2012 Nissan Leaf SL review:

Nissan builds an electric car for the rest of us

Starting at $35,200
  • Engine Electric Motor
  • Drivetrain Front Wheel Drive
  • Passenger Capacity 5
  • Body Type Hatchbacks

Roadshow Editors' Rating

8.4 Overall
  • Cabin tech 8
  • Performance tech 9
  • Design 8

The Good The 2012 Nissan Leaf offers better-than-expected acceleration from its electric power train. Range estimates are accurate and adequate for city driving and suburban commutes. It's well-equipped with standard cabin tech and telematics at even the entry level.

The Bad The navigation system's destination search is clunky and its POI database is limited. Audio quality from the single-option stereo is unimpressive.

The Bottom Line The 2012 Nissan Leaf offers a good blend of affordability and all-around performance for city dwellers and suburbanites looking to go zero-emission, but its cruising range limits its appeal for long hauls.

Why is it that the more efficient a car is, the uglier it tends to be? Sure, the Toyota Prius is a dull-looking ride, but the current batch of post-Prius plug-ins seems to be actively avoiding sex appeal. The Chevrolet Volt looks like a Bayformer, the Mitsubishi i-MIEV looks like a toy, and the 2012 Nissan Leaf SL that graced the Car Tech garage this week is arguably the ugliest of them all, with an exterior aesthetic best described as "techno-organic frog." I thought the future was supposed to look cooler than this. I went back and took a look at every car that I've reviewed over the past 12 months and the Leaf is easily the ugliest ride I've been seen in this year.

Okay, perhaps I'm being a bit unfair. The Leaf's form is mostly dictated by function and for every styling con, there is an equal and opposite aerodynamic pro.

Those elongated headlamps that bulge out from the front fenders cut an aerodynamic slice into the air, clearing a path for the wing mirrors and reducing drag. Those tiny wheels that look so impossibly small when contrasted with the Leaf's slab sides sit on low-rolling-resistance tires that reduce friction and disturb less air as they roll down the road.

The lump of a Leaf seats four adults comfortably or five in a pinch. The rear hatch is spacious enough for your average grocery, Costco, or IKEA run. However, the loading floor isn't flat, which could problems transporting bulkier items, but overall the Leaf wears its functional hatchback form well. This EV may not be sexy, but with an estimated 92-106 mpg equivalent from its all-electric drivetrain, a zero-tailpipe-emissions reputation that is sure to win second glances from eco-conscious guys and gals, and a price that the average buyer could possibly afford, it doesn't have to be.

The electric slide
Zero-to-60 estimates of about 8 seconds may make the Leaf seem slow on paper, but the torquey grunt that you get during a zero-to-45 mph drag on public roads paints a completely different picture. Mat the pedal when the light turns green and this electric frog leaps forward with an effortless immediacy that you can only really get from an electric power train. At about 45 mph, the engine starts to lose a bit of steam and the miles per hour pile on at a more relaxed rate, but at no point does the Leaf ever really feel gutless.

Pop the Leaf's hood and what you see won't look too much different from the engine room of a Nissan Versa. The 80 kW electric motor sits in about the same place as a small four-cylinder gasoline engine would and, save for the lack of vibration, noise, an intake, or exhaust, looks pretty much the same too. The 80 kW of output converts to about 107 horsepower. However, the real story here is the 207 pound-feet of torque which is available from a dead stop and is responsible for the Leaf's low-end grunt.

Nissan Leaf engine bay
The 80-kW electric motor doesn't look like much, but it delivers big torque. James Martin/CNET

The Leaf also features an Eco mode that can be toggled. While in this more efficient drive mode, the vehicle attempts to extend its range by more aggressively using regenerative braking while coasting and remapping the throttle pedal travel for less-aggressive tip-in. Driving along at 20 mph and switching between the normal and Eco modes is like day and night; you can really feel the vehicle resist speed when going into Eco and then almost lurch forward as it rolls more freely and accelerates more readily in normal mode. I did about half of my testing in either mode and found normal to be great for darting through traffic, passing, and maintaining a steady highway speed and Eco to be good for squeezing a few extra miles per kilowatt out of the battery at neighborhood, city, and parking-lot speeds.

I was a bit annoyed by the shifter, which is a puck-shaped lump on the center stack that, like the shifter on the Prius, returns to a neutral position after each change in mode and features a dedicated "P" button for parking the vehicle. My issue wasn't with the shifter itself, rather I disliked the fact that I had to push the shift nubbin forward to shift into reverse and pull backward to move forward. This inverted shifting seemed, to me, to be particularly counterintuitive when quickly going from reverse to drive, such as during parallel parking. I sort of get what Nissan was going for here, echoing the layout of a traditional automatic shifter, but I figure if you're going to dramatically reinvent the shift lever, why not take a moment and make the shifting more intuitive?

Nissan Leaf shifter
The Leaf's shifter annoyed me, but some drivers may like it just fine. James Martin/CNET

Shift the Leaf into reverse in a quiet parking garage and you'll be able to hear the "beep-beep-beep" of its pedestrian-warning sound in action. This sound is easily audible from outside of the vehicle, but you'll have to strain to hear it from the driver's seat. There's also a similar pedestrian-warning sound that happens when driving forward at low speeds, but from the driver's seat, it's difficult to distinguish the high-pitched tone from the whine of the electric motor without really listening for it with the windows down.

Range anxiety? Not so much...
The EPA estimates the Leaf's cruising range on a full charge to be in the neighborhood of 73 miles. Hop into a fully charged Leaf SL and push the start button and you'll be greeted with an estimated range of 95 miles. Turn off the climate control system and that range estimate will jump to 105 miles. Shift down into the Eco drive mode and it will again jump to 115 miles. However, during my testing the trip computer's range and my own estimates put the Leaf's range at about 80 miles.

Nissan navigation system
The Carwings-powered navigation system puts an overlay of the current cruising range and nearby charging stations on the map. James Martin/CNET

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.

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