2021 Nissan Leaf Review: Don't Get the Most Expensive One

Sometimes you feel compelled to go for the top trim. I'm here to tell you not to do that.

While Tesla launched the headline-grabbing Model S way back in 2012, another automaker had already introduced an electric car normal people could actually afford. That car is the Nissan Leaf, and even now, in its second generation, the 2021 Nissan Leaf is still the most affordable four-door EV you can buy in the United States.

Since its introduction 2010, more than 500,000 Leafs have been sold worldwide; approximately 150,000 of those sold in the United States alone. Lots of things have changed in the EV scene since the first-generation Leaf debuted 11 years ago, and have continued to do so since the current model launched in 2017. Heck, almost everything is different, there's even an electric Ford Mustang nowadays, and it's a crossover! How crazy would someone have sounded for saying such a thing back then?

Jerry Perez

Now that nearly every automaker has jumped into the EV bandwagon, I was left wondering how the Leaf—the original EV for the masses—still stacks up.

2021 Nissan Leaf SL Plus: By the Numbers

  • Base price (as tested): $32,620 ($45,630)
  • Powertrain: 62-kWh lithium-ion battery | 160 kW motor | 1-speed transmission | front-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 214
  • Torque: 250 lb-ft 
  • Seating capacity: 5
  • Cargo volume: 23.6 cubic feet (30. with second row down)
  • Curb weight: 3,930 pounds
  • Range: Up to 215 miles (226 miles in S Plus trim only)
  • Charge time: 11.5 hours @ 240 volts (est.)
  • EPA fuel economy: 114 mpge city | 94 highway | 104 combined
  • Quick take: An electric hatchback that's practical and economical but only if you stick with the lower trims.
Jerry Perez

The Second-Gen Leaf

In 2021, two variations of the Leaf are offered, the regular Leaf and the Leaf Plus. The former starts at $32,545 and promises up to 149 miles of range out of its 40 kWh lithium-ion battery and 110-kW electric motor, while the latter starts at $39,145 and can squeeze up to 226 miles from its larger 62-kWh lithium-ion battery and more powerful 160 kW motor.

The regular Leaf is offered in S and SV trims, priced at $32,545 and $35,835 respectively. The longer-range Plus, as previously mentioned, starts at $39,145 for the S Plus, while the SV Plus and SL Plus come in at $41,395 and $44,845. (All prices including destination.) The Leaf Plus bests the regular Leaf only in terms of power and range. Styling, features, and everything else remain the same between the two.

It should be noted the Leaf Plus's 226-mile range is only attainable with the Leaf S Plus. If you go for the higher-trim Leaf SV Plus or Leaf SL Plus (which is the trim Nissan loaned me), the range drops down to 215 miles. 

Driving Impressions

Much like the Ford Mustang Mach-E, the Leaf doesn't try to be a cutting-edge spaceship or a rolling software-engineering exercise. It takes pride in being a plain Jane car with plain Jane looks that just happens to use electricity instead of gasoline. And as you can tell from the photos below, the super-practical interior can handle a serious run to Lowe's.

Much like its plain Jane looks, the driving experience is also uneventful, though not in a bad way because not everyone needs Ludicrous Mode. With one-pedal driving mode off (where you use the accelerator and brake pedals like in a regular car), it drives like essentially every economy hatchback out there. The steering is relaxed and the suspension is very soft, its reflexes a bit slow. 

Jerry Perez

With one-pedal driving mode on, however, things change drastically thanks to the brake's energy regeneration system, which is designed to capture energy created during braking so it can be applied to the battery as an additional charge. In doing so, the Leaf slows down drastically upon releasing the accelerator until it comes to a complete stop without the driver having to touch the brakes.

Getting an understanding of how quickly or slowly, early or late, the car will brake under this mode takes some time, but not very long. The faster you're driving—like on the highway—the lower the drag is when you let go of the pedal. At speeds under 40 mph in city streets, the drag is considerably stronger.

I spent a good deal of time behind the wheel of the second-gen back in 2018. This time around, the test car Nissan loaned me came adorned in a bright Sunset Drift color and looked essentially the same as the first one I drove. It felt the same inside and it basically drove the same around town.

I managed to drive it for an entire week without really suffering from range anxiety, as my average weekly commute is about 210 miles, give or take a couple for an unexpected errand. This meant I was able to drive it without recharging it up until my sixth full day with it, at which point I only had a three percent charge—or eight miles—left.

Nissan

I simply plugged the car into the traditional 110-volt outlet in my backyard and let it sit from 3 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next day. In those 16 hours, it gained 19 percent charge and 44 miles, for a total of 22 percent charge and 52 miles of range. Sure, I could have gotten more from a more powerful outlet, but this was still perfectly good for my specific needs.

What's (Still) Good: Price

Besides its ability to run on very little energy even in cold weather—unlike the Mustang Mach-E I recently drove—the Leaf's best quality is its price.

While everyone's been captivated by Tesla's gimmicks, Musk's theatrics, and dozens of EV startups siphoning billions of dollars from investors only to vanish into thin air, the trusty Leaf has been flying under the radar for years, bringing people tried-and-true hatchback practicality at a low price. The cheapest Leaf may start at $32,959 ($925 destination included), but dealership-level incentives can often drop prices below $30,000.

Jerry Perez

What's Bad Now: Price

As much as I find the Leaf charming and super practical, I have to address what's perhaps its only major flaw: the price. I know, I know. I just got done praising its price and now I'm going to criticize it. Allow me to explain.

At $45,630, the Leaf Plus SL Nissan loaned me was the highest-trim Leaf money can currently buy, yet it wasn't exactly the budget-friendly EV I originally fell in love with a few years back. Far from it, actually. 

The sleek VW ID.4 we recently tested, for example, had a price tag of $43,995 and offered 250 miles of range. A new Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus comes in at $40,190 and offers 263 miles of range. Even General Motors' newest electric hatchback, the 2022 Chevy Bolt EV, promises 259 miles of range for under $33,000. (All figures include destination charges, except for VW.) When priced in this manner, these are the cars the Leaf Plus SL suddenly surpasses.

Much like our recent experience with the 2021 Nissan Sentra, it seems like the Leaf offers the most bang for your buck in its lower trims; most likely the non-Plus Leaf SV or the S Plus, which keeps the total in the mid- to high-30s. Of course, the higher price tag in the Plus means more miles, so it's up to the individual consumer to decide whether that premium is worth it to them or not. It sounds almost clichéd at this point, but it really does come down to your lifestyle.

Nissan

Don't Ignore the Humble Leaf

While the newer, more powerful, and better-equipped variants of the Nissan Leaf may not offer the most value out there, it'd be wrong to ignore them. Great deals can be found—whether they be new or used—and they're still practical, comfortable, and reliable cars with solid a solid dealership network behind them.

Jerry Perez
Jerry Perez

And as I found out from my trip to Lowe's, you can fit a good amount of stuff in it. It's not exactly a crossover, but its versatility is bound to come in handy more often than not when you take the dogs to the park, go on a camping trip, or simply have a ton of cargo to carry with you. Like in most four-doors, versatility is king. 

It's unclear when Nissan is going to roll out an all-new Leaf, considering it's only three years into its second-generation lifecycle. Rather, Nissan is likely routing lot of resources to its all-new electric crossover, the Ariya. Whenever that launches, though, here's to hoping all the things that make the Leaf great still carry over.

Email the author at jerry@thedrive.com