The 2018 Nissan Leaf, Unplugged: An Otherwise-Exemplary EV Falls Short in Driving Range
Unless you're cool with a Nissan EV that covers half the miles of Tesla's Model 3, bide your time for the longer-range Leaf coming late this year.
- Test Drives
- Test Drives
The 2018 Nissan Leaf is good enough. The question is, is it long enough?
I’m referring to driving range, a key metric for any EV. The Leaf has steadily extended its reach over the years, from a piddling 73 miles back in 2010, then to 107 miles, and now, the 2018 model's EPA-rated high of 150 miles with a 40-kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery. If you’re grading on a curve, that sounds great. If the class includes the smarty-pants Chevrolet Bolt or Tesla Model 3, not so much. The Bolt can cover at least 238 miles on a charge. Tesla—though Bloomberg estimates that only 8,700 cars have emerged from its log-jammed factory—will still take your deposit on a 220- or 310-mile Model 3, the latter with a huge 75-kWh battery that’s nearly double the size of the Nissan’s.
We’ll rejoin the range discussion later, and focus on the many reasons why EV fans might still covet this lavishly reworked (but not all-new) Nissan. The 2018 Leaf feels smartly engineered all-around: It’s peppy and pleasing to drive, with a sharp new interior, an uncannily quiet cabin, and one of the best regenerative braking systems of any EV or plug-in hybrid. The Leaf’s exterior design also represents a welcome leap over the original, whose amphibian face and woozy fenders aspired to Tomorrowland, but ended up recalling Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Those homely looks didn’t prevent the Leaf from becoming the world’s most popular electric car, with more than 300,000 global sales since 2010.
The Leaf’s affordability had a lot to do with that success. And where today’s Bolt starts from $37,495 and the long-range Model 3 (the only version currently being built) from $44,000, the Nissan stickers at a starting price of $30,875. That’s $690 less than last year’s Leaf, despite the 2018 model’s increased range, performance, and a raft of new or redesigned features. Even the range-topping Leaf SL that I tested starts at $37,085 and went out-the-door for $38,260, including Nissan’s efficient new ProPilot suite of Advanced Driver Assistance (ADAS) systems. Throw in a $7,500 federal tax credit—still available to roughly 50,000 more Leaf buyers before an initial phase-out halves it to $3,750—and you’re into a Leaf for as little as $23,375.
As noted, this 2018 Leaf looks more substantial and less toy-like than the previous one, though its dimensions have barely budged. Nissan's V-Motion grille, floating black roof, and boomerang taillamps are familiar, funky cues from the Maxima and other models. It's a strenuously-busy, sometimes-odd design; no one will accuse the pointy-nosed Leaf of being pretty like a Mazda3. But the Leaf is no longer a clown car. Not every onlooker was convinced, though: As I showed the Leaf to my neighbor Laura, she interrupted my soliloquy on electric cars to ask, “But why do they have to make them so ugly?” Ouch.
Yet everyone seemed happy with the Nissan’s interior. It’s smart and straightforward, including legible EV readouts that don’t overwhelm you with data or cutesy gimmicks. The good stuff ranges from a perky electronic shifter—it looks like a translucent mushroom cap—to an overachieving infotainment system with a flush-mounted glass screen and easy swipe-and-store icons for radio presets. The Chevy Bolt’s crackerbox interior is its weakest link, and the Nissan beats it with higher-quality materials, interfaces and fit-and-finish—especially in SL trim with features such as leather-wrapped seats and steering wheel. One oddity in an otherwise modern car: There’s only a single USB port. What, was Nissan worried about too many passengers' devices freeloading off the Leaf’s battery?
The Nissan’s chairs can also feel perched too high—especially in the stadium-seating second row—due in part to battery-packaging constraints. A repackaged battery did allow designers to smooth out bumps in the load floor for a touch more cargo space, with 23.6 cubic feet behind rear seats—nearly 60 percent more than the Model 3’s trunk, and 40 percent more than the Bolt’s hatch.
And damn, is this Nissan quiet. The hum is so pianissimo that the Nissan often seems to emit no sound whatsoever, aside from its tires rolling on pavement. Subtle creases on the hood direct air around side mirrors, one of many aerodynamic changes to cut road noise. Nissan boosted the power inverter’s rigidity and added a noise-isolating cover for the Leaf’s Power Distribution Module. The electric motor’s operation is now virtually undetectable, even as horsepower jumps by 37 percent from 107 to 147 and torque rises to 236 pound-feet, up from 187. Figure a 0-60 mile-per-hour squirt in about eight seconds, versus 6.3 seconds for the Bolt and 5.6 for the Tesla. Yet that instant-on torque makes the Leaf feel zippy as hell when you do floor the
gas accelerator, especially at lower speeds in city traffic. The Leaf’s electric steering also feels more pleasant and less overboosted than the original’s, though the Chevy is much better by way of sporty response.
The Nissan’s e-Pedal allows the “one pedal” driving that EV fans love, but takes it to a brilliant new high. Lifting off the e-Pedal accelerator brings the Leaf to a complete stop with no need to even brush the brake pedal toward the end (as in Teslas), even applying its own friction braking if necessary. From higher speeds, the e-Pedal can decelerate the Leaf with up to 0.2g of robust force. The unit also holds the Nissan steady on hills once you’ve stopped.
But where some regenerative systems feel like they’re always dragging on the car, like an electric boat anchor, the Nissan’s pedal is beautifully linear and sensitive, in either direction: The slightest foot pressure propels the car forward. Feather the pedal, and the Nissan coasts naturally, even as the 7-inch TFT display shows that the car is beginning to capture and store energy. Lift more, and deceleration increases, but along a very progressive curve as you ease off the throttle. Even in crushing Manhattan traffic, I could tailor one-pedal slow-downs and stops from any speed, and almost never had to touch the brakes. The only miscue was some low-speed jerkiness during parallel and curbside parking when I was feathering the throttle.
The bang-for-the-buck continues with Nissan's ProPilot Assist, part of an affordable $850 SL Tech package. It’s less-sophisticated semi-autonomy than Cadillac’s industry-leading Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot, requiring hands on the wheel at all times. Yet considering ProPilot’s simple hardware—it uses a single forward-facing radar and camera—the system works great as an enhanced adaptive cruise unit and collision watchdog with pedestrian detection. I could keep the barest fingertip grip on the wheel, and ProPilot steered the Leaf through highway curves with surprisingly accurate lane centering—meaning almost none of the ping-ponging between lane markers that plagues far-pricier cars and systems from Mercedes, Volvo, Acura and more.
In other words, I found so much to love about the Leaf, and only minor vexations...until I attempted some everyday driving beyond the city limits of New York.
The Drive’s hydraulic lift into our Brooklyn showroom/studio happened to be busted during my week with the Leaf, which prevented me from hooking the Nissan to our Volvo-branded Level 2 charger. No biggie: I drove to the Whole Foods down the road, where four GE Wattstations stood ready to plug into the Nissan’s onboard 6.6-kilowatt charger, offering free juice for shoppers. It’s the supermarket where broken EV stations drew the Twitter ire of Chevy Volt-driving actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and her actor husband Peter Saarsgard. (So many liberal punch lines in one place—Whole Foods, electric car charging stations, movie stars—illustrated how quickly the Gowanus neighborhood has transformed from a toxic EPA Superfund site near a notorious mothballed canal to hip, high-priced Brooklyn address.)
The Nissan’s hood-mounted charge receptacle is now angled upward at 45 degrees, a design that makes it easy to plug in without bending or squatting down. Nissan figures eight hours to fully recharge the Leaf on these Level 2 plugs, but just 40 minutes (to 80-percent capacity) on a DC fast charger. It took me just over five hours to replenish the Leaf’s battery from 41 to 97 percent, which led to a displayed range estimate of 151 miles in Eco mode.
And just like that, the Nissan’s Achilles’ Heel was exposed, after I’d spent five hours cooling my own heels. I’d hoped to drive the Leaf to a friend’s place in Rhinebeck in the Hudson Valley, a measly 2.2-hour, 110-mile drive from New York. A Bolt or Model 3 would have made that 220-mile round trip on a single charge, no sweat. But the Nissan would fall literally short, and there were no public fast-charging locations between Brooklyn and my destination.
Sure, I could have run an extension cord through my friend’s window for 110-volt household current, but it would have taken up to 16 hours to charge. I had to ditch the Leaf and requisition a Mercedes-AMG GLC43 Coupe—whose lusty 362 horsepower contributes to just 24 miles per gallon on the highway, versus the Leaf’s 112 mpg-e rating.
