Though far from the first production electric vehicle (EV) on the market, the Nissan Leaf was certainly one of the most successful and broadly adopted when it began production back in 2010. The Leaf was the people's electric car, growing the electric vehicle from plaything of the rich (hello, Tesla Roadster) and martyr of the greenies (sorry, EV-1) to a wholly realized class of vehicle that anyone could walk into a dealership and buy.
It was in a class of its own when it launched, but these days, the Leaf is cross-shopped with affordable EVs from, and others -- all of which are largely overshadowed in the public eye by -- but the little 'lectric Nissan has evolved to keep up with the competition. Though, you wouldn't know that just by looking at it.
Now with slightly extended range
Changes to the 2016 Nissan Leaf are subtle. Actually, the base S trim level is largely unchanged since the Leaf's. It still flaunts the same insect-like design that's had me raising an eyebrow at the hatchback for over half a decade now and the same 84-mile range from its 23-kWh lithium ion battery pack.
Further up the line, however, the midtier SV and top-tier SL models see improvements to their battery packs. The new laminated lithium ion pack is more thermally and space efficient, which allows Nissan to boost the battery's capacity to 30 kWh. The increase in capacity translates directly to an increase in range; the Leaf can now cruise for a nominal 107 miles between charges.
The new battery pack also boasts a longer warranty -- 8 years or 100,000 miles versus 5 years or 60,000 miles -- which should give buyers a bit more peace of mind about longer term ownership.
Electric driving performance
Regardless of trim level, the 2016 Leaf is motivated by an 80-kW electric motor, which works out to 107 horsepower, beneath its hood. A flat 187 pound-feet of torque flows through an electronically-controlled single-speed transmission to the front wheels. The transmission is operated with a weird sliding puck, rather than a conventional shift lever.
The Leaf is no hot hatch, but it's performance is electrifying in its own way. The electric motor makes its torque immediately, from as low as 1rpm, so it's got really good off-of-the-line responsiveness. The flat torque curve and fairly tight low-speed handling makes the Leaf feel confident and capable around town.
What's most notable about the EV driving experience is the total lack of engine noise. Around town, the Leaf is whisper quiet save for an artificial whine emitted to notify pedestrians that the EV is approaching; even that can't really be heard with the windows up. At highway speeds, road noise becomes more apparent, thanks to the Leaf's minimal sound-damping material. Even then, it's more whooshing that's much less pronounced than the hum of a conventional combustion engine.
Zero-to-60 sprints happen in about 10 seconds -- getting almost no help from fairly narrow, low rolling resistance eco tires -- but that's the best way to put a sizable dent in the Leaf's limited range. Performance driving isn't really the point of this car and it really makes no pretensions otherwise.
Zero tailpipe emissions and efficiency, however, are exactly the point. The Leaf SL is estimated by the EPA at 124 city MPGe -- thanks to the EV's total lack of idling losses -- and 101 hwy MPGe. You won't get your best range on the highway, though. The faster you go, the faster Leaf's range dips, which is the case with almost all electric vehicles.
By now, you've probably spotted that stretch of photovoltaic solar cell on the Leaf's spoiler. Don't go getting excited; that's only there to trickle charge the 12V accessory system and has no effect or connection to high voltage powertrain. (With about a 5W maximum output, it's more a visual hat tip to the Leaf's green ambitions than anything else.)
The 120V charging cable in the trunk is nearly as useless. It can take up to 33 hours to charge the Leaf SL from a standard wall outlet. Use this charging method only for emergencies or to add a few extra miles in a pinch, but don't expect it to be a feasible primary charging method.
Connect the Leaf to a 240V Level II charger and things start looking much more realistic. A 3.4-kW Level II charger can juice the base S with its smaller battery pack in about 5 hours. A more powerful 6.6-kW Level II charger will completely charge the big battery in the SV and SL models in about 6 hours.