Nissan’s Leaf appeared for 2011 looking fairly dorky and, by the EPA’s reckoning, capable of traveling just 73 miles due to its 24.0-kWh battery. As more EVs hit the market with greater driving range, Nissan gradually boosted the Leaf’s abilities. Range was first increased to 75 miles for 2013, then to 84 miles for 2016; an optional 30.0-kWh battery also came online for 2016 that further upped the Leaf’s range to 107 miles. This year, Nissan has redesigned the Leaf inside and out, added more power, and, critically, increased the battery size to 40.0 kWh on every model.
Chevrolet’s Bolt EV and Tesla’s Model 3, both of which offer greater than 200 miles of range but at a higher cost. Among the compliance cars, which include the Ford Focus Electric, the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, and the Kia Soul EV, the Volkswagen e-Golf’s 125-mile range comes closest to the Leaf’s. And, for 2019, there’s a Leaf+ model coming with a 60.0-kWh pack and a range above 200 miles.
Where Nissan really hits its competitors hard is price: At $30,875, the new Leaf is not only less expensive than its predecessor, it’s priced in the thick of those less capable models. It’s also available nationwide. Long-range EVs are more expensive: The Bolt, good for 238 miles of EPA-rated range, starts at $37,495, while the Model 3 is expected to start at $35,000 and offer 220 miles of range in its least expensive form. The base Leaf S further ups its value game with now standard automated emergency braking, as well as a 5.0-inch touchscreen, automatic headlights, LED taillights, automatic climate control, and a proximity key with push-button starting. A portable Level 1 and 2 connector (a $1590 option on the Leaf S, included in the SV’s Technology package, and standard on the SL) erases the need for a 240-volt solution installed in your home (although you’d still need to have or add sufficient 240-volt electrical capability); adapters for 120-volt wall outlets and standard 240-volt plugs (like those used for clothes dryers) are included. Also part of the deal is DC quick-charging capability, which can replenish 88 miles of driving range in just 30 minutes from a public CHAdeMO connection. Recharge times vary from 7.5 hours on a 32-amp, 240-volt hookup to 35 hours when plugged into a typical 120-volt wall outlet. Every Leaf is recharged via a port hidden just above the Nissan badge in its nose.
The mid-level SV retails for $33,375 and replaces the S’s 5.0-inch touchscreen with a 7.0-inch version with navigation, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay; it also adds piano-black interior trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. The top-dog, $37,085 Leaf SL adds goodies such as a Bose audio system, LED headlights, a heated steering wheel and heated front seats, leather, rear HVAC ducting, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and a surround-view camera system.
Better still, suspension updates aimed at managing the 2018 Leaf’s mild weight gain over the 2017 model have removed most of the flop and roll from the old model’s soggy handling. The Leaf is now composed when driven spiritedly and exhibits little body roll, thanks in part to 10-percent-stiffer anti-roll bars. The steering is much improved, too, with a quicker ratio, good response, and a more satisfying heft than before. The car is also more refined than before, with the suspension absorbing impacts with less noise. As in other EVs, the lack of internal-combustion-engine white noise heightens occupants’ awareness of road and tire sounds. To our ears the new Leaf is quieter, although the door mirrors generate a fair amount of wind whoosh at highway speeds.
Getting the new Leaf up to those speeds is a notably quicker affair thanks to its updated electric motor. The otherwise carryover motor gains a new inverter, bringing increases of 40 horsepower and 49 lb-ft of torque, for new totals of 147 and 236. Just how much zippier the 2018 Leaf is will be confirmed when we get one on the test track. As before, the motor makes a mild whirring sound, and at speeds below 18 mph the Leaf emits a Jetsonian electronic tone externally to alert pedestrians of its otherwise-silent presence.
Cleverly, e-Pedal blends in the friction brakes automatically on top of the electric motor’s resistance, both to hold the Leaf stationary once stopped (on up to a 30 percent grade) and when the battery is full and unable to accept more charge from the motor’s energy recuperation (the source of the engine-braking-type drag) when decelerating. This ensures consistent e-Pedal slowing no matter the battery’s state of charge, and it draws no energy from the motor to keep the car still. The e-Pedal’s speed-dependent stopping power takes some getting used to before one can effectively time when to start lifting off the accelerator to, say, stop at an upcoming intersection from different speeds. On the upside, its buildup in braking force is far smoother than the Bolt’s all-or-nothing one-pedal slowing.
When activated via a steering-wheel button, ProPilot can competently bring the Leaf to a complete stop (and accelerate again, provided the stop lasts fewer than three seconds), adjust the car’s speed to match traffic ahead, and steer between lane markings. Nissan insists, however, that ProPilot is a driver aid, not a self-driving system. Take your hands off the wheel for longer than a few moments, and the Leaf flashes visual warnings in the gauge cluster and sounds increasingly urgent alarms. Wait about 30 seconds, and the Leaf trades insistent beeping for a freaky siren and brings itself to a stop in its lane with the emergency flashers activated. The total time from the first missed warning to stoppage from 55 mph is about 45 seconds. Kudos to Nissan for making the warnings hard to miss. Not only is the late-sounding wailing spookily reminiscent of the “pull up, pull up” siren often heard in doomed jet airliners’ cockpit voice recordings, it’s more successful than the subtler beeping in Mercedes-Benz’s similar emergency-slowdown sequence.
With effective new technology and powertrain hardware taking a decisive leap forward, the Leaf has life anew after kick-starting the mass-market EV race in 2010. Buyers will be the ultimate judges of the Leaf’s price-to-range ratio, but it certainly looks compelling. We only wish that Nissan added more flair to the cabin. The interior’s hard plastics and cheap-feeling, mismatched switchgear seemingly culled from several different cars are obvious sacrifices, with resources diverted to the Leaf’s excellent battery and chassis hardware. Heck, the steering column is adjustable only for tilt, the telescoping function having been cost-cut from the previous-generation Leaf midway through its life cycle. The Leaf deserves better, not least because taller drivers are forced into a less-than-ideal hunch to grasp the steering wheel. Granted, the Chevrolet Bolt’s mediocre cabin and odd seating position similarly stand as totems to difficult choices made during the allocation of development dollars. In both cars, the batteries and well-tuned chassis won; the interiors lost. We hope that nicer innards are in the works for the longer-range—and no doubt substantially pricier—Leaf+ that’s due next year.