2018 Nissan Leaf

NAPPA. Calif. — Most news stories regarding battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are about Tesla and the great things Elon Musk is doing…or not. But what’s known but by a few is that the world’s best-selling electric car to date is the Nissan Leaf. At the start of 2016, more than 200,000 have been sold worldwide. The Leaf is the only BEV built in three different manufacturing plants in three different countries, including Smyrna, Tenn.

A five-door, five-passenger hatchback, it first appeared in the U.S. in 2011 and was powered by a 24.0-kWh AC synchronous motor, functioning with a lithium-ion battery pack. It had an EPA-rated driving range of just 73 miles. Range was increased to 75 miles for 2013.

In 2016 the range went to 84 miles; an optional upgrade to a larger 30.0-kWh battery extended the range to 107 miles.

For 2018, Nissan has introduced a completely redesigned “second-generation” Leaf with added power and a larger 40.0-kWh battery with a 150 mile driving range for less money than any other EV in its range class.

Both the Hyundai Ioniq EV and Volkswagen eGolf share a comparable price point with the Leaf 2.0 (about $30,000), but they only offer 125 miles of range. The Kia Soul EV starts at $33,950 and will go 111 miles; Chevrolet Bolt EV offers 238 miles of driving range but the starting price jumps more than $7,000 to $37,495. Nissan says there’s a Leaf+ model coming for 2019 with a 60.0 kWh pack and a range above 200 miles.

It’s worth noting that I did not include the Tesla Model 3 as a competitor for several reasons. First, as of this writing, the Model 3 still hasn’t been put into mass production and has missed numerous production promises. Secondly, I have not driven the Model 3 (few, if any, in the automotive media have) since Tesla has not made them available to test drive. Third, the Model 3 is a sedan and not a hatchback. It does have an advertised driving range of 220 miles and starts at $35,000, as long as you will take it in black. Any other color will cost you extra.

The most noticeable change to the new Leaf is it’s look. It goes from a nerdy, quirky and downright homely-looking car to a generally very attractive looking hatchback with good-looking headlights. It actually looks much better in person than in photos, so it’s worth a trip to the dealer to take a look.

Inside the new Leaf, the cabin felt quite roomy, more upscale and modern looking than the previous generation. During my three-hour test-driving at the media launch and drive program in Napa, Calif., I found the seats to be comfortable with no fatigue to my back or rear end. Disappointingly, the inability telescope the steering wheel did make a huge difference in driver comfort, especially for this tall driver. It does, however, adjust up and down.

Nissan chose, for the most part, to stick with buttons and switches and a fairly unresponsive and dated seven-inch touchscreen for operational controls. This is unlike the Tesla Model 3, where everything is operated through a user interface screen. Some drivers still prefer the buttons and knobs, but for those who don’t, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available options.

Nissan made a strong point for the two new features they are most proud of: e-Pedal” and ProPILOT Assist. Similar to the Chevy Bolt, Nissan’s e-Pedal is a on
e-pedal driving mode where regenerative engine braking can bring the car to a complete halt without using the brake pedal. Once stopped, in a feature unique to Nissan, the e-Pedal uses friction brakes to actually hold the car on an incline; no energy is lost in the process. It didn’t take long to get used to on our test drive, and I used it effectively for everything I wanted to do on the road.

ProPilot Assist works like a mild form of autopilot. It works extremely well, using painted lines on road surfaces to keep you in the lane, with adaptive cruise control. The best part of the feature is that it keeps you in the center of your lane rather than ping-ponging right then left, etc. One need only keep a light touch on the steering wheel for the system to detect your hands. Taking your hands completely off the steering wheel will trigger an audible and haptic (steering wheel vibrates) warning to put your hands on the wheel. Failure to do so will cause the vehicle to slow and come to a complete stop. Also know that the system will not change lanes for you.

e-Pedal is standard on all Leafs, while ProPILOT Assist is available as part of the $2,200 technology package option on SV models and included on SL models (it will become a $650 option on SL models starting in the spring of 2018).

Another change to the new Leaf is its recharging capability. It still uses the previous 6.6kW Level 2 charger and optional 50kW CHAdeMO port, but with a redesigned charge port position that’s higher up on the front of the vehicle, it
requires less bending over for drivers when plugging in.

There’s no shortage of other tech features that are either standard or optional, including intelligent around-view monitoring, Bose audio, heated seats and more. One glaring oversight is the vehicle only has one USB port, and none in the rear.

Also for the first time, there’s an optional portable L1/L2 cable which can be adapted to work on both 120v and 240v plugs, so Leaf owners are no longer required to purchase a Level 2 charger and hardwire it into their garage. They only need to install an outlet.

However, there are two big problems here: Some competing vehicles, like the Ioniq, have faster charging, and CHAdeMo is rapidly becoming obsolete in the West. Both Hyundai and Honda went with SAE CCs for charging and Nissan seems to be the only brand committed to CHAdeMo. It may have an impact for Leaf in the future, especially with the larger 60-kWh battery next year.

Still, Nissan has partnered with several charge networks to roll out high-speed charging, especially in 55 of the largest metro markets. The DCFC network covers nearly 93 percent of the market where Leafs have been sold. Drivers are typically within 10 miles of a DCFC and can utilize Nissan’s “No Charge to Charge” program. A card for free 30-minute charge sessions at participating CHAdeMO stations is included with a Leaf purchase.

In those 30 minutes of free charging on a level 3 charging station, a Leaf can add up to 88 miles of range. On participating level 2 chargers, Leafs can get 60 minutes of free charging for about 20 miles worth of range.

One other feature still
awaiting U.S. regulatory approval is bidirectional charging capability. Essentially, you can use your Leaf’s battery to power your home during a power outage or to take a load off your home’s air conditioning or electrical heating during peak periods.

Overall, the new Leaf is a significant improvement over the first-generation model, and seems to offer a lot of value for the price. Nissan added thousands of dollars of “value” to each of the three trim levels while actually lowering the base price anywhere from 1.6 to 5 percent.

That said, car buyers still don’t want to compromise any aspect of the automotive experience, wanting the same convenience as they get with non-electric vehicles, including great looks (the new Leaf nails it), and expected standard features like air conditioning, power everything, and comfortable driving.

However, we think Nissan made a huge mistake in launching the new Leaf with just 150 miles of driving range. With the Chevrolet Bolt EV and its 238 miles of range available for a few thousand dollars more, Leaf will be a tougher sell. When you’re already spending $30,000 for a new car, a few thousand dollars more is not that big a deal, especially considering EV buyers tend to lease their vehicles, and the difference in payment is insignificant.

Leaf is on sale now.

Vital Stats
Base Price: $29,900 - $36,200
Price as Tested: $37,738
Fuel Economy: EPA fuel economy numbers not yet released
Engine: 110 kW AC Synchronous Motor with 40-kWh Lithium-Ion Battery
Horsepower: 147 hp
Seating: 5
Safety Ratings Crash Test Results: Not yet rated by the US Government or IIHS

Competes With:
Chevrolet Bolt
Hyundai Ioniq
Kia Soul EV
Volkswagen eGolf

Fab Features
Standard Level1/Level2 charge cable on SL trim level
“ProPILOT Assist”
Significantly improved styling

— Jim Prueter