The 2018 Nissan Leaf has just been revealed, and it's a car that should make you sit up and take notice. While the world has paying more attention to a certain Silicon Valley startup and its enigmatic leader, the Japanese automaker's pioneering hatchback has quietly laid claim to the title of World's Best-Selling Electric Vehicle, having racked up nearly 300,000 sales globally since 2010. Then again, Nissan had a bit of a head start -- its mass-market EV has been on sale for 7 years.
Perhaps because modern electric cars are still a relatively recent invention and they've matured so quickly, we've unwittingly conditioned ourselves to think that every new model that comes down the pike needs to overtake the current leader's metrics -- if not be branded as outright technological moonshot. We rarely make such arguments about gas-powered cars, and if Nissan's Leaf successor is anything to go by, the EV market is showing signs of maturing. In other words, that always-a-revolution mindset may need reconsidering.
To that end, Nissan hasn't cranked up its new Leaf's range to class-leading status -- at least not initially -- preferring to keep pricing accessible. The new car's 40-kWh lithium ion battery pack musters 150 miles per charge -- a still-massive improvement over the high-end 30-kWh Leaf's 107 miles. Nissan says the new pack is the same size as the old one, but a 67% improvement in energy density gets the credit for the new car's longer range.
Charging time on a 6-kW unit is about 8 hours, and an 80% charge takes just 40 minutes if you're using fast charging. If you're stuck on a basic 3-kW setup, expect to wait 16 hours. A Level 2 cord will come standard on the range-topping SL model, and is optional on S and SV trims.
For those seeking an even longer-range EV, a second Leaf model, likely dubbed e+, is coming soon with a 60-kWh battery, giving it a range of "at least 225 miles." That figure will pit it squarely against the class-leading Chevrolet Bolt EV (238 miles) as well as the base Tesla Model 3 (220 miles). Company officials won't pin down when the Leaf e+ will arrive, other than to say it'll wear a 2019 model year designation, which might make it worth waiting for.
This new Leaf is rated at 147 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque -- a significant increase over its predecessor's 107/187 output. Having briefly driven the new Leaf in early June ahead of its reveal in at Nissan's Tochigi Proving Grounds, I can tell you firsthand that this newfound influx of power is most readily felt in the Leaf's midrange, and should be a boon when it comes to freeway passing. As is the case with nearly all EVs, off-the-line 0-30 mph acceleration remains a strong suit, with the Leaf's now-fuller peak torque arriving immediately, from 0 rpm.
Nissan may have significantly ratcheted up power levels, but it hasn't imparted the Leaf with particularly sexy or futuristic bodywork. In truth, company officials say that they very plainly sought to normalize the car after the original's design came in for criticism. Thus, the new Leaf no longer looks like deflated frog, it appears quite ordinary. In fact, you wouldn't necessarily even suspect it's an EV if you didn't clock the absence of an exhaust pipe or a rear-fender-mounted fuel door. Remarkably, despite its comparatively sober appearance, the new bodywork has an even better 0.28 coefficient of drag than its predecessor.
Said another way, if the new Leaf already looks somewhat familiar, that means it's doing its job. Whereas Nissan designed the first-gen model to stand out, the new one is meant to both blend in and serve as a green halo for the automaker's other showroom offerings. As such, contemporary Nissan design touchstones like a V-Motion grille, floating C-pillar and boomerang-shaped light fixtures are the new hatchback's defining features. Truthfully, the second-gen Leaf looks a lot like the company's latest Micra.
The new Leaf is certainly a design offering broader appeal, but it also may also strike some as a disappointment after its 2015 IDS Concept precursor, a show car that was orders of magnitude more aggressive and distinctive (even if it ultimately wasn't as practical).
In fact, it wasn't always clear that Nissan wouldn't go in a more radical direction for its second Leaf. Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president of global design, told me in June that his team went so far as to create a full-size mockup of a very different look, one that he referred to as "the antagonist" of the design that eventually won out.
Despite its more conventional sheet metal, the new Leaf doesn't lack for ambition. For one thing, when it goes on sale in early 2018 in all 50 states, the Tennessee-built Leaf will start at a price that's actually cheaper than its forbear: $29,900 plus $885 delivery. That's $690 less than a 2017 model, yet the new car features more range, performance, and equipment. If the Leaf can't win on battery capacity, Nissan intends to put the hurt on rivals with its value.
