In advance of the January launch of the New 2018 Nissan LEAF, which just started US production this week at Nissan’s plant in Tennessee, Nissan invited us out to Napa Valley to get some seat time with the new car.

Nissan says that this car is intended to fill the “white space” between the previous generation of entry-level, compliance EVs, typically with ~100 miles of range, and newer “long-range” offerings from Tesla and Chevrolet.  In our time with the car, we found that it fills this space admirably and seems to offer great value at the right price when compared to competing vehicles.

Nissan describes this LEAF as a “second-generation vehicle” as opposed to the previous LEAF, and most other EVs on the market today (and ones coming soon), which are considered “first-generation vehicles.”  It’s been 7 years since Nissan launched the original LEAF, and the company has incorporated all that it has learned into the new LEAF.  This has made the 2018 LEAF a more mature and better-thought-out EV than its predecessor and the various compliance cars/new entries to the market (looking at you, Honda).

One of the most important changes between these generations for a lot of drivers will be the look of the car.  Nissan changed the LEAF from a quirky, slightly weird-looking car (with functional, but bizarro-world headlights) into a pretty sleek and even sporty-looking little hatchback with (thankfully) normal headlights.  Obviously looks are subjective to some extent, but the changes should be well-received.

Efficiency & charging

Another big change for the new LEAF is the larger 40kWh battery.  The original 2011 LEAF had a 24kWh battery, so this refresh has almost twice as much energy storage as the first iteration of the car.  This is due to advancements in battery technology since the first generation and particularly due to the switch to NMC cells.

In fact, these higher technology cells have allowed for a significant step in energy density with only a minor increase in weight – the new LEAF is about 100lbs heavier than the previous generation as a whole, with the battery only being 30-40lbs heavier.  A very minor weight increase given the 33% capacity bump from last model year.

A larger battery means more range, with an estimated 150 miles according to Nissan. Final numbers from the EPA have not come in yet, but our test drive seemed to suggest that this estimate is about right.

In this test drive, on a mild Northern California day using very little A/C, driving on mostly winding roads at around 50mph, with a few highway stretches and with 4 passengers in the car and ECO mode turned off, we managed to eke out just over 4 miles/kWh according to the in-car meter.  Multiply this by the car’s 40kWh battery and you get 160 miles – but it’s rare for an EV to let you use every last ounce of charge, so perhaps a little less than that.

I have a tendency to drive more efficiently than most, though I pushed the car a little bit in a few of the corners. I utilized Nissan’s new e-Pedal and ProPILOT Assist as much as possible and stayed mostly composed so as not to upset my passengers’ stomachs.  Because of my driving style, I usually end up beating EPA mileage numbers on electric cars, and this was confirmed by the Nissan product planner who was in the car with me. He said he was impressed at my 4.2 miles/kWh on one stretch of the drive.

So, if my driving style is above average in efficiency but still yielded range numbers in the same ballpark as Nissan’s 150 mile estimate, it seems possible that the LEAF’s EPA range will likely come in around the 150 mile range or possibly a tad lower.

Compared to the Hyundai Ioniq Electric, which I was able to get more than 5 miles/kWh in, this suggests that the LEAF and Ioniq might actually have similar “real” range, with the Ioniq underestimating efficiency and the LEAF overestimating it.  Another check mark for the astounding efficiency of the Ioniq.

Given that the Ioniq and LEAF share a price point (the base LEAF is just $490 more than the base Ioniq and both are under $30k), it seems that they will offer a similar “price-to-range ratio,” with the LEAF a little bit ahead in that category depending on how reliably drivers can meet that 150 mile range estimate.

The LEAF has the same charging capability as the previous version, a 6.6kW Level 2 charger and optional 50kW CHAdeMO port, but with a redesigned charge port position which requires less bending over for drivers when plugging in.  There is an optional portable L1/L2 cable which can be adapted to work on both 120v and 240v plugs, similar to Tesla’s Universal Mobile Connector, so LEAF owners are no longer required to hardwire a charge connector into their garage, merely to install an outlet.

These charging speed numbers are fine and on par with the Bolt, but there are two problems here: one, other competing vehicles like the Ioniq and Model 3 have faster charging which is more future-proof (especially since the LEAF will have a bigger battery option available next year, expected to be 60kWh, which makes 50kW seem slow) and two, CHAdeMO is probably dead in the West.

