on the car had been wirelessly updating Nissan as to how the Top Gear were using it – and this revealed Top Gear ignored a system of safeguards to prevent them running out of power. Meanwhile, the producers retorted by saying the show was merely highlighting the limitations of a battery vehicle’s range – for the sake of amusement?   Now, range is a disadvantage of today’s EVs of course, but it doesn’t help that Top Gear started out with less than a 40% charge before running into their alleged dead battery! But no matter, when you’re filming an entertainment show, why travel 100 miles to extend the range before capturing the point you want to make?

Of course, they don’t treat all cars this way. A regular super-car on the show, the Bugatti Veyron, is never subject to such ridicule. Only awe. And it is indeed an impressive beast. It’s the fastest production car on the planet, develops over 1000 horsepower and squeezes out 253 mph on the track. But if you drive it at that speed continuously, you’ll get 12 minutes of driving time before you run the tank dry – Get that? 12 minutes driving range and you’re out of juice! Strange – we never saw Clarkson wandering around a test track with a confused look on his face, holding an empty gas-can wondering where on earth the gas station went to! This car of course, works for the show because its just sooooo exciting! No humor necessary.

Which leads me to this article by James Murray, in Business Green. He makes the point that the show’s main failure is that it treats the electric car as if it has to be judged against the conventional wisdom of what we expect a car to be – as opposed to judging it as something new and different – something that offers distinct alternative attributes and function. Top Gear could have taken the high-road and recognized things like the fact the LEAF can cut fuel bills, improve urban air quality and reduce our dependance on foreign oil. Just as it could recognize the Veyron as insanely impractical, obscenely thirsty and wholly irresponsible.

But man! what a boring show that would be.

Editor’s Note: This is actually the second time Clarkson and the Top Gear crew have been caught faking a dead battery with an electric car. They did it this spring with Tesla and have since been sued for it. It’s frankly reprehensible to me that someone supposedly interested in the future of transportation would behave so dishonestly.

For a closer look, here’s a short video of the new UK show “fully charged”:

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

14 responses

  1. as you said, it’s an entertainment show and they are known as petrol heads so economy is not important on the show

    i’m sorry Nissan believes that their views are the only ones that the world should listen to, but that’s what we get for living in a fairly free world

    anyway, the stoopid hand signal campaign is lame and anything but pop culture and certainly not viral

    Nissan, stick to making cars and not being TV critics =)

    1. Entertaining “Petrol Heads” is fine, but doing so dishonestly is NOT. The fact is Clarkson has TWICE faked a dead battery – first with a Tesla, and most recently with the Leaf.

      The guy is a complete tool and should be laughed off the air for his dishonesty.

        1. They only charged the vehicle to 40% of maximum before filming the piece. The point is, they designed the story around their intention to run out of power and mock the vehicle. It’s not objective programming – if you need the range, sure, don’t get a LEAF, but otherwise, like any car, you buy it to suit your driving habits.

        2. It’s a very inconvenient truth that hundreds of gas car drivers run out of fuel every day. The only problem they had was misjudging how much fuel they needed. Top Gear intentionally misjudged how much electrical power needed for their journey for the sake of an entertaining story. The only thing I thought was amusing is that the iOn didn’t run out of power. (I have one.)

  2. I am a huge fan of the BBC program Top Gear (the American Version is unwatchable). I agree that the treatment of electric vehicles has been very one-sided and that it would be amusing to watch the Veyron run out of gas after 12 minutes; however, I do not understand why the electric car needs to be our only fuel efficient option? For example, why is the VW Golf the smallest car VW offers in the US, while the Polo is available in Europe? The explanation I have always heard is that the cost to make that car available would cut into VW Golf profits and that the Golf is far more marketable. Another example, the Lexus Lexus RX450h. How and why is this car marketed as a hybrid? It is a V6, which under ideal circumstances, never to be recreated by the average driver, gets 31-32 mgp, but in most cases, averages in the 20’s, as the inline-4 non-hybrid Rav4 does. Why not make a mini-SUV version of the Prius? Am I the only person waiting for such a car? Surely there are other drivers out there who need more room than a Prius offers but want better fuel economy that the so-called hybrid Lexus? Where is my car? The Nissan Leaf and the Tesla certainly won’t do me any good. While the Tesla is a cool concept, it is a novelty car and offers no real practicality. The range on the Leaf is still a limiting factor. While I admit that the antics on Top Gear were unfair, the 100 mile range limit on the Leaf would inconvenience me enough on a regular basis that I would never consider this car.

