2018 Nissan Leaf long-term update: Polar Vortex learnings

Riding out winter's worst, electric style.

On the surface, taking delivery of an electric car on the eve of the big, bad Polar Vortex of 2019 has all the earmarks of a suboptimal experience. Yet that's exactly what happened when our long-term 2018 Nissan Leaf migrated from the cozy Upstate NY confines of Roadshow editor-in-chief Tim Stevens' garage to my suburban Detroit address. 

Making life even more challenging? My ultra-steep driveway, which has long been the subject of "luge," "chairlift," "base camp" and "sherpa" barbs by Roadshow staffers. My hill is the acknowledged Mount Everest among area auto reviewer driveways. (This is admittedly a low bar in our predominantly flat state, but it's still a serious incline.) In any case, these are not necessarily circumstances under which most people hope to inherit a front-wheel-drive electric car, but our plucky little Nissan has thus far proven up to the challenge.

So cold in The D

As is well-established fact, EVs lose a significant amount of range in cold weather, especially in bitterly frigid temps when greater-than-average HVAC usage is called for. Such was the during the Polar Vortex of late January, when local temps dipped to overnight lows of -15 and highs were in the low single digits for days. 

The stated range on our Leaf with a full battery dropped from its EPA-estimated 151 miles in Eco mode to as low as 113 miles -- a 25 percent downturn. However, even that was before firing up and getting moving. 

Depending on how much freeway driving was called for, I saw driving range immediately ebb to as little as 72 miles -- a 52-percent drop-off. It's important to note that this was after the Leaf had been left outside overnight in a coating of snow and ice -- a worst-case scenario, in other words. (It's further worth noting that like electric cars, extreme cold takes has a deleterious on the efficiency of gas- and diesel-engined cars, too.)

Cold as blue ice.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

That drop-off may seem discouraging, but in practice, it wasn't an inconvenience for a handful of reasons: 

1) I mitigated the inconvenience by topping up nightly on the Level 2 charger in my garage.

2) I preconditioned the cabin whenever possible using the NissanConnect EV app (formerly known as Carwings) to bring the cabin to my preferred temp, especially while plugged in.

3) Our top-spec Leaf SL ($38,115 as tested) features seat heaters, as well as a toasty-upon-demand steering wheel. It admittedly did seem to take a bit longer to heat up the Leaf's cabin when parked outside than most IC cars, but the delay wasn't bad, and warming-through our bodies with the seat- and wheel heaters headed off any grousing.

4) Finally (but no less importantly, for my money), there's little that's more annoying in winter than standing outside in the numbing cold to fill one's tank at gas stations. Skipping this weekly ritual in favor of taking a few moments to plug in at home or office makes for a serious quality of life improvement.

A new long-range option

If you do tend to go on longer drives or live in a climate that sees a lot of cold weather (I'm looking at you, Canada), Nissan now has a solution, too: The 2019 Nissan Leaf E+, which was introduced in January at CES packing a larger 62-kWh battery. 

This model delivers 40 percent more range for an EPA estimate of 226 miles, plus it has a quicker onboard charging system, an updated navigation system with a larger eight-inch screen, and a significant power, bumping horsepower from 147 to 215 and nudging torque from 235 pound-feet to 251. These strike me as worthwhile updates if Nissan prices the Plus reasonably. (MSRPs are promised closer to the model's on-sale date this spring.)

Look ma, no studs! Nokian Hakkapellita R3 winter tires have greatly improved our Leaf's snow performance. 

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Winter grip

While I love all-wheel-drive traction, the Leaf's front-wheel drive and fluid, predictable torque delivery has made driving in the snow easy so far, especially since we swapped out our stock Michelin Energy Saver all-season tires for a set of 17-inch 215/50 Hakkapeliitta R3 rubber provided by the Finnish winter tire masters at Nokian. These studless winter tires have thus far proven excellent at packing the white stuff in their grooves and sipes for maximum snow-on-snow traction. Without them, there would've been days where the Nissan might've sat at the apron of my driveway.

Furthermore, these Nokians seem to be somewhat quieter than various recent Michelin X-Ice and Bridgestone Blizzak models I've tested. That's good news, because with the Leaf's inherently quieter all-electric powertrain, any extra road noise probably would've been even more noticeable. 

Like most EVs, the Leaf doesn't have particularly wide tires, and that's good news for snow driving. That said, if I owned this car, I might've gone with inch-smaller wheel fitment on a second set of wheels for optimum performance (we wanted to keep the stock 17-inch alloys).

The Leaf's funky round e-shifter is easy to use. Note the illuminated seat heaters, which are in use a lot this time of year.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

E-Pedal ease

Having only driven the current-generation Leaf in fairer weather previously, I was curious to see how easy it'd be to get used to the one-pedal driving experience offered by E-Pedal in icy conditions. The truth is, there was almost no muscle-memory adjustment period, at least not beyond what it takes to get used to driving this way in the first place. If anything, the high-regenerative braking mode made for steady and reliable decelerations. For my money, this is still the best-executed one-pedal experience in EVs, with strong but smooth regen and the ability to come to a complete stop and hold in place -- even on hills.

In fact, The Leaf's acceleration was arguably easier to manage in icy conditions than a conventionally powered car, too. Credit again goes to the inherently linear power delivery of EVs, as there's no buildup to a torque peak or driveline lash to speak of. Traction control intervention is very subtle when pulling away from a stop, even when you intentionally floor the accelerator beyond advisable levels just to have a little fun.

Our Leaf's cabin is wearing well, with no untoward cold-weather squeaks or rattles.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Room for improvement

The wiper recess has proven ice-prone.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

On the negative side of the ledger, the Leaf's (understandably) extreme emphasis on aerodynamics resulted in a fairly deep recess for the windshield wipers, and unlike most IC cars that have vents that allow at least some under-hood heat to escape in that area, it's sealed in the Leaf. I've found that this makes the Nissan particularly susceptible to hard-packed snow buildup that can freeze the wipers in place, necessitating a really good clean-out.

One more thing that has nothing to do with winter: In general, I'm a big fan of delivering lane-departure warnings via haptic feedback (versus a chime). A subtle steering-wheel shake seems both more effective and less prone to those awkward "group shaming moments" that can happen when you come close to a painted line and an alert sounds, triggering jokes or irritated looks from passengers. 

The Leaf doesn't have an audible alarm for this function, it vibrates the wheel, which is good. However, the motor responsible for the vibration is so loud that passengers notice and react regardless, and the quality of the sound itself feels decidedly subpremium, like some sort of overseas telephone busy signal. If this sounds like nitpickery, I suppose it is, but I sure you, it is nevertheless legitimately annoying.

Overall, we've now put in excess of 7,000 miles on our little blue electric friend, and we're looking forward to riding out the rest of the winter in whisper-quiet fashion before warmer weather offers a reprieve.

Winter is a tough test for EV living, but our Leaf is doing just fine, thank you.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow