The Nissan Leaf has long been a staple for electrification. Now in its 12th model year, you might expect that Nissan has had tremendous development over time to improve the Leaf. In reality, it feels somewhat neglected and left to simply function. In this way, the Leaf is the epitome of an appliance, and offers one of the least expensive electrification opportunities to US consumers. So how does it compare to the competition now, and how does it compare to its original self?
Out of Spec Score: 65/100
2017 brought the second generation Nissan Leaf to light, which greatly improved the styling attributes. Prior to that, it was an eyesore with strange proportions and accents. It now holds a candle to other compact hatchbacks, though still far from being considered beautiful.
The high hood line and long front overhang are no designer’s dream, and the wheels are heavily inset and efficiency-focused, as per usual on an economy car. In essence, the Leaf was never meant to be a beautiful masterpiece, but rather a functional utility. Like a refrigerator in your kitchen that simply exists for your benefit.
This particular color is called Sunset Drift ChromaFlair. Nissan had the audacity to include the word “Drift” in the color choice on a Leaf. But all surprise aside, it is a genuinely good color. It’s not available on the base model, but on the SV or SL, you can opt to spend roughly $400 to option it. The headlights are fairly uninspired, while the taillights are genuinely good and carry Nissan’s design language throughout. There are also some interesting slightly blueish accents on the rear diffuser and front grill.
Economy car comes to mind again, with good reason. There is very little in terms of premium materials and even switchgear. The seats, interestingly enough, are lined in part with suede and blue stitching, and the steering wheel sports a flattened bottom. But that is where any inclination of sporty accents end.
The heated seat buttons are an obvious culmination of old parts bins at Nissan, though their function of low and high are both well-executed. Even the heated steering wheel didn’t get too warm, something I personally can’t say for many cars. The shifter is also a strange part, being a knob-on-ball type implementation, where you move the entire assembly via the knob to the left and forward or backwards to indicate direction.
The center console is minuscule and odd-shaped, with the arm rest portion only being useful to the driver. The cup holders cut into the other side, so the passenger has no left arm rest. The seats are comfortable enough otherwise, though perhaps not for a long road trip. Then again, I don’t think the Leaf is capable of such things. Charging is definitely a weak point, into which I’ll dive shortly.
It is actually no slouch, at least in the 62 kWh Plus configuration. Normal in-town driving can be done relatively spiritedly, though it never feels planted or exciting. That being said, it certainly has enough power to get out of its own way and pass slower moving traffic with relative ease.
The 62 kWh “Plus” Leaf gets 160 kW motor, or roughly 215 hp, while the smaller 40 kWh pack grants 110 kW, or 150 hp. Even the lower powered smaller pack would theoretically have better performance than a standard combustion Sentra or similar. You’ll find a bit of torque steer when driving aggressively, which is to be expected from a front wheel drive car with any immediate torque.
The charging performance is less than ideal, however. Being restricted to CHADeMO, which is not the dominant nor best charging standard in the USA, means most Leaf owners cannot charge at more than 50 kW. This results in most charging times being well over an hour, up to two hours for a deeper charge. Furthermore, the air-cooled nature of the battery pack results in actual overheating when consecutive DCFC sessions are attempted.
The Leaf is relatively efficient. I was averaging anywhere from 3 to 4 miles per kWh during my mixed driving. The practicality of a daily driver with any average commute is where the Leaf excels. People who can use its range within a day and charge at home at night will see the full practical potential. But the issues with consecutive DC Fast-Charging and overheating will prevent it from being a practical road trip vehicle.
The interior is fairly practical for the size, with nearly 24 cubic feet of space behind the second row seats and a lower floor than many other ground-up EV competitors. The second row does fold, but not flat. The full storage capacity extends to 30 cubic feet, but certain objects won’t be able to take advantage of a folded second row due to the floor depth not lining up in the slightest. You also have the bass box in the back, at the front of the trunk floor, which could potentially limit what can be put in the trunk.
An area the Leaf definitely lacks in is technological prowess. When it was unveiled and first advertised, Nissan leaned into the slogan “Innovation for the Planet, Innovation for All”. Unfortunately, the coattails of that brilliant saying have been ridden to their limit. The original Leaf introduced a new, unique Bose Efficient Series system. Though it was only 7 speakers, it sounded quite good for the time and drew half the power of any comparative speaker system. But now, when most premium Audio systems feature a speaker count well into the double-digits, the dated Bose system feels a bit out of touch and starts to show its age. The bass box in the back is a unique development, using bass frequency tunneling (of sorts) rather than a standard cone-shaped woofer. Many higher-end TVs from a decade ago and even some now feature this technology of achieving lower frequencies.
The infotainment is fairly drab, with slow response to touch input and even worse CarPlay reaction time in many instances. The screen does get bright enough to be seen in broad daylight, but the LCD panel itself seems to be lower quality than most. The driver gauge cluster also has a display, though it’s fairly limited and also not of the highest quality. But again, context is important. For the price, this car has just about what I would expect and the partially digital driver cluster is certainly better than any lack thereof.
It is nice to see heated seats and steering wheel on an economically minded car, along with a full surround camera for parking. But the cameras themselves are of fairly low quality. But I’ll happily live with low quality over nothing at all in this case. The driver assistance technology is also relatively capable, but definitely not a system I would consider trustworthy in any less-than-ideal circumstances. In good weather on a clearly marked road in a consistent flow of traffic is where ProPilot can excel. Otherwise, it feels like checking boxes on a build sheet for specification’s sake.
The Nissan Leaf has a certain inherent negativity surrounding it, akin to that of the Prius. But just like the Prius, there are plenty of consumers who value and even enjoy its existence. Also like the Prius, there is a flattened bottom steering wheel and a devoted enthusiastic fan base. I certainly enjoyed the leaf more than I expected. It is genuinely quick, of course until you bring Tesla or most other EVs into the conversation. But as for general cars on the road, it’s quick and can especially hold its own at lower city speeds.
I sought out to assess whether or not the Leaf carries any new innovation to the surface of the market. After spending some time with it, I’ve concluded that in large part, it does not. It’s objectively a decent car, but in a world of electric vehicles chomping at the bit for every single piece of news possible, the Leaf simply exists in the background. It rides its own coattails of early success, though I expect those are beginning to wane in effectiveness. I’m intrigued to see what the Leaf does next, and how the Ariya fares in such a highly competitive newer market. But for now, the Leaf exists solely as the least expensive EV. And that certainly has its place and purpose in the world.
- Exterior design 6/10
- Interior design 5/10
- Materials 5/10
- Build quality 6/10
- Comfort 6/10
- Capacity 6/10
- Acceleration 6/10
- Handling 5/10
- Efficiency 8/10
- Connected services 7/10
- UI/UX 5/10
- Active Safety 7/10
Editor’s Assessment 8.3/10
- Value 9/10
- Market placement 9/10
- Editors Influence 7/10