There are tons of CHAdeMO stations in Japan, but their deployment has been limited elsewhere.  It was expected that the Asian automakers would stick with CHAdeMO a little longer and Western automakers would go with SAE CCS, but Hyundai and Honda went to CCS, leaving Nissan the main CHAdeMO holdout.

This may compromise the availability of quick charging for LEAFs in the future, but Nissan has partnered with various charge networks to roll out high-speed charging for LEAFs in markets where they have high penetration.  In particular, Nissan’s “No Charge to Charge” program, wherein LEAF owners can use a card included with their car to get free 30-minute charge sessions at participating CHAdeMO stations, which covers markets where 93% of LEAFs have been sold.

In those 30 minutes of free charging on a level 3 charging station, a LEAF can add up to 88 miles of range.  On participating level 2 chargers, LEAFs can get 60 minutes of free charging for about 20 miles worth of range.

Performance & handling

The LEAF may not have a reputation for being a performance vehicle, but I’ve always found it to feel quite peppy, even compared to other EVs with similar specs (and ones you would think would be more “fun” to drive, like the 500e).  The very first time I drove an original LEAF and hit the accelerator to turn into traffic, the suddenness with which it surged forward gave me a pleasant surprise.  This LEAF is no different, but has taken performance up a notch.

Before we go further into the LEAF’s performance, I must touch on a concept that doesn’t get a lot of play: throttle response.  This is the amount of time it takes for a car to deliver power to the wheels after the driver requests that power by pressing the accelerator pedal.  This tends to be an area where electric cars shine, it’s what gives an electric car the feeling of instant acceleration, of greater responsiveness, than even gas cars which have higher power numbers, torque numbers, or better 0-60 times.  For example, My old MINI E “felt” a lot faster than the BMW Z4 loaner I got when I brought it in for service, despite being over 2 seconds slower 0-60.

To me, after 8 years of driving electric cars, a fast throttle response is perhaps the biggest contributing factor to making a car feel quick and it’s something you just don’t get on gas cars.  I’ve been spoiled by driving on electricity for 8 years, and pedals on gas cars, even well-tuned ones, feel mushy to me now.  This is typically not something people notice if they transition from driving a gas car because it’s similar to their previous experience, but it stands out to those who have spent time driving a quick EV.

For some inexplicable reason, some manufacturers actually add a software delay to their EV throttles.  This gives them the same “mushyness” as gas cars and eliminates one of the great benefits of electric propulsion.  This is often justified publicly in the name of “safety,” as if having an unresponsive car is safer.  I personally think they just don’t want to make their gas cars look bad.

But the great thing about the LEAF is that Nissan does not limit their throttle inputs like other manufacturers do.  The LEAF, despite not being a sports car, has a very responsive throttle, both for the purposes of acceleration and regenerative braking.

With the new e-Pedal feature (more on that later), this made for a pleasant drive through twisty roads in Napa, not having to move my foot from gas to brake and back each time I hit another curve, easily controlling my speed with just one pedal and never having to wait for the car to do what I want it to do.

Nissan’s 40kWh battery didn’t just lead to an increase in range, but also an increase in available torque and power.  The 2018 LEAF has 147hp and 236lb•ft of torque; 37% more horsepower and 26% more torque than its predecessor.  0-60 time is down from around 10 seconds to around 8 seconds, and it shows.

The main perceived difference is in higher-end power.  Electric cars do well on the low-end with instant torque from 0-rpm, but oftentimes that acceleration won’t carry into higher speed ranges, especially for some of the EVs with smaller batteries.  This was true of the original LEAF, but the bump in power on the new LEAF eliminates that concern at least up to highway speed.  Even at 60mph, the LEAF felt like it had plenty of extra “oomph” for passing and merging, whereas the previous LEAF felt a little gutless after 40mph or so.

As for handling, Nissan claims to have improved the steering and chassis rigidity in this generation, and while I did not push too hard through the turns on the public roads of Napa county, the car handled fine for what it is – a front-wheel drive efficiency vehicle with low rolling resistance tires which happened to have 4 passengers in it at the time.

If I’m picking nits, it felt a little bit understeery, but since there was a lot of human ballast in the car and I still had fun driving it regardless, I’ll give them a pass on the understeer verdict until I get a chance to try the car in a more sanitized testing environment.  I’d also like to be able to adjust the strength of the electric power steering, a setting which I quite like having access to on the Tesla Model S and would like to see on other cars.

Traction is about as good as you would expect out of a front-wheel drive car with lots of torque and low rolling resistance tires. Which is to say that it’s not too hard to spin the wheels a little bit when you give the throttle a good push, particularly if the road surface is less than perfect.  But unlike the Ioniq, where I felt traction was a problem, with the LEAF it doesn’t seem to detract much from the car overall.  The LEAF’s low and centralized battery placement, instead of in the back with the Ioniq, makes a big difference here.

Finally, in the one relatively hard braking event we had during the test drive, the car felt composed and confident on the brakes.

Comfort, controls, and cargo

The interior of the new LEAF is quite comfortable and looks a lot less boring than the previous model, at least in the SL trim tested.  The seats feel like an upgrade from the previous generation, and in two hours driving I had no complaints about comfort at all.  During my drive I experienced no discomfort even though I had kind of tweaked my back on the plane ride up.  With four passengers in the car, none of us had any complaints (but of course three of them have their salaries paid by Nissan, so I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard any complaints even if they did).

The one downside in terms of comfort for drivers is the inability to telescope the steering wheel.  It can be adjusted up and down, but not in and out.

The ride quality was quiet and smooth, even on some rougher roads. A longer wheelbase than the Bolt EV gives the LEAF an advantage here, and since the Model 3 is tuned a little sportier than the LEAF, the LEAF will likely give the most comfortable ride of the three.

Headroom and leg room are sufficient, though rear headroom might leave very tall passengers needing to slouch a little.  I’m six feet tall and could touch my head to the ceiling if I sat up straight in the rear, so if you’re taller and have better posture than me, you might want to call shotgun.

While the interior is an improvement over the previous generation, the controls do seem a little dated.  Compared to the Model 3 and its futuristic minimal dash with very few physical buttons and a large, responsive screen, the slew of buttons all around the cabin of the new LEAF and the fairly unresponsive 7 inch touchscreen with UI design out of last decade leave a little to be desired.

Thankfully, CarPlay and Android Auto are available as options, so you don’t need to spend too much time in Nissan’s included user interface, which is about as bland as you would expect out of any automotive OEM (surprisingly, Chevy Bolt’s interface is an exception to this and in my experience it’s much better than Nissan’s or Hyundai’s, but not as good as Tesla’s).

While this test drive time wasn’t used for hauling, cargo volume is technically the same as the previous generation LEAF, but has been made slightly more usable with the elimination of a hump inside the trunk.  There’s ample in-car storage space with map pockets and cutouts in the doors for water bottles, and we may have taken a detour for some photography and may have found out these water bottle holders are large enough to hold a (full, unopened) bottle of wine.  When in Napa…

There is no frontal storage space, instead being used for your standard retinue of ugly hoses and tubs and a lead acid battery which, come on, we really need to get rid of.  You’ve got 40kWh under the car, let’s take the lead out from under the hood already.  That goes for everyone in the auto industry, including Tesla.

Tech gizmos

The two new features Nissan is most proud of on this car are “e-Pedal” and “ProPILOT Assist.”  e-Pedal is standard on all LEAFs, while ProPILOT Assist is available as part of the $2,200 technology package option on SV models and included on SL models (but will become a $650 option on SL models starting Spring 2018).

“e-Pedal” is a regenerative braking mode which Nissan has put a lot of thought into.  When activating this mode you can drive the car without touching the brake pedal in the vast majority of situations.  The car targets a deceleration rate of 0.2G and uses the motor to achieve that, but sometimes intelligently activates the friction brakes if needed (if the battery is full or running hot and thus regen is limited, or in the case of a low-friction road where braking with only the front axle would be unsafe).  It will also activate a hill hold on either an incline or decline of up to 30% grade without having to press the brake pedal.

At 0.2G, the LEAF’s regeneration is stronger than the Model 3 but weaker than the Bolt’s, but the LEAF can be set to retain e-Pedal settings between drives so you don’t have to re-select the strongest regen mode each time you get in the car. The Bolt requires shifting into “low” mode and pressing a paddle each time you want the strongest regen, which is bothersome.  The Model 3 retains all of these settings based on driver profiles, which is the most usable setting of the bunch.

It didn’t take long to get used to e-Pedal’s braking distance and use it for effectively everything I wanted to do on the road, outside of canceling cruise control or in an emergency braking situation.  The deceleration rate is quite predictable.

The only small problem with e-Pedal is that I initially found it a bit jarring at very low speeds.  When coming to a complete stop, I expected the system to “ease off” a little bit under 2-3mph, making the end of a braking event a little bit smoother, but this did not happen.  This is probably a perceptual thing since I’m used to easing off the brakes at low-speed to stop smoothly, but it did catch me by surprise.

After driving the car for a few hours, I got used to it and didn’t mind it anymore, though it still surprised me a little when maneuvering the car in for parking. I had to ease the accelerator slightly to move in a space. Perhaps turning off e-Pedal would make tight parking maneuvers a little easier, though I did not test this.

ProPILOT Assist is Nissan’s new driver assist functionality, available on the LEAF and the 2018 Rogue so far.  It is a “single lane, hands-on” assist system and Nissan is careful to say “it is NOT a ‘self-driving’ feature.”  When activating the system you must keep your hands on the steering wheel. If you don’t, then after a few seconds the car will warn you on the instrument cluster, then with increasingly frequent beeps, and finally by bringing the car to a gradual stop and putting on the hazard lights.

The car senses your hands through a torque sensor in the steering wheel, which takes a slightly heavier touch to activate than I would like. If you are resting your hands on the steering wheel it will detect them, but if you’re lazily resting your elbow on the armrest and only lightly touching the bottom of the steering wheel with one hand, the car might get mad at you. Probably rightly so. Sorry mom, ten-and-two, I know.

Activating ProPILOT Assist is a slightly more complicated affair than I would like, requiring one to set the cruise control and then press the ProPILOT button, both on the steering wheel.  Having a single button or gesture to activate it would be preferable (like Model S’ “tap stalk twice” or Model 3’s autopilot mode on the PRND lever).  It would also be nice if the instrument cluster showed the speed limit of the current street for ease of setting cruise control.  The car does show this information, but it is relegated to a tiny corner of the passenger’s side of the center nav screen, and only when the map is up, quite far away from the driver and inconvenient to look for.

But once activated, ProPILOT Assist does quite an admirable job at what it is intended to do.  The lane centering function of ProPILOT is, if anything, better than the Model S with AP1.  It will also follow a car ahead and match their speed, down to a complete stop or up to 90mph or whatever limit you set for the cruise control.  If the car is stopped for more than three seconds, it requires a tap of a steering wheel button to resume.  Drivers can also set how far behind they want to stay from the car ahead, with three possible settings – the farthest setting one was plenty close enough for me.

The instrument cluster indicates if steering assist is activated, whether the LEAF is tracking lane lines, and if there is a car ahead in its “tractor beam.” It will sound various distinct beeps if it ever loses lane lines or reacquires them.  It did not take long to learn what the beeps meant, making it easy to tell whether the system was active.

While the system is only intended for use on well-marked highways, I used it on more challenging two-lane winding roads through Napa and found that it had little trouble following lane markings despite inconsistent road quality and it stayed very centered with very little “hunting” from side to side in the lane.  There were times it couldn’t handle the sharpness of a turn, but again these roads were not the intended use case so one can’t hold that against them.  It did an excellent job on the highway stretches of the drive.

The system will not change lanes for you, instead having you change lanes yourself and then will reacquire the lane divisions and reactivate itself a few seconds later.  If ProPILOT Assist leaves anything to be desired, it is in the length of time it takes to reacquire lane divisions after a manual lane change.  It just feels like it takes a couple of seconds too long, and multiple times I found myself wondering if I should turn off and reactivate the system after a manual lane change, before hearing the car beep at me to let me know that it’s back in charge of the steering.

One last bit on lane changes. The lane departure warning system has both audible and haptic feedback (shaking the steering wheel), and was perhaps a little bit overactive with a tendency towards false positives.  It does not activate if you have the turn signal on or if the wheel is being turned past a certain degree (the car realizing that such turns are probably intentional), but on winding roads or even a contrasty highway on-ramp (on-ramp was asphalt, highway was concrete), I tended to get a few more shakes and beeps than I thought necessary.  Still, false positives are probably better than false negatives from a safety standpoint, and the whole system can be turned off if you so desire.

Nissan has upgraded their NissanConnect smartphone app with a lot of great new features which EV drivers love to use.  New for this model year is the ability to turn on the HVAC system to pre warm or cool the car and the ability to do a range prediction through the smartphone app.

There are also other features like the ability to remotely start charge sessions, lock/unlock doors, and add geofences or curfews so the app notifies you if the car is moving at a time you don’t want it to be (like theft or being borrowed by your teenager who’s supposed to be in his or her room doing their homework and definitely not supposed to be over at Johnny’s house, etc.).

