2012 Nissan Leaf SL review: Nissan builds an electric car for the rest of us

I noticed that traveling at highway speeds caused the Leaf's range estimates to become a bit more conservative. Like most EVs, the Leaf is at its least efficient at speeds of over 50 mph. That combined with the 80-to-100-mile cap before needing a recharge pretty much limits the Leaf to a city-to-suburb driving style.

You'll want to rent a conventional gasoline vehicle for your annual road trip. If I wanted to drive from my home in San Francisco to visit my friends in Atlanta, doing so in the Leaf would take about 28 days in 80-mile increments with 20-hour recharge breaks on 110V power. But again, I'm being dramatic. No one in their right mind would attempt a cross-country road trip in a Leaf and anyone serious about owning a Leaf will also be serious about getting a 240V charging station installed at home or at least making heavy use of public quick-charging stations.

With the 240V home charger, you get a full charge in about 7 or 8 hours (basically overnight). Eighty miles of range on an 8-hour charge may not sound like a lot, but for a city dweller such as myself, it was surprisingly difficult to really get into the deepest reaches of the Leaf's range. Even on my most aimless driving day, which involved running errands all over town and four trips across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, I only managed to crack 66 miles before returning the Leaf to its charger with 20-plus miles of estimated range on the gauge. In fact, there aren't many places in the San Francisco Bay Area that you can't get to and back from the city center on the Leaf's 73-mile EPA-estimated range.

If you're one of those drivers whose traffic-free commute is over an hour, then you'll want to think twice about the Leaf, but local knowledge and a bit of Google Maps research of cities like Atlanta and Austin, Texas, is proof enough to me that the Leaf is a viable option for many suburban commuters.

SL cabin technology
The Leaf comes pretty well-equipped in the entry-level SV trim.

You get the simple yet effective Navigation system that ties in to the Carwings energy-monitoring and telematics system that lets you download locations of nearby charging stations, view your effective cruising range on a map, and control your Leaf's charging behavior via a smartphone app. This system performed admirably when looking for somewhere to plug in the Leaf, but I found address entry to be a bit tedious and the database of of regular destinations (movie theaters, restaurants, and so on) to be lacking. One particular grievance I had was the system's habit of returning destinations hundreds of miles away when I searched by name.

Other nice, premium features at the SV level include LED headlamps that draw minimally on the battery, Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming, iPod/USB connectivity, satellite radio by SiriusXM, and keyless entry with push-button start. Audio quality from the six-speaker stereo system is inoffensive, but unimpressive. Somehow, I doubt that most prospective Leaf drivers will really care.

Step up to the SL trim level and you'll also get a rearview camera system, which is helpful when parallel parking; fog lights; and a nifty solar panel on the rear spoiler that helps to charge the 12-volt accessory battery when the Leaf is parked in the sun.

Nissan Leaf charge points
The Leaf SL features two charging ports, one for standard 240-/120-volt chargers and a separate charger for 440-volt Chademo quick-chargers. James Martin/CNET

The SL also features a second charging port under its front filler door that allows it to plug into Chademo charging stations for a quick 30-minute fill-up. If you have these stations in your area, this feature alone is worth the $2,050 premium for the SL model as it is a tremendous boost in charging convenience. All Leaf models feature connections for the widely available public and home 240-volt charging stations and come with a charging cable that allow the EV to plug into a standard 120-volt wall outlet for a slow trickle charge when you need one.

In sum
Whether you're looking at the $35,200 Nissan Leaf SV or the $37,250 Leaf SL, this EV is a pretty good deal for the dough. Aside from the trim levels and a few simple accessories such as floor mats, exterior graphic treatments, and an odd recycling bin organizer, there are no real options to chose on the Nissan Leaf. Our as-tested price came to $38,270 and included $850 for destination charges and $170 for floor and cargo mats.

Solar cell
Our SL model also features a solar cell that helps to charge the 12-volt accessory battery. James Martin/CNET

There's only a bit of difference between the trim levels, the largest being the Chademo charger compatibility for the SL, which can be extremely useful for motorists who live near fast-charging stations and can even serve as a charging alternative for city dwellers who must make due with curbside parking or who can't have a 240-volt charger installed in an apartment building.

However, like all EVs the Leaf's limited range means that it's not the car for everyone. If you can't get a 240-volt charging station installed at your residence or if you need to drive long distances regularly, you're probably better off looking at a vehicle like the Volt or Prius Plug-in, which offer much longer cruising ranges, can go much longer between charges, and can be quickly refueled in a pinch at a gas station.

Tech specs
Model 2012 Nissan Leaf
Trim SL
Power train 80-kW electric motor, 1-speed transmission, FWD
EPA fuel economy 106 mpge city, 92 mpge highway, 99 combined mpge
Observed fuel economy n/a
Navigation Standard with Carwings telematics
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming, iPod connection
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio
Audio system 6-speaker standard audio system
Driver aids SL: standard rearview camera
Base price $35,200
Price as tested $38,270

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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Where to Buy

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

Part Number: 101397755

MSRP: $37,250.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Trim levels SL
  • Body style Hatchback
  • Available Engine Electric