We spent one week with the Nissan LEAF to see how this popular EV performs in the real world.
Tesla may take up the majority of the day-to-day headlines, but did you know Nissan’s LEAF was until very recently the world's best-selling electric vehicle? The LEAF has sold nearly half a million units around the world with a full third of those sold here in the United States. The standard LEAF has a range of approximately 150 miles, but it's been joined by a longer-range model sporting the "PLUS" moniker. With many new competitors to the market such as the Chevrolet Bolt (238 miles), Hyundai Kona (258 miles), and Kia Niro EV (239 miles), the LEAF PLUS (215 miles) is still down compared to the competition but now has enough range to compete directly. Any advertised range over 200 miles has the potential to reduce range anxiety significantly, but don’t expect to take long road trips unless you have access to chargers on your route. Given that the range estimate comes in lower than other popular electric cars, can the LEAF PLUS make up for it with other features? I had a week to find out.
- Chevrolet Bolt
- Hyundai Kona EV
- Kia Niro EV
- Honda Clarity Electric
- Kia Soul EV
- Tesla Model 3
Disclosure: Nissan provided us with the top-of-the-line LEAF SL PLUS to test out for a week.
- Starting MSRP excluding destination: S $29,990, SV $32,600, SL $36,300, S PLUS $36,550, SV PLUS $38,510, SL PLUS $42,550
- As tested price: $44,315.00
- 160 kW AC Synchronous Electric Motor 214 horsepower/250 lb-ft torque
- Single-speed direct drive
- P215/50R17 all-season tires, 17” alloy wheels
- Front/Rear Headroom (Inches): 41.2/37.3
- Front/Rear Legroom (Inches): 42.1/33.5
- Cargo volume rear seats up/down (CU.FT.): 23.6/30.0
- 62 kWh Lithium-Ion Battery
- Fuel Economy MPGe (City/Highway/Combined): 114/94/104
- NHTSA Overall Safety Rating: Not Rated as of this writing
I'll start with a notable admission: I have never owned an electric vehicle (EV). The closest I came was test-driving a Tesla Model 3 for about 10 minutes on the streets surrounding the mall where the Tesla store was located. I have always been intrigued by the idea of owning a vehicle that I can just plug in at night without ever going to a gas station. It's more than just the convenience of being able to top up at home - have you seen the lines at Costco gas stations?
That said, the limited driving range was always an issue until a couple years ago when OEMs began producing relatively affordable longer-range EVs such as the Chevrolet Bolt. Even then, certain features that were essential to me were not available or otherwise bundled in pricey packages. The Bolt still does not offer full-speed adaptive cruise control, and you would need to choose the highest-end Hyundai Kona EV to get that feature. Nissan, on the other hand, offers competitive range with the excellent ProPILOT Assist for around $41,205. You might argue that Tesla offers a Model 3 with Autopilot for less money, but that car starts at $39,990 and no longer qualifies for federal EV tax incentives. By that measure, a Nissan LEAF SV PLUS would cost around $33,705 with federal incentive of $7,500. On top of that, you can add the state rebate as well if applicable. Sure, it’s not as sleek as the Model 3, but if you want a more “normal” car, the LEAF fits the bill.
In ICE vehicles, I measure average MPG as an indicator of efficiency. The equivalent for an electric car measures miles/kWh, but it probably won't mean much to anyone but the most dedicated EV fans. For my time with the LEAF, miles to empty was my go-to. 215 miles seems like plenty of range, so I didn’t think I'd have any issue with range anxiety. I then turned on the air conditioner and I saw my range estimate immediately drop by 11 miles. That might not seem like much distance, but it was definitely enough to have this so-called "anxiety" suddenly make itself known. I felt guilty using the A/C and tried to limit usage to times I absolutely needed it on. As well, another drawback is if you are running other errands and did not charge completely the night before, it could potentially pose a problem. That said, I feel that a 215 mile range is completely adequate for most commuters, even "super commuters" like me.
As a self-described techie, I enjoy Tesla's futuristic design choices and large center screen. On the other hand, I’d imagine many people would want an EV to look and feel like a traditional vehicle where the learning curve would be minimal. I appreciate that the LEAF, from the inside, looks and acts predominantly like a regular ICE vehicle. Some functions and buttons - such as the stubby shift knob and e-Pedal - are a little strange and might take some getting used to. Overall, it didn’t take me much time to get acquainted with the interior. I was able to set my mirrors, A/C, and radio settings in a snap, much like in any other car. The infotainment system is comfortably familiar as well (outside of the EV-specific menus) and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard across all trim levels. As with other vehicles in Nissan’s lineup, I’m glad to see standard safety features being implemented on lower trims. The PLUS trims come standard with Rear Door Alert, Automatic Emergency Braking, and Intelligent Forward Collision Warning. On the SL PLUS trim, Automatic Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Detection, Blind Spot Warning, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Intelligent Driver Alertness, and Intelligent Lane Intervention are all standard equipment. Nissan’s ProPILOT Assist with Steering Assist and Intelligent Cruise Control are also standard on the SL PLUS.
Nissan’s system is probably one of the best on the market besides luxury nameplates and Tesla’s Autopilot, and ProPILOT Assist in tandem with the electric motor seemed like a better match in my opinion than ProPILOT with ICE engines. The real difference boils down to the instant torque of the electric motor; without waiting for an engine/transmission to wind up, the system kept the car at a close enough distance to keep up with the vehicle in front. Braking was a tad aggressive, though, with an abrupt jerk at the end coming to a complete stop in traffic. I also would have liked to see the system stay on a little longer once the vehicle comes to a complete stop; often, I had to intervene by either tapping the Resume button or by hitting the accelerator pedal.
Another attribute of an EV is the ability to “one-pedal” drive, or "e-Pedal" in Nissan's parlance. This means utilizing regenerative braking to practically only use the go-pedal to control both acceleration and braking. The regenerative braking will help slow the vehicle while simultaneously using the kinetic energy recovered from the wheels to recharge the battery. Once you get used to how aggressive e-Pedal is, you won’t have to touch the brakes 95% of the time. It’s a great feature that I absolutely loved.
Besides using the e-Pedal and plugging it in to charge, the overall experience of driving the LEAF is very “normal”. The dash, switchgear, infotainment screen, and controls are easy to use. The seats are comfortable, and I like the D-shaped steering wheel. One gripe that was constantly on my mind was the center armrest. It had an indent on the driver side, but with my seating position, my right elbow was at the very end of it and kept slipping off of the armrest. I would have preferred a longer cushion with more padding. NVH (Noise, Vibration, and Harshness) was low, thanks in large part to lacking an engine. Acceleration was whisper quiet with only a minimal trace of whine from the electric motor. With the weight of the batteries placed below the seats, the LEAF benefits from a low center of gravity and surprisingly secure handling characteristics. It was fun to chuck it into turns, although the efficiency-minded tires did make quite the noise. The Bose Energy Efficient System sounded great, but I don’t like that the subwoofer protrudes into the cargo area and eats up valuable space. I’m sure it is built to withstand items being placed on top of it, but I was still cautious when loading our Costco groceries in the car.
Overall, I enjoyed driving the LEAF PLUS. The learning curve was minimal, and it was easy to just get into and drive. On the SL PLUS, 215 miles on a charge was just enough, even for a super commuter like me. Range anxiety was present but, if I owned the vehicle, I would eventually get used to the range. I merely had to be conscious of plugging it in every night; otherwise, it's a simple matter of adjusting to the LEAF’s characteristics, and how much things such as the A/C affect how far you can go on a single charge. With range now averaging in the mid-200 miles within the segment, EVs are becoming more practical and can be a primary car for most people. While I'm still hesitant about purchasing one because of my nearly 50-mile commute to work, the LEAF, as well as others it competes with, are now a direct competitor to their ICE counterparts. Federal and state incentives might even make them a better value proposition.