2018 Nissan Leaf review: Return of the king
The Nissan Leaf might not be the EV that's always in the news, but these little hatchbacks are everywhere. Without hype, drama or a charismatic billionaire continuously drawing attention to it, the Leaf has quietly persisted as a solid, affordable EV choice, crossing the 300,000-unit sales mark (globally) earlier this year. It is arguably the king of affordable electric cars .
The 2018 Nissan Leaf gets the first full model redesign since its 2010 launch. The new model still has an excellent balance of range and price but steps its game up where it counts. You now get even more range, a much less frog-like exterior design and significantly better safety tech to bear on a new generation of competitors.
The new Leaf is powered by a 110-kilowatt electric motor that sends 147 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels via a single-speed reduction gear transmission. I've grown to love the smooth, instantaneous way that EVs generate torque and deliver acceleration, and the Leaf is no exception. Zero-to-60 blows by in a respectable 7.5-ish seconds, not bad at all for an eco-car.
The motor's behavior and output can be customized via drive modes (normal or Eco), transmission settings (D or B) or the e-pedal toggle. Whatever mode I chose -- even the Eco mode -- the Leaf feels peppy with remarkably responsive acceleration.
Underpinning the EV is a strut front suspension and a torsion beam at the rear. The Leaf won't win any handling contests, but it feels nimble enough around town. The heavy battery pack hidden beneath the floor keeps the mass nice and low, making the car feel planted around corners and stable on the highway. The trade-off, of course, is that the Leaf is a very heavy little hatchback, which you notice when driving dynamically. Steering and ride emphasize comfort over "feel," which is OK given the modest performance targets.
Battery pack, charging, range
One of the most important numbers on any EV's spec sheet is range, and the Leaf makes a solid showing at 151 miles per charge. That may not seem like a lot in a world where a Bolt or Model 3 can roll for over 220 miles, but the Leaf strikes a nice balance between price and range that's in the sweet spot for many urban e-motorists. 151 miles is enough range for a commute of decent length with a bit extra for errands and emergencies before recharging.
One of the most subtle parts of the Leaf's redesign is the placement of the charging ports. The charging door better integrates into the hood and front bumper's lines and the ports behind it are now angled upward for easier access without you having to bend over. It's small things like this that make a big difference.
Most 2018 Nissan Leaf models offer two ways to charge their 40-kWh lithium-ion battery packs: SAE or ChaDeMo. An SAE J1772 charging port is standard with a 6.6-kW onboard charger. At a 240-volt charging station, this connection can juice a dead battery in about eight hours.
An optional 240-volt portable charging cable is available and definitely worth considering. With the beefier cable, the Leaf can plug directly into a 240-volt wall outlet, giving a full-speed charge anywhere you can plug in a dryer. This also means you don't necessarily have to buy and install a dedicated EV charging wall box if you have a free 240-socket in your garage.
SL and SV models add the ChaDeMo DC rapid charging port. Connecting the Leaf to a compatible public charger allows a high-voltage quick charge to 90 miles of range in 30 minutes. If your local DC charger doesn't kick you off at 30 minutes like many do, you can push the fast charge to 120 miles (an 80-percent charge) in 40 minutes before the charging slows way down to protect the battery.
New to the Leaf is the e-pedal, one-foot driving mode -- something other EVs already use, but with different names. When activated, the e-pedal mode engages strong regenerative braking when the driver lifts their foot from the accelerator, slowing the car instantly. With practice, this driving mode allows for very smooth acceleration and deceleration while boosting cruising range via regeneration.
Nissan's system activates the brake lights when slowing dramatically and can engage the hydraulic friction brakes when the car is stopped to hold the Leaf in place at a stop sign or traffic light. In fact, it's very possible to drive the car for days without ever touching the brake pedal -- aside from when you turn the car on.
However, the e-pedal takes a lot of getting used to. The amount of deceleration tends to vary depending on the battery's charge level. A fully charged battery can't use energy gathered from a strong regen, so the car slows less dramatically. As the battery level drops, the amount of regen becomes more pronounced. This can make getting a feel for the e-pedal tricky over the first few trips, but it's easy to get used to and I learned to enjoy it after just a single weekend of running errands.