The app is customizable to put your favorite features on the front page, and is available for wearable devices and Amazon Alexa as well.  Some of these features are included with the car and some come with a free three year trial.  See the confusingly named tiers of service available and their associated prices on Nissan’s website.

Despite all of this connectivity, the LEAF is not capable of over-the-air software updates to add features or fix bugs.  If there’s a recall, even if that recall could be fixed easily in software, you’re going to have to bring your car to a dealer and have them do the work for you, instead of just hitting a button in the cockpit and having it fix itself overnight.  This is costly for the automaker and annoying for customers.  Come on Nissan.

There are plenty of other tech features that come standard or are available as options, including intelligent around-view monitor, Bose premium audio, heated front seats and steering wheel (though heated rear seats are missing as an option despite having been available on the previous generation).  One oversight is that the car has only one USB connection, and no rear USB.

Finally, one of the marquee features of the new LEAF is bidirectional charging capability – you can use your LEAF’s battery to power your home.  Technically all LEAFs since 2013 have been capable of this, though Nissan hasn’t really publicized it much at all.  Nissan has a vehicle-to-grid system they call “LEAF to home” which is currently available in Japan and awaiting regulatory approval in the US.  They’re also planning to offer a home battery pack called xStorage.

Vehicle to grid is an interesting idea which has some practical applications but may have limited appeal among owners, especially those owning cars with smaller battery packs.  In theory it’s nice, but owners like to have control over their vehicle’s state-of-charge, and like to have a full battery for whenever they’re ready to drive – and also cars are often not parked at home during peak hours.

The upcoming 60kWh LEAF may be more popular for this purpose, but 50kW charging seems a bit lower than one might like to have.  V2G will likely remain somewhat niche, but for those who fit in the niche it will be a great idea, and perhaps even a profitable one (charging your car’s battery with off-peak power at night and feeding your house or the grid during the day when rates are higher).

Value & conclusion

Overall, the LEAF seems to offer a lot of value for the price.  Nissan claims to have added thousands of dollars of “value” to each trim level.  I’m not sure their value calculations mean anything in terms of dollar value, but there are definitely improvements at every option level.

I’ve mentioned the Hyundai Ioniq several times during this review, and that’s because the two cars are so close in price.  I liked the Ioniq quite a lot, claiming in my review that it made every other electric car except the Bolt and Teslas obsolete.  It still does have a few advantages over the LEAF, namely that the Ioniq is still the efficiency champion by a long shot (pending MPGe numbers from the LEAF, which I am fairly certain will not beat the Ioniq’s), and it is capable of charging much more quickly than the LEAF is.

But it seems that, on balance, Nissan has leapfrogged Hyundai here.  This new LEAF is packed with improvements both large and small, backing up Nissan’s claim that their “second-generation” vehicle has a natural advantage. This advantage of course coming from the 7 years worth of lessons they’ve learned building the most sold EV in the world.  And the price differential of only $490 makes the Nissan the better value of the two.  Compared solely to the Ioniq, Nissan could probably sell this car for a thousand or two more and still offer a decent value proposition (though then it would stop looking quite as good compared to Tesla and Chevy’s offerings).

The LEAF also has another significant advantage over the Ioniq EV: it’s actually going to be available.  Currently it’s near-impossible to get an electric Ioniq in the US.  There is a long waiting list and they are only being sold in California, and the increased production which Hyundai promised has not yet had an effect.  Nissan, who have sold more EVs than any manufacturer in the world, is unlikely to have this problem, but we’ll have to see what happens in January.

There will also be a larger battery option in the future, planned for 2019, expected to come in at 60kWh and similar in price to the Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3.  If it was Nissan’s intent to “fill the white space” between compliance cars and the higher-range EVs available today, their LEAF options do seem to bridge it nicely.  The 40kWh LEAF compares favorably to the Ioniq EV, which was previously my favorite car anywhere in that price range, and the 60kWh LEAF will fit in with the Bolt EV and Model 3.

I think the 60kWh LEAF will probably fade a little when compared to the Bolt and Model 3 unless Nissan can come up with a way to keep the price a little lower than those two cars, but it is a solid entry and bridge between the two EV markets/price points as they currently stand.

As a solid EV which outshines the Hyundai Ioniq EV in most ways and comes in significantly under the price of the Model 3 and Bolt EV, the new LEAF is easy to recommend.