Technology moves fast. What’s new today is, almost literally, old tomorrow. Take, for example, my iPhone 6. It seems like an antique after just a few years. Yet, I’m not compelled to upgrade to the 8 or X because I don’t feel like Apple has pushed the envelope far enough with the latest versions of the iPhone. I’ve even thought about switching to Android in search of greater sophistication.
Existing Nissan Leaf owners might feel the same way now that the redesigned 2018 model has gone on sale. Absolutely, the new 2018 Nissan Leaf is better than the car it replaces. But is it better enough? And now that its here, offering approximately 151 miles of driving range, might some Nissan owners think about switching to Chevrolet, where the more expensive Bolt EV supplies 238 miles of range?
Curious to judge for myself, I spent several days living with the new Leaf. Arriving in SL trim, my test car’s price came to $38,130 thanks to extra cost paint and a Technology Package that added a ProPilot Assist driver assistance system, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a lane keeping system, and more. In other words, my test vehicle was loaded with everything.
That represents strong value compared to the Chevrolet Bolt EV, which starts at $37,495 before you upgrade with any extras.
The question, then, isn’t whether or not the new Leaf is a good deal. It is. But will you be happy with it even though it costs thousands of dollars less than the best car in the segment?
From the front wheels back, I liked the look of the original Leaf. The front end, not so much.
For 2018, that is resolved. Nissan’s bold “V-Motion” facial expression looks great from a philosophical standpoint, and the new rear styling, which resembles the automaker’s Murano SUV, is also appealing. Still, the Leaf’s proportions remain wonky, with lots of visual weight sitting forward of the car’s front wheels.
Similarly, I think I prefer the old Leaf’s oddball interior, which was perfect for an alternative form of transportation. The new Leaf’s cabin is comparatively conventional, and as a result, once you’re sitting inside of it, the experience is less special. Perhaps the gray interior, which offers greater contrast, would help.
Nissan obviously targeted the interior for cost-savings in order to keep the car’s price low. Hard, glossy plastic is the rule, and I think the company could have made a stronger effort in terms of surface texturing and use of color to help hide it. The headliner looks and feels inexpensive, too.
But, as long as you keep remembering that you saved a bundle in terms of purchase price, maybe you’ll deem this approach acceptable.
Judged solely on the merits of my test car’s seats, the new Leaf is comfortable. Beyond that, Nissan could improve.
The Leaf SL’s leather-wrapped, heated, 6-way power adjustable driver’s seat and heated steering wheel provides decent support, a good driving position, and soothing warmth on chilly days.
However, I cannot understand why Nissan made the door panel inserts soft while using plastic as pliable as granite to trim the upper door panels and the sides of the center console, which bulge out to create a literal sore point for occupants’ legs. Nobody cares if the door panel inserts are soft. People want the parts of the interior they contact on a regular basis to be soft, or at least contoured in a way that doesn’t impede upon comfort.
While it is true that the front passenger’s seat lacks a height adjuster, the reality is that it sits high enough that one isn’t necessary. The rear seat sits nice and high, too, offering excellent support. The Leaf’s interior also feels wider that the Bolt EV’s cabin. The Leaf, however, comes nowhere close to matching the Chevy when it comes to rear legroom and foot space.
High-tech cars typically have high-tech interiors, but that’s not the case with the new 2018 Nissan Leaf. Instead, aside from its unique transmission selector and special displays related to the electric drivetrain, the Leaf’s cabin is laid out like any conventional car.
On one hand, this approach helps people to feel comfortable with what is still a relatively rare powertrain technology. On the other hand, it doesn’t make the car seem special from the driver’s seat.
In any case, you’re not going to have any trouble figuring out how to use a Nissan Leaf – once you’ve deciphered the transmission shifter. Everything is logically placed, clearly marked, and easy to understand. I do think, however, that the Leaf deserves something larger than a 7-inch infotainment display.
Nissan says that the Leaf’s trunk measures 23.6 cubic-feet, which is huge and beats what Chevy provides in the Bolt EV.
However, when you open the hatch, you’ll find a carry bag for the charging cord clipped to the left side of the cargo area. My SL-trim test vehicle also had a Bose subwoofer bolted lengthwise to the floor behind the rear seat. Both of these items took up space in what is already an oddly shaped cargo area.
Two full-size suitcases will fit into the cargo area, positioned lengthwise on their sides, leaving space for a roll-aboard and a couple of backpacks. Beyond that, you need to jettison the cargo cover and start stacking items of various sizes in order to make maximum use of the space.