NissanConnect cabin tech
The Leaf's cabin is fairly plain. It doesn't feel cheap or poorly made, but the Leaf's economy car roots are most clear in the dull dashboard materials and functional, but uninspired cockpit design. Considering the starting price, I'm all right with this.
The best tech options come online at the SV or SL trim level. Here, the Leaf steps up to a 7-inch NissanConnect touchscreen infotainment setup. While this system ticks a lot of the right feature boxes and certainly gets the job done, it's still far from best in its class.
There are some very useful connected functions available that allow drivers to remotely monitor their Leaf, schedule charging times and more via smartphone, smartwatch and even Amazon Alexa. However, the dashboard software itself is fairly simplistic with dim, low-resolution graphics.
Onboard navigation is decent, but not noteworthy. It does feature a search function for nearby charging stations with limited availability and pricing data for some networks and locations. However, I find that smartphone apps usually outperform the onboard system, displaying more station locations and more accurate, up-to-the-minute charger availability information. I used a combination of Chargepoint or EVgo -- Nissan's app of choice -- during my testing.
Android Auto and Apple Carplay are standard with the 7-inch system and make up for the simplistic OEM software, bringing better navigation, added audio apps and more to the dashboard with a single USB connection.
Available ProPilot Assist
All Leaf models feature a standard rear camera and automatic emergency braking. An optional upgrade can add pedestrian detection to the auto-brake system. The mid-tier SV trim level adds adaptive cruise control that works across the full speed range and in stop-and-go traffic. The top SL model adds blind-spot monitoring and a 360-degree surround view camera to the feature set.
Optional ProPilot Assist, available to SV and SL models, is definitely worth considering. ProPilot combines adaptive cruise control with advanced lane-keeping steering assist and driver alertness monitoring. When the system is active, the Leaf will use power steering assistance to actively keep it centered in its lane on the highway. ProPilot is a "single-lane, hands-on system" in Nissan's words, meaning it isn't "autonomous" tech. It can't change lanes for you and requires the driver's hands on the wheel at all times to operate.
I tested what happens when you go hands-off with ProPilot when recently evaluating the system in Nissan's Rogue. After a moment, it will ask you to put your hands back on the wheel -- first gently with a chime and then firmly by pulsing the brakes. Keep ignoring it and the ProPilot will attempt to safely bring the car to a stop, slowing in its lane and activating the hazard lights. I find this preferable and much safer than the simple "shut off" that some competing lane-keeping systems use, as it doesn't send incapacitated drivers careening off the road.
The tech package that adds ProPilot also brings automatic high beams to the safety dance. Given the Leaf's urban mission, this isn't the most critical system, but it's a good get considering many drivers don't properly use their high beams, if even at all.
How I'd spec it
The 2018 Nissan Leaf is available in three trims: The $30,875 S (including $885 destination charge) is the entry point and the most affordable. The $37,735 SL with Tech package comes fully-loaded with all of the bells and whistles.
The sweet spot is the SV model. For $33,375, you get most of the important stuff: DC quick charging, NissanConnect with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and adaptive cruise. Add the $2,200 SV Tech package to round out the feature set with ProPilot Assist, the upgraded 240-volt home charging cable and pedestrian detection. As I'd spec it, you're looking at a recommended $35,575 for the SV with Tech package before EV incentives or rebates.
That's in the ballpark with Hyundai's 120-mile Ioniq Electric Limited ($36,885), which I also like. The Leaf is also a lot cheaper than a comparably-equipped Chevy Bolt ($43,905) or Tesla Model 3 ($55,000), though these two stand a class above the Leaf when it comes to range, performance and tech. (A rumored more powerful, and more expensive, Leaf "E-Plus" with over 225-miles is expected in 2019, and that may be worth keeping an eye on.)
As is, the humble Leaf offers just enough of everything -- a comfortable amount of range, acceptably good cabin tech and an outstanding safety suite -- without breaking the bank and without all the hype. Looking for an affordable, good, no-nonsense electric car? Hail to the king.