The combination of a low MSRP and good performance should put the Leaf at the head of the entry-level EV class, competing nicely on range and features with cars like the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, Kia Soul EV and Volkswagen e-Golf. It will also enjoy a massive price advantage -- nearly $7,000 -- versus General Motors' longer-range Bolt EV. That suggests the new car should also be an easy sell for current Leaf owners who want to stay in the fold, and it could be tempting to consumers pondering leaving conventional internal-combustion-powered cars.
Just as importantly, the 2018 Leaf does have key new tech on offer, including the first North American application of ProPilot Assist, Nissan's lane-centering intelligent cruise control. I recently briefly drove a prototype version of this system as fitted to a Nissan Rogue, and found it to be very effective and potentially fatigue-reducing for long commutes. PPA is at its most effective at speeds up to 31 mph when its lane-centering feature is active, but between 18 mph and 62 mph, the system will smoothly keep also keep a predefined distance between itself and the vehicle it's following in traffic.
While in Japan in June, I also had a chance to try out Nissan's ProPilot Park Assist, which facilitates self parking for both parallel and perpendicular spots. It, too, was easy to use, and seemed somewhat quicker in action than other such systems. Unfortunately, this tech won't be available on the North American Leaf immediately -- it's likely to come a year from now.
Other Nissan 'firsts' for Leaf that will be available from launch include E-Pedal, a selectable setting that allows for heavy brake regen that essentially enables one-pedal driving. For those who haven't experienced similar setups on other EVs (or in a golf cart), the idea of wheeling around while barely ever daubing the brakes may sound intimidating, but in practice, it's both very intuitive and fun.
Nissan's system is more smartly executed than most -- I was able to drive around a handling course at a good clip and not step on the brake pedal until the very end, when I needed to bring the vehicle to a more abrupt halt than the 0.2g rate of decel it allows for on its own. Unlike some other systems, it works beautifully even on hills, applying a skosh of friction braking if necessary. E-Pedal is enjoyable enough that even if it didn't help improve battery range, I'd still prefer to use it.
The new cabin is a better, quieter place to be than the outgoing Leaf, which was itself no penalty box. An all-new dashboard houses an instrument binnacle with a traditional analog speedometer sitting adjacent to a TFT multi-function display, and the center stack is dominated by a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system on SV and SL models, with the latter incorporating Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration (base models get a 6-inch unit).
A new app is coming, too, to help manage off-peak charge times, precool or preheat the cabin, and manage other preferences.
It's worth noting that there are some notable shortcomings in the new Leaf's interior -- presumably the byproduct of Nissan's push to keep the car's MSRP so low: As before, the steering wheel tilts, but does not telescope, and there's a sizable amount of hard plastics in use (most annoyingly on the door caps where some drivers like to rest their elbows). Plus, there's no cooled seat option and no panoramic moonroof.
In fact, there are some other surprising options-list omissions for a brand-new vehicle with a strong tech focus, including no cornering headlamps, head-up display, or even wireless phone charging (there's only one USB port, although a dealer-installed accessory may solve this).
At least there's no shortage of advanced driver assist systems. All-speed autonomous emergency braking comes standard on all trims, and Nissan's optional Safety Shield package includes its 360-degree camera system, Around View Monitor with moving object detection, blind-spot monitor, lane departure warning, and so on.
The new Leaf is about the same size as before, and in fact, it almost certainly rides on a platform heavily derived from its predecessor. Nissan execs I spoke with were cagey about what is shared between the 2018 model and the first-generation Leaf, but they did admit that the battery pack is the same size, and much of the chassis packaging carries over, too. The new model is slightly wider, but that comes from a broader suspension, not wider frame rails.
The Leaf's new, wider track helped enable sure-footed progress on my proving-ground drive loops, but modest 215/50/R17 Dunlop Enasave EC300 rubber combined with very light steering doesn't encourage enthusiastic driving (which is probably just as well for this sort of vehicle). The Leaf prototypes I tested were Japanese-market spec, and weightier steering is promised for North American models.
It'll take a longer drive to know for sure, but at first blush, Leaf v2.0 feels like a significant, across-the-board improvement over its first-generation sibling. On some level, it does feel like Nissan is playing it a safe by not shooting for certain class-leading metrics, but Nissan believes that a handsome starting price and the availability of commute-easing tech like ProPilot Assist and E-Pedal will help it reach more buyers than headline-grabbing range figures. I'm not here to argue. After all, Nissan's been slinging EVs to mainstream customers far longer than anyone else, and they've probably learned a thing or two.