Fold the rear seats down, and cargo capacity grows to just 30 cu.-ft., a full 26.6 cu.-ft. less than the Bolt EV. You don’t get a flat load floor, either. This compromise is a direct byproduct of the new Leaf’s use of the same vehicle architecture as the previous Leaf.
Interior storage space isn’t terribly generous, either. The glove box is deep but not wide, the center console bin is small and located far back in relationship to the front seats, and the door panel bins are rather narrow.
Though it lacks visual pizzazz, and while I think it needs a larger display screen, I like the Leaf’s NissanConnect infotainment system. It provides radio volume and tuning knobs as well as menu shortcut buttons, all presented on a dark, smooth, modern control panel.
Through the NissanConnect Services package, which is free for the first six months of ownership and requires a subscription thereafter, the Leaf offers access to myriad features and functions, including several that are specific to this electric vehicle. For example, you can use a smartphone app to remotely check remaining driving range or to initiate charging during off-peak electricity rate hours, to receive a reminder to plug the vehicle in, to get a notification that charging is complete, and more.
Furthermore, some of my favorite NissanConnect Services functions are related to teen-driver safety, such as speed, curfew, and boundary alerts. Automatic collision notification, emergency SOS calling, and quick access to roadside assistance are also important functions of the system, and you can even use the smartphone app to find where you last parked the Leaf, just in case you’ve gotten yourself turned around.
Versions of the car with navigation also show a driving range map that estimates how far you can travel on the remaining battery range, and show you where the nearest charging stations are located. A 360-degree surround view camera system is also available, with front, rear, and curbside views to make parking and maneuvering easier.
Still, the small display and even smaller virtual buttons are cause for frustration, and glare can make the screen difficult to see at times. Also, if you want Wi-Fi hotspot connectivity for the Leaf, you upgrade through the dealership, not the company’s NissanConnect Services.
One of the least appealing things about the original Nissan Leaf related to its crash-test rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Previously, the car received a “Poor” rating in the small overlap frontal-impact test, an excellent argument against its purchase.
Since the 2018 Leaf uses the old Leaf’s architecture, the assumption is that Nissan has made changes to the underlying architecture to address this shortcoming and to improve the Leaf’s safety rating. Nissan spokesperson Jeff Wandell would not comment about specific changes, but did say that the company “look(s) forward to seeing the result for the new model.”
In terms of safety Nissan does, however, heavily promote the Leaf’s available ProPilot Assist technology, which is new for 2018. Basically, this is an adaptive cruise control system with a following distance monitor, lane keeping assist, and lane centering technology. It won’t drive the car for you, as evidenced by the company’s long list of disclaimers describing conditions for which the system is not suitable. Hence, the “assist” part of the system’s name.
Using it on the open stretches of Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Ventura in California, ProPilot Assist worked fine. But it did shut itself off on a fairly frequent basis, such as when encountering a sharper curve, or when lane markings were indistinct, or when two lanes merged into one.
In moderate traffic on the freeway, with the following distance set to the shortest interval, ProPilot Assist still left too large a gap between the Leaf and the car ahead, frustrating SUV drivers behind me who could see plenty of unoccupied pavement ahead of the Nissan. That gap also invited lots of cars to cut in, which caused the Leaf to unnecessarily brake, which sent the people behind the Leaf into apoplectic fits.
So then, use ProPilot Assist only on lightly traveled freeways.
Other safety systems include forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam headlights, and a lane departure warning and intervention system that urgently vibrates the steering wheel accompanied by a thrum and a chime, and then uses the brakes to tug the car back toward the center of the lane.
With the 2018 Nissan Leaf, you get 151 miles of estimated range on a full battery, and the electric motor produces 147 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. of torque. The Leaf weighs a minimum of 3,433 pounds.
With the 2018 Chevrolet Bolt EV, you get 238 miles of estimated range on a full battery, and the electric motor produces 200 horsepower and 266 lb.-ft. of torque. The Bolt EV is heavier, though, weighing a minimum of 3,563 pounds. It is also less aerodynamic, with a coefficient of drag measuring a reported 0.32 compared to the Leaf’s 0.28.
Look, I realize that this isn’t a comparison test. But the Chevy Bolt is the Nissan Leaf’s most natural competitor, so the context is absolutely valid.
With that said, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average American commute is 26.4 minutes in length each way, while the U.S. Department of Transportation says that the average American commute is 15 miles each way. Clearly, the Leaf exceeds those standards, leaving more than 100 extra miles just in case you need to run across a large metropolitan area for some reason.
