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

It may be one of the most technologically advanced cars on the road, but we found the 2012 Nissan Leaf to be remarkably simple and easy to live with.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
8 min read

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.

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

The Good

The <b>2012 Nissan Leaf</b> 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.

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.

2012 Nissan Leaf: The everyman's EV (pictures)

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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.

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
2012 Nissan Leaf SL

2012 Nissan Leaf SL

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 9Design 8