2018 Nissan Leaf SL drive review: Slightly more range, slightly less anxiety
The first-gen Leaf debuted all the way back in 2011, as Nissan entered the EV market, and over the course of its product cycle the very large hatch was effectively the best-selling electric car in the U.S. in its price range, holding off a raft of less popular EVs. By most measures the first-gen Leaf was a solid success, helping usher in the age of the electric car even as the economic case for electric cars (or fuel economy altogether) frayed a bit with the economic recovery; the decade started out as the age of gas-sipping hybrid hatchbacks, and ended as the second golden age of the SUV. Through these years the Leaf has gained range, going from 73 to 84 miles to 107 miles, and finally up to 150 miles, all while maintaining a grip on the more utilitarian side of the EV market.
The second-generation model that debuted a year ago picked up where the previous Leaf left off, keeping the profile of a large hatch but losing a bit of the bulbous styling in the process. The Leaf is more of a tall wagon this time around, complete with the now-mandatory floating roof C-pillar design, ditching the awkward styling of the original and gaining range in the process thanks to a new, more energy-dense battery pack offering 40 kWh of juice good for 150 miles on a full charge. A version with even more range is on the way, due next year, for those with extra-long commutes, but the new 150-mile Leaf has the commuter half of the EV market in its sights, leaving greater range and luxury features to the raft of German newcomers as well as Tesla. In short, Nissan knows why Leaf buyers are buying the Leaf, and how much money they want to part with at the dealership.
More than simply giving the Leaf a bigger battery for 2018, Nissan has revamped the hatchback's handling, giving the steering a quicker ratio and tightening the anti-roll bars to keep body roll in check. The Leaf has also kept most of its electric motor, but improvements including a new inverter give a solid kick to horsepower and torque, adding 40 hp and 49 lb-ft of torque for a total of 147 and 236. The result is quicker acceleration, but more importantly a greater (but not quite cross-country-worthy) range of approximately 150 miles on a full charge thanks to a more energy-dense battery.
At the moment this range places it between the bargain EVs on the market with ranges around 100 miles or less that are becoming less alluring with each passing month, and luxury or long-range EVs currently offering at least 200 miles of range. The Leaf's starting price of $30,875 is meant to make the economy EVs a much more difficult proposition than they already are, as its starting price lands squarely in the middle of the short-range EVs that have somehow been getting by in the marketplace.
Aside from the sharper looks and greater range, the Leaf now offers "one-pedal" driving via the e-Pedal option, allowing drivers to rely on the accelerator pedal a vast majority of the time, as the Leaf automatically provides gradual and gentle braking automatically using its powertrain. This feature is aimed to stop-and-go commutes, but it's equally applicable to in-town driving if not rapid deceleration from highway speeds down an off-ramp.
Available in S, SV and SL trim levels, the base Leaf model comes with a 6.6 kW onboard charger, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, an ePedal mode and other items. The mid-grade SV trim levels adds 17-inch wheels, Intelligent Cruise Control, and NissanConnect with Navigation featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, among other items. The range-topping SL trim level features leather seats along with a six-way driver's power seat, heated steering and seats, LED headlights, seven-speaker Bose premium audio, rear cross traffic alert, blind spot warning, and an around-view monitor.
The new Leaf offers brisk acceleration, a quiet cabin almost free of road noise, as well as a comfortable and spacious interior. In fact, the acceleration is actually fun as the Leaf spins its front wheel eagerly while moving silently and quickly through traffic, daring the driver to take advantage of gaps without any drama at all. The Leaf's handling is still geared toward comfort, as the steering works to insulate the cabin from the horrors of modern urban pavement, but it permits an acceptable level of steering feel that's moderated a bit by the slightly stiff tires.
Overall, the Leaf exhibits good road manners in city driving and can hold its own on the interstate as well if you want to say "range be damned -- I'm just going to open it up." The Leaf's aerodynamics are so good that wind noise very modest at highway speeds, and there isn't much tire noise either even if these aren't the quietest tires out there. Handling at highway speeds is a little touchy -- the suspension reacts a little too much to sharp steering inputs -- but overall it's a nicely predictable experience even if lead-footing it tends to drain the battery much faster.
Speaking of the battery, discussions of non-luxury, commuter-type EVs inevitably tend to boil down to range and price, as their buyers are seen as filling a very specific need: Will this get me to work and back with a stop at a supermarket without having to recharge someplace, along with a comfortable safety cushion of range?
With a full-charge range of approximately 150 miles the Leaf can tackle a mean commute, and perhaps a detour or two, but its full-charge range doesn't exactly place it into the top tier of EVs at the moment.
Among the things I've learned while living with the Leaf for a week is that one's "comfortable" round-trip range is about 40 percent of an EV's total range: You have to plan to expend up to 40 percent of your range on the way to your destination and then the same 40 percent on the way back, leaving yourself a margin of 20 percent of its total range for unexpected detours and general peace of mind. During my time with the Leaf I had just such a round trip come up: I had to travel to the airport that's 61 miles away and back, with the round trip representing a good mix of city and highway driving. (About 2/3rds was highway). I departed with a fully-charged battery, not planning to even stop in for a coffee at a drive-thru, and successfully made the round trip with 18 miles to spare -- not cutting it too close -- but having about 25 minutes worth of driving time in reserve. Each leg of the trip took about an hour and a half, as I cruised in the right lane at about 5 mph under the speed limit, because as you know if you've ever driven an EV the concept of "miles remaining" can be quite an elastic one.
And so, with a few asterisks, the Leaf gives the opportunity to perform a round trip where each leg takes about an hour and a half, without recharging. And I'm sure that if I crawled at in-town speeds the whole way, seeking out 25 mph zones, I would have had more range left when I completed the trip.
For the majority of commutes, with the exception of some horrible ones, this is adequate if you're just relying on your home charger, but at the same time this underscores the almost commute-only nature of this version of the Leaf unless you live in a part of the country that's very well stocked with fast-chargers every few miles.
The Leaf makes more sense in the seat and on paper than it once did, but the 150-mile range may still be a bit of a nail-biter for some. The improvements to handling and acceleration can be readily felt in this model, which also sharpened the frumpy lines of the first-gen Leaf. With a starting price now in line with the entry-level EVs, those old entry-level EVs may want to pack up and get out of the segment entirely or double their battery capacity.
The Leaf's most relevant competitor at the moment is the 238-mile Chevy Bolt, which offers more range for the price of a well-equipped Leaf, and there is no shortage of competitors working their way through automaker pipelines at the moment that will make a 150-mile range feel even more dated in a year or two.