Ask any random person to name an electric car, chances are really good they’ll say the name “Tesla.” Tell them to point to the first electric car they happen to see while out in the world, and it’s much more likely their finger will be targeted at a Nissan Leaf. That’s because despite Tesla capturing the mind and imagination of everyone who talks about EVs, the Leaf is the most-sold battery-electric vehicle. Now, Nissan has made it a lot better. But better doesn’t exactly mean exciting.
The Leaf has had a nice long run without a major update, but it’s clearly showing its age. The range, which has improved from about 75 miles when it came out in 2011 (though Nissan liked to claim 100 miles) to 107 miles for the outgoing 2016 model is a lot less than the recent crop of 200+ mile EVs like the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, whenever they actually start making those for real.
So, while Tesla has been hogging all the attention, the Leaf has been quietly turning electrons into human-ass transport for over seven years. It’s ready for a refresh.
The 2018 model is still built on the same basic platform, but nearly everything on that platform has changed: there’s an all-new body, a denser battery pack (40 kWh instead of 24 kWh) giving a range of about 150 miles, more power (up to 147 horsepower), and now the Leaf has some limited assisted driving features as well.
It’s a dramatically improved car, but the car itself is anything but dramatic. The new 2018 Leaf is a well-thought-out, carefully designed electric vehicle that will likely do its job very capably, but is not exactly a car I can picture anybody actually desiring.
Sure, I think a lot of people will get out laptops and pads of paper and do some very careful cross-shopping and make long pro/con lists and eventually come to the careful, tedious conclusion that, yes, the 2018 Nissan Leaf makes the most sense.
I think that’s pretty much what passes for desire for this car.
The Lone Range(er)
The new default sweet spot for electric vehicle range is 200 miles or better. The new Chevy Bolt does that, as does the Tesla Model 3, so at first glance it seems sort of crazy that Nissan would launch a new Leaf with anything less.
Nissan can hear our thoughts, apparently, because they are planning on a 200+ mile Leaf for 2019, and they’ve also got a big rationalization about their sub-200-mile range, which they describe as “playing in the white space.”
What does that mean? This slide they made should help:
Ah yes, a chart. A sexy, desirable chart.
So, on the left we have the “compliance” EVs—cars made to fill some EV requirement, not really serious, ground-up efforts, mostly conversions of existing cars, and mostly just sold in California. These tend to have ranges below 125 miles. There’s also, disappointingly, the BMW i3 and Honda Clarity over there, though those two also have hybrid variants.
On the right are the new generation of EVs making over 200 miles of range. In the middle there, in that big white space between 125 miles and 200 miles is one, lone car: the Leaf.
The Y-axis of that chart shows the cost, and the new Leaf, at about the $30,000 line, is a good bit cheaper than the Model 3 and the Bolt. Batteries are the most expensive part of an EV, so Nissan decided to ride a line between cost and range, and that’s why they settled on the 150 mile range.
Maybe that’ll be enough for most people? Nissan is betting that it is.
The New Look
The old Leaf was never a particularly good-looking car, but it had a somewhat unique look about it, a sort of friendly frog-like appearance that set it apart a bit from everything else on the road. The new Leaf is not the least bit interested in being set apart, and now looks pretty much like any other Nissan out there.
One of the lead designers for the new Leaf was there, in his best car-designer outfit (bold glasses, scarf) to explain the “dynamic proportion” styling of the new Leaf, and how everything has a “flush, efficient feel” while maintaining its “EV-ness.”
Okay, that’s all fine, and the car is well-designed, and sure feels Nissan like, with all of the current Nissan styling cues, happily enumerated in another provided slide:
...but the end result is just...fine, really. That’s about it. It’s a decent-looking car that looks about like nearly every other out there. If Nissan wanted to make the Leaf blend in more with most cars, mission very much accomplished.
It doesn’t even read that much like an EV, either, until you notice that the grille is fake and actually composed of a grid of plastic pyramids under a panel of blue-tinted plastic.
The charging port door is very nicely integrated into the design, though, I’ll admit that much. When it’s closed, as above there, you barely notice it, but it opens to a good-sized, illuminated charging panel:
I suppose you could also treat it like a tiny front trunk if you wanted to pack a couple of boxes of raisins in there, or something.
Most people will probably be very happy with the look of the new Leaf, even if you could park this all-new, pre-release car in nearly any parking lot without anyone even giving a shit.
I suppose I should be happy that Nissan resisted the urge to ape Tesla’s big, vertical center-stack LCD screen like Toyota did with the Prius Prime. That would have been frivolous and kind of silly, and the new Leaf is decidedly neither of those things.