  3. Top Gear UK is unique in the world of ‘mainstream’ automotive media (news/journalism/entertainment) – in that it is not strictly funded by the automotive industry. Read a copy of Car&Driver or Road&Track (or watch a SPEED TV segment like “Test Drive”) and you will find within its pages paid advertisements for the exact cars on the pages they are extolling the virtues of in the next review. You can hardly find a negative word in car magazines (ohh –sure they will mention that the BMW 328 is slower than the M3 –but never truly negative as in “WHY WOULD ANYONE BUY THIS CAR?” – such as you can and SHOULD say about anything from Land Rover or Lincoln…for instance.) Why? Its quite simple – the ‘normal’ automotive media is beholden to the industry to support it through advertising cash and therefore cannot be negative without consequences – but the same cannot be said for the public UK gov’t funded BBC. (Side note: This is why NPR’s ‘Car Talk’ is more entertaining than any high production value ‘car’ show on History Channel or SPEED). They do what they want – and frankly it helps the automotive industry to get negative feedback about their cars (and contrary to the authors assertion that they love all gas guzzlers – just take a look at the Corvette reviews–my favorite is when Clarkson pushes on the rear bumper for a Z06 and it looks like its made from paper machete.) Add the ability to be negative about cars to a general childlike desire to hoon on everything (those guys go burn more tires than a Somali warlord) and you’ve got the surefire recipe for entertainment. Not news, but entertainment. I still maintain they do more good than harm to the industry.

    Ok – now on the subject of the Leaf.

    First – any publicity is good publicity (yes, that is why Nissan (and Tesla) is making a fuss, they know it, TGUK knows it). So get over it. More Leaf’s will be sold because of Clarkson’s antics.

    Second – the Leaf is not a car for everyone. It is a car for early adopters – and I guarantee that Clackson’s review will not stop the people who wait in line for the latest IPad, Birkenstock or WholeGrain Gourmet Food truck from buying one. I personally won’t buy one because I am a cheapskate and drink a cup of gasoline for breakfast to make sure that Venezuela maintains its GDP (more on that later).

    Third—The leaf is not the only answer to the problem (air pollution, foreign oil). The bigger question is why does Nissan only offer 300 hp 3.5 liter V6s in all of its Luxury lineup (Infiniti) when 99% of the buyers only need a 1.6 liter engine mated to a CVT and 1000 lbs less mass in their car. The horsepower wars in modern ‘non-enthusiast’ cars has gotten out of control – and only Toyota seems to notice that people will pay more for less (Prius, CTh) and perhaps Audi with their 2.0 liter turbo in just about everything. But basically the marketing ‘geniuses’ in the auto industry have associated low end torque with prestige and the result is middle aged tax attorneys drive around at 1/8th open throttle and get 15 mpg. Great.

    Final thoughts – want to save the world, drive something slow, hybrid, electric, (I would say humiliating – but that would be a cheap shot and not true in the modern world). I will personally take care of disposing of all that toxic and environmentally damaging gasoline in my 8 liter twin turbo 2.5 million BTU gasoline & tire recycling machine. Just stay out of the fast lane and I will stay out of the bike lane.

    1. Pretty good points in your first paragraph, then you turn into a typical self-righteous simpleton, just like Clarkson. You think a leaf would be “humiliating”? Well, then, what do “real people” drive? If you seriously think the type of car you drive matters, then go back to LA where you belong. We don’t need simpletons like you around here.

  4. My LEAF rocks. And I passed a couple of people walking up I70 Friday with a gas can. Then I passed their car. Guess it goes to prove. Cars require planning. You all are missing the point. The leaf is just a car. Corvettes won’t work for all your automotive needs. And there is no substitute for my diesel truck. If you only have one car and no airplane, I’m sorry for you….. maybe you need a better job…

    1. I don’t understand, if you still require multiple cars for a single person, then how is this small electrical car really helping to decrease your carbon footprint? Wouldn’t a car that could travel more than 100 miles, or carry a standard baby stroller meet more needs? I understand that asking a car to double as a truck isn’t exactly realistic. However, if you do require a truck, then public transportation as your alternative mode of transportation would seem far more eco-friendly than yet another vehicle.

      Why is it acceptable to own two cars for one driver if one is electrical?

      1. When you don’t drive your gas-powered car as much. Simple. Burning less fuel = smaller carbon footprint. I don’t understand how this is difficult to understand.

  5. I haven’t seen the Top Gear but know what to expect from a TV show looking for ratings and revenue. I get the best laugh driving my Leaf past gas stations at 2 cents a mile and using homegrown renewable energy. The sooner the public figures this out, the better. Shame on Top Gear for selfishly doing us all a disservice in the name of entertainment. I expect better from the BBC.

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