Worse, compared with the Chevy—in which I can easily top the EPA rating of 238 miles—the Leaf’s range seems far more fragile. In my experience, unless you’re operating the Leaf in ideal conditions, you won’t even get 150 miles out of it—especially on the highway, where aerodynamic drag takes its toll. Over 30 actual miles on the freeway, not once exceeding 60 mph, the Nissan’s stated battery range fell by a distressing 49 miles. Ambient temperatures in the low 40s might have played a role in dinging the battery, but I was barely running the cabin heater, and the seat warmers not at all.
Even granting the Nissan’s ability to cover 150 miles if you really baby it, its effective range is closer to 130 miles, because you have to leave some energy and wiggle room to make sure you don’t get stranded. (After all, you never drive your gas-powered car until it runs out of fuel, do you?) So that’s 65 miles of outbound travel—barely enough to escape some major metro areas—before you’re forced to either return home or track down a charger. Ultimately, that circumscribed range relegates even this latest Leaf to urban and commuter duties; it’s not quite a “real” car that can cover long distances without constant pain-in-the-ass charging stops and route planning. The shorter-range Leaf’s affordability versus the Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will surely be a continued selling point, but other prospective buyers will surely balk at a 150-mile EV in an era of 230-to-310-mile rivals.
One head-scratcher is Nissan’s stubborn refusal to drop the Leaf’s CHAdeMO plug for DC fast charging, a Japan-based standard that’s been overwhelmed by both the CCS standard—adopted by every American and European automaker—and Tesla’s own proprietary Supercharger plugs. The bigger mystery, though, is that Nissan has long-range EV cavalry coming, but not until late this year: a pricier 2019-model-year Leaf SL with a 60-kWh battery and a roughly 225-mile range. Nissan will thus follow the Tesla template, offering the Leaf with a choice of two battery sizes.
Aside from confirming that the 60-kWh version is coming, Nissan didn’t want to explain its two-pronged Leaf strategy that features merely one prong for 2018. Yet the move seems uncomfortably redolent of the “old” General Motors, which once specialized in introducing cars that were deemed “good enough.” By the time the really good technology got baked in, these new models had lost sales momentum and customers had moved on.
It’s pretty clear, though, that the automaker is applying an economic strategy: Someone at Nissan, or several someones, figured (perhaps rightly) that the non-Tesla chunk of the EV market remains cost-sensitive, and that the Leaf needs to hold the line on prices with this smaller-battery model to avoid screwing up its sales numbers. Fine, I get that. What I don’t get is why Nissan decided to trot out the shorter-range model by its lonesome, rather than offering both models at launch.
Barring that, why not introduce the fancier, longer-range model first, as Tesla has done? You'd capture enthusiastic early adopters who are typically willing to pay more—including people who get sick of holding garage space for a Tesla Model 3 whose “waiting list” of 500,000 names is looking more and more like a house of cards. You can bet that Nissan dealers are being coached on what to do here, if they don’t already know it deep in their salesman bones: Deflect and distract customers, either by feigning ignorance of any long-range Leaf—Huh, really? Well, you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet—or by insinuating that they might wait as long for this 2019 Leaf as they would for a Tesla Model 3. Because any half-awake EV fan is a potential lost customer (or at least a delayed sale), if they know that a decisively longer-range Leaf is right around the corner.
As for me, if I’m advising a friend, family member, or consumer, I’m at least making sure they know the score: This new Leaf is a winner. If you’re an EV fan, and you’re heart isn’t already set on a Model 3, you need to schedule a test drive. This 2018 Leaf also costs several thousand dollars less than a Bolt or Tesla, so if your budget can’t stretch farther, then go for it.
Yet to paraphrase the sage Pee Wee Herman, there’s always a big “But.” Here, the big “But” is a big battery coming to the 2019 Leaf: 60-kWh worth of versatility and convenience, with nearly 50 percent more miles, fewer charging stops, less route planning, and diminished range anxiety. My best hunch is that the Leaf’s bigger battery will add a not-insignificant $4,000 to $6,000 to the sticker price. This 2018 Leaf deserves cheers. But I’d hold my applause—and money—for the longer-range 2019 model.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.