Like the outside, the inside is just fine, and seems basically like almost any other Nissan from around this price range. The chassis layout is essentially like that of any FWD car, with most of the equipment up under the front hood.
The battery is packed under the floor in the middle of the car—a good spot for weight distribution—and so the interior is about the same as what you’d expect of a FWD combustion car of this size.
There’s a decent-sized trunk at the rear, and while the rear seats do fold down, they don’t fold down terribly flat, but for most people’s use I think the cargo accommodations are fine. Chances are most people who buy a new Leaf won’t be trying to cram a motorcycle back there, anyway.
The dashboard layout and controls are, again, reasonably well-considered, and executed with a certain bland competence. Even the center-stack screen’s EV status display doesn’t fall into the usual electric-car conceits of forced techno-looks or ghost outline drawings of the car with pulsing lines of power or glowing grids or anything like that. It looks more like the no-bullshit display you’d see on the side of some scientific instrument like a bacterial colony counter or something.
The only thing that gets even slightly electro-goofy is the gearshift, which is this odd, stumpy, choad-like protuberance in the middle. It’s no worse to use than the Prius’ awkward little stalk, but the design is sort of strange and biological and a bit out of place in the otherwise staid interior.
My biggest interior-equipment-related complaint is a small one, but an important one:
There’s only one USB port. Today, for a car like the Leaf, I think the one thing you can just about guarantee is that at least two people in the car will likely have phones they’d like to charge. How hard would it be to add a second USB? Can it really be that much more expensive?
The answer, when I pressed some Nissan reps, may be yes, it was too expensive. The batteries are such a huge part of the cost of the Leaf that everything else had to be done on a tighter budget than you’d expect.
That’s why the interior plastics look good but don’t feel that great, why the LCD screens are just a bit smaller than you’d expect, and why there’s only one stupid USB port. It’s all about the battery.
How is it to drive?
For this car, this question is like asking how the experience of your new fridge keeping your milk from spoiling is—it just does it, and there’s very little to engage you about the process.
The new Leaf drives just fine. It doesn’t handle so much as it goes where you steer it, and while the new 147 horsepower motor does make an impressive 236 lb-ft of torque from 0 RPM, the accelleration is decent, but nothing that’s going to put any of your underpants in danger.
The Leaf is predictable, but hardly engaging to drive. I don’t think that most of the people who’d buy this car will really care. Let’s move on to the newer, weirder driving stuff.
The new, weirder driving stuff: e-Pedal
Okay, so, since clearly the Leaf is targeted at people who harbor some contempt for the act of driving, period, the new Leaf offers, via a little switch right in front of the shifter, something called e-Pedal, which is something that basically lets you operate your Leaf in the same way you’d operate a bumper car: with one pedal.
It works like this: you hit the accelerator to move forward, and then you hit nothing else to do pretty much everything else. Well, other than steer, but you know what I mean.
E-Pedal leverages the resistance from regenerative coasting and the automatic application of the friction/conventional brakes to permit driving with just the one pedal, mostly. When you’re not on the go-pedal, there’s about 0.2g of deceleration (the amount most normal braking uses) and the system can hold the car steady on a slope up to 30%.
In practice, it takes a bit of getting used to, because there’s no coasting, as such—whenever you’re off the throttle, you’re braking. It feels weird at first, but it’s pretty easy to figure out.
Nissan’s smiling reps told us we’d love it on the twisty roads of the drive route, and so I gave it a go. Like so much else with this car it’s—you guessed it—fine. Just fine.
I think in stop-and-go traffic it’d be more useful, but I just don’t see this as a killer app for this car, or, really any car. I think I need to be stuck in severe traffic on the 405 at 5:30 pm to really appreciate that, but that sounds like hell so I hope I don’t ever have to really appreciate this.
Semi-Autonomous is only semi-useful
Some of the biggest news about the 2018 Nissan Leaf is that it will likely be the cheapest car you can get with Level 2 autonomy. Just in case you have yet to memorize your autonomous driving levels, that’s not much, but it’s basically what everyone who has semi-autonomous systems has right now. Tesla, too.
Essentially, it’s a combination of adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane-keeping technologies. On the Leaf, you can’t use the indicator to get the car to change lanes like in a Tesla, but the system does steer the car to keep it centered in the lane, and guides it around (mostly gentle) curves.
I tried the system out a good bit. You have to keep your hands on the wheel for it to work, otherwise it beeps at you and eventually puts on the hazard lights and comes to a controlled stop in-lane, which seems like a terrible idea but that’s what all these systems do. Can you even momentarily take your hands all the way off the wheel? Not really, and certainly not for an appreciable amount of time. The car wants a constant weight/resistance from you.