Also, the reality is that the Leaf is easily powerful enough for its intended purpose. Acceleration is quick, there’s plenty of passing power on 2-lane country roads, and the Leaf climbs mountain grades at a steady 80 mph. I also made thorough use of the Leaf’s e-Pedal system, which allows a driver to brake simply by lifting off of the accelerator pedal. It takes some practice to time things just right, but in short order you can drive the Leaf in this mode the majority of the time.
Range, though easily accommodating the typical American commute, is nevertheless disappointing. To illustrate, let me describe two scenarios during my testing.
I picked the Leaf up at a remote location. The trip computer showed 165 miles of range. After a half-hour conference call, during which the Leaf’s power was on to run the air conditioning, I set off for home with 160 miles of range showing. The trip was 56.5 miles at an average speed of 20 mph, including the time spent on the phone, and the car was in Normal driving mode with e-Pedal activated only during the last 15 miles of the trip. Upon arrival at home, the trip computer indicated that I had 75 miles of range remaining.
For those not skilled in the maths, that’s a deficit of almost 30 miles.
A few days later, I took the car on my test loop. Starting off with a full battery and an indicated 152 miles of available range, and this time using Eco Mode and e-Pedal for the entire drive, I traveled 63.1 miles at an average speed of 41 mph. Upon arrival home, the trip computer said I had 71 miles of range remaining. That deficit amounted to 18 miles.
Making a long story short, you might not achieve the total range shown when you set off on a drive. And that’s why the driving range map function comes in handy.
Plugged in to a standard household power outlet, the Leaf recharged at a rate of 4.4 miles each hour, or 52.8 miles in a 12-hour span. Nissan says you can grab 120 miles of range in 40 minutes using a municipal DC quick charger (about the same as a Bolt EV).
My standard test loop includes a section of Mulholland Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains. This is where I pay close attention to steering, braking, and handling characteristics, and on the day I was driving it in the Leaf, I got stuck behind an Audi R8.
No joke. This dude was out in his brand-new six-figure sports car, but twice I had to pull over and wait for him to get a little ahead of me, because he refused to pull over and let me by. On the few straightaways that exist, he would floor it. But when it came to corners, he was clearly unfamiliar with both the road and his automobile.
Getting back to the Leaf, it has a low center of gravity, like all electric cars. Much of the mass is contained in the battery packs, housed in the vehicle’s platform. This helps to provide slot-car handling traits, tempered somewhat by the Leaf’s simple torsion beam rear suspension and 215/50R17 Michelin Green X Energy Saver tires. Still, you can hustle this car through sets of twisties, even if it isn’t designed for that kind of driving. Clearly, I had no trouble keeping up with an Audi R8 (wink).
All that weight low in the chassis also produces some chop in ride quality, though Nissan employs Active Ride Control that momentarily applies the brakes and adjusts motor torque to smooth out the bumps. The Leaf is quiet, too, as is typical of an electric car. Even over rougher pavement, it remained relatively silent within the cabin. At higher speeds, though, some wind noise snuck in from the rear of the passenger compartment.
The times I needed to step on the Leaf’s brake pedal instead of relying solely on e-Pedal, I wasn’t terribly impressed with feel and response, but this is likely a characteristic trait of the regenerative braking components. The steering is light and slow, but nothing to complain about given the Leaf’s mission. And the flat-bottomed, thick-rimmed steering wheel is pleasing in a driver’s hands.
Worth noting is how easy it is to slice and dice through traffic in this car. A small footprint, lots of torque, and excellent visibility make it responsive and easy to place, giving a driver the confidence necessary to leverage holes in traffic.
Nissan knows that the Leaf isn’t what it really should be. That’s why the car is priced and positioned between impractical EVs like the Fiat 500e and Smart ForTwo Electric Drive (as well as short-range electric cars like the Ford Focus Electric), and newly affordable long-range models such as the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3.
Nissan has also already announced that a new battery is coming that will give a more expensive version of the car a competitive amount of range. It should be available during the 2019 model year, and will certainly help to make the car more competitive.
Additionally, the Leaf isn’t “all new” as the company claims it is. It’s the old Leaf vehicle architecture with new styling, a new interior, an upgraded drivetrain, and other improvements. Certainly, had Nissan undertaken a clean-sheet approach to the vehicle, the company would have solved for its ungainly proportions, compromised cargo area, and cramped rear seating.
These shortcomings, combined with the fact that the jury is still out regarding crashworthiness, mean that I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude about the new 2018 Leaf. I’d advise you to do the same.
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