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 Fiat, Ford and others -- all of which are largely overshadowed in the public eye by Tesla's higher profile vehicles -- but the little 'lectric Nissan has evolved to keep up with the competition. Though, you wouldn't know that just by looking at it.
Changes to the 2016 Nissan Leaf are subtle. Actually, the base S trim level is largely unchanged since the Leaf's 2010 launch. 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.
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.
SV and SL models are also equipped with a DC Quick Charging port (CHAdeMO) that can rapidly charge up to an 80 percent capacity in about 30 minutes, but I've found that these Quick Charging stations -- which use a different standard and connection than Tesla's Supercharger stations -- can be short in supply around our San Francisco Bay Area offices.
The Leaf's cabin is... well, it's nothing to write home about. I'm sure that Nissan was going for an eco car feel, but the materials and design just scream economy car, which I suppose is fine.
At the center of that cabin is the CarWings infotainment stack -- winner of the award for most Japanese-sounding tech -- has been blessedly renamed NissanConnect EV. Functionality, however, remains largely unchanged save a few new features.
The connected navigation system ties into the electric powertrain to offer insights into driving efficiency, recommend efficient driving routes and notify drivers when a destination is outside of the available range and to locate nearby public charging stations. Dig through the menu and you'll find a screen that gives real-time, detailed electric energy usage with estimates for how adjusting the climate control, for example, or modifying your cruising speed will affect the range for better or worse. It's all very useful and, most importantly, intuitively interacted with on the road.
The system also connects to the owner's smartphone via a NissanConnect EV app that allows remote monitoring and control of the vehicle's charging behavior. The app can give instantaneous battery level and range estimates, start or stop charging of a plugged in Leaf or schedule charging for less expensive off-peak hours. Households with multiple drivers (or teen drivers) can also monitor the location of the Leaf from the app and receive notifications when a preset speed is exceeded or the vehicle travels in or out of "geofenced" areas.
The app can also notify the driver if their Leaf has been prematurely unplugged while charging. To help with that last bit, the Leaf also has a locking charging port that can prevent the SAE J1772 plug from being disconnected by anyone but the owner. An Auto-Lock setting will release the locking mechanism when the Leaf reaches a full charge to allow other drivers to access a shared public charging station.
Driver aid technology is still at the 2010 model year's level. A rear camera and stability control are standard; a bird's-eye Around View camera is available as part of an optional Premium package that also adds Bose audio which offers pretty good bass from its trunk-mounted subwoofer box, but is nothing special. The system aims for minimal power use and, since it doesn't need to overcome engine noise, it doesn't need to be very powerful to do a decent job.
Advanced driver aid technologies -- such as lane departure alerts, forward collision mitigation or semiautonomous parking tech -- are totally absent from the Leaf's list of options, perhaps until the next generation.
The 2016 Nissan Leaf starts at $29,860 (including an $850 destination charge) and tops out at $37,640 for our top-of-the-line SL model. Our example was also equipped with the $1,570 Premium package, a skippable, but nice-to-have line item that adds the Around View camera system and Bose audio. That brings our as-tested price to $39,210, but that's not how much you'll pay for it.
The Leaf is eligible for a US federal tax credit of $7,500 and California state tax credit of $2,500, bringing the bottom line down to $29,210 when all is nearly said and done.
I say nearly, because you're going to have to charge the thing once you've brought it home. You'll need a home charging station because, as I've stated above, plugging into a standard outlet isn't really a feasible option. Our editors agree that about $1,999 is a reasonable ballpark to buy and have a Level II charging installed in a home. (That price could be lower depending on deals and incentives in your area, but we're being conservative.) Factor in the charger and the bottom line rises again to a $31,209 investment in the electric driving lifestyle. That's not at all totally unreasonable.
The Leaf isn't a do-it-all, multitool of a vehicle; the EV lifestyle comes with built-in prerequisites. Drivers with commutes that stretch the 100-ish-mile range or those with irregular driving habits will find themselves plagued by range anxiety. Homeowners may find it easier to have a charging station installed for overnight charging than apartment dwellers. Road trips are simply out of the question. These aren't digs against the Leaf, but limitations of this class that drivers should be aware of going in.
But the Leaf works well within its niche. For drivers with access to charging at home, work or school, with commutes that fit comfortably within the EV's range and with fairly regular driving habits, range anxiety is pretty much a nonissue. Keep a ZipCar or other car sharing account open for weekend day trips that require more range or rent a car for vacations and the lack of extended range again becomes a nonissue. The Leaf can be a surprisingly easy car to live with day to day.
With its bigger battery, the 2016 SV and SL models offer commuters even more range wiggle room and push the Leaf to the head of this price class where range is concerned. For now, Kia Soul Electric is the most worthy competitor, with a slightly lower 93-mile range but also a slightly lower MSRP. Fiat's 500e boasts much more stylish and city-friendly compact design, but its 84-mile range only competes with the Leaf's base S model. However, if Hyundai's 155-mile Ioniq Electric and Chevrolet's 200-plus-mile Bolt can deliver on their promises, the Leaf has a serious fight over the horizon.