There’s a torque sensor in the wheel to make sure your hands are on it; you can sometimes just hang your thumb on the bottom of the wheel and it’ll work, and I speculated that maybe you could stick a gerbil in a sock and tie that to the wheel. Practically, though, you need your hands on it, because what it does is still pretty limited.
Nissan claims the system, when used, will help prevent driver fatigue. I suspect that, really, ProPILOT assist will actually be more useful in the opposite context—compensating for driver fatigue.
I didn’t find the setup especially relaxing to use. Sure, you don’t really need to steer to keep centered in the lane, but you always have to be aware of curves too steep for the system, and your hands are right there on the wheel as it is—it’s almost more effort to avoid giving steering input while the car moves the wheel.
It’s a different sort of effort than just steering, but it still demands awareness and effort. Driving is, for most of us, an automatic muscle memory in many ways. I found that I was more relaxed and focused on the road when I just steered as opposed to making myself keep a loose enough grip to let the car steer, while being ready to take over.
This isn’t really a dig just at Nissan’s level 2 system, it’s sort of an issue with all of them. At best, I think they can help compensate for driver sloppiness, fatigue, or perhaps very mild inebriation (let’s say not illegal levels of that). It’s helpful, but if you’re wanting the car to actually drive, this is not it.
The Leaf’s system also doesn’t have much room to expand, since the sensor suite is pretty limited: one forward-view camera, radar range-sensing, and that’s about it. There are two side cameras, but they’re only used for the (admittedly handy) 360-degree bird’s-eye camera feature.
How is it to charge?
The new Leaf improves on the old one by being able to get about 88 miles on a 30-minute fast charge from a DC CHAdeMO charger. That’s about 16 miles better than before. Keep it on the charger 10 more minutes and it should hit 80% charge, which gives you 105 miles of range.
On an AC, 240V charger—the kind you’d plug into the same kind of socket your clothes dryer uses—you can charge the car in 7.5 hours, at 30 amps, or in 12 hours at 16 amps.
If you just plug into a normal 110V wall outlet, I hope you brought a book, because it takes 35 hours to charge the Leaf with a regular old extension cord.
As you can guess, the best use case of the car is to have a fast DC charger at home. (I was being sarcastic here, because, as many commenters pointed out, this would be insane and expensive. But that wasn’t clear, so I’m adding this parenthetical.)
What about the phone apps and all that crap?
Relax, you can still use your phone to command your Leaf to do things like honk the horn, flash the lights, and set the car’s climate controls. My ideas to have it remotely discharge the battery like a stun gun or remotely purge all the air from the tires were not met with enthusisam.
What’s important to realize for people considering a Leaf in cold climates is how important the cabin pre-heating is. Not for you, but for the batteries.
See, heating the car takes an insane amount of power—sometimes up to 40% of the battery’s range can be eaten up by the heater, so a smart owner gets the cabin heated up while the car is still plugged in. That’s when the phone app becomes most useful.
Oh, and you can run all this on your Apple Watch or Android wearable, in case you really want to seem like you live in the freaking future.
Oh, and if you like commanding things verbally, you can get your Alexa home-surveillance doohickey to set the temperature or unlock the car or whatever.
How’s the value of the new Leaf?
As I think I may have mentioned, the new Leaf is a pretty sensible machine. There’s three models in the lineup, the S, SV, and SL. The S starts at $29,990 and has the e-Pedal thing, the SV is $32,490 and adds Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, nav, and other goodies, and the top one is the $36,200 SL. ProPILOT assist is an option.
Keep in mind, the Leaf is still eligible for that $7500 federal tax credit, at least for now. The Leaf is reasonably priced as it is, and with that credit, it’s even better.
If your main goal is to own a capable EV, and you’re okay with 150 miles of range and a pretty comprehensive lack of character, the Leaf makes a lot of sense.
The Chevy Bolt is probably the car’s biggest competitor, and really not that different from the Leaf in terms of size, but the extra range it offers comes at well over five grand more. The Tesla Model 3 could be a competitor whenever those things actually become available.
Look, the Leaf is just fine. It looks okay, does its job well, is plenty usable for what it’s designed to do, and for many people who want an EV, the range is good enough, and they know the inherent restrictions of an electric car.
It’s not likely to steal away hard-core Tesla geeks, because, come on, you’ve talked to those people. It may skim off some people who just want a practical electric car, because that’s what it is.
Soon, these will be everywhere, and chances are you won’t even notice. And Nissan is just fine with that.