Last week we were invited to San Diego to drive the new Nissan Leaf Plus, the updated version of the Leaf with a new 62kWh battery pack, which will start sales in March. We spent the day driving it all through the county on a variety of roads, and came away impressed if not surprised by this iteration on an already-solid package.
The main practical upshot of the Leaf Plus’s larger battery is that the car has increased range, power and quick charge ability.
Nissan has managed to fit a larger battery in about the same volume by eliminating dead space in the battery pack. They employ a new battery module design with less space between cells and adopted laser welding to reduce the size of connections between cells and squeeze more energy into the space they have available. They’ve also added another parallel module to modify the input/output current of the pack in an attempt to reduce heat generation.
A lot of this review will echo our previous Leaf review, as not much has changed about the vehicle other than the battery pack, a few software changes, and new badging (including, *gasp*, new blue trim accents!). Please do click through to that review for more information on the shared portions of the vehicles.
As soon as we got onto the freeway, the Nissan Leaf Plus impressed. The main place where increased power output from the larger battery is noticeable is in high-speed acceleration. Electric cars typically only have one gear and suffer from a drop-off in power delivery at higher speeds. The easiest way for manufacturers to solve this problem is to attach a larger battery. The Leaf Plus has done this, and that allows it to pull more at higher speeds, offering better highway-merging and lane-change acceleration.
Even in “ECO” mode, I felt that the Leaf Plus offered good acceleration at all legal highway speeds. When I discovered that I had accidentally been driving in ECO mode for the first 10 miles or so of the review (and then, naturally, turned it off right away), I found that the car was even snappier.
The increased power resulted in some torque steer. On front-wheel drive cars with a lot of torque (thus, many electric cars), torque steer is the sensation that a car is pulling to one side or the other, particularly under hard acceleration. It can be a bit surprising to drivers who experience it for the first time, so this is something to be aware of in this vehicle.
One thing I appreciate about the Leaf is that Nissan has not artificially slowed down the throttle response of their car in any noticeable way. When I speak of throttle response, I mean the time delay between pressing the pedal and the car surging forward. In many electric cars, manufacturers seem hesitant to allow drivers full access to their car’s instant torque, so they slow down the throttle pedal response just a little bit. This is presumably done for safety or comfort reasons, as a driver who isn’t used to this could end up driving in a “jerky” manner. Personally, I think manufacturers just do it so they don’t make their gas cars look bad.
Nissan’s Leaf, even the early versions of the car, has never felt this way. It has always had snappy pedal response, among the best of electric cars I’ve driven. The car may not be meant as a hot hatch, may not be tuned for power, and is still front wheel drive with high-efficiency tires, so it’s by no means a performance car, but in general it feels better to have a quick car than a fast car and the Leaf Plus still provides this. The car is very responsive and feels good on acceleration.
The car is heavier than the 40kWh version, though, and that weight is noticeable. The 40kWh Leaf already felt a little understeery to me, and I felt that sometimes I had to put a little more effort into getting it turned than I would have liked. This was similarly true of the Leaf Plus, where the car would occasionally feel like it wanted to drift a bit to the outside of a curve. But this was a minor steering/handling complaint – it was only apparent when I was pushing the car in a way that a front-wheel drive car on high-efficiency tires is not really built for.
As I mentioned in my 40kWh Leaf review, if Nissan gave drivers an option of different steering feel settings, like Tesla does, that would probably go some way to making the car feel a little more nimble. Or perhaps I’d just need to get a Nissan Leaf NISMO with stickier tires and retuned suspension (*only available in Japan).
Another way the increased weight affects the car is in terms of efficiency, which we’ll cover next.
Efficiency and range
The range change should be self-explanatory. The 40kWh Leaf has 150 miles of EPA range, whereas the Leaf Plus has 226 miles. A couple hundred pounds of extra weight from the larger battery reduces efficiency slightly, though we don’t have EPA MPGe numbers yet, so we’ll have to extrapolate from the results of our drive.
At the beginning of the trip, we started with a full charge. We drove 118.8 miles and ended up with 33% battery, and 77 miles of range left.
Much of our test did include high-speed driving on the freeway, and “spirited” driving on twisty canyon roads. Since the main difference between the original Leaf and the Leaf Plus is available motor power, we wanted to make best use out of the increased power of this car. So we weren’t exactly striving for efficient driving. We also had “ECO” mode turned off, for what it’s worth, for all but the first 10 miles or so of the drive.
Nevertheless, had we continued at the same rate, we would have depleted the battery at around ~180 miles of driving.
In my previous review I did note that the Leaf did seem a fair bit less efficient than the Hyundai Ioniq electric, which is comparable in price and features to the 40kWh Leaf. Despite the Ioniq’s smaller battery, the two have similar “real-world” range numbers due to the ease of driving the Ioniq in an efficient manner. Our drive this weekend suggests the same of the Leaf Plus – still an efficient car, due to being electric, but not quite as efficient as competing EVs like the Ioniq, Bolt and Model 3.
What matters though is that we had a full day of driving all throughout sprawling San Diego county without worrying about our driving style’s impact on range. Had we been in the 40kWh Leaf, we probably could have done the same drive in a little less spirited manner and been fine as well, though we may have been thinking a little more about range, or wishing we could get a top-up charge during lunch (there was a charger one block away from where Nissan hosted our lunch).
Speaking of charging, the Leaf Plus features improved charge speeds. Let’s discuss that next.
For L1/L2 charging which will account for the vast majority of charge sessions for Leaf owners, the Leaf Plus comes standard with a 110/240V portable charge cable and (fairly large) carrying case which fits in the trunk. This was previously optional on the 40kWh Leaf.
Nissan claims that the car will be able to charge at 100kW peak, and be able to sustain 70kW whereas the 40kWh Leaf is only capable of 50kW. And on the 40kWh Leaf, a 50kW CHAdeMO quick charge port is not included on the base “S” model, whereas the Leaf Plus S does come with a 70kW/100kW CHAdeMO port standard.
We asked Nissan for more details about the charging curve, but they opted not to comment except to say that the Leaf Plus can reach 80% charge in 45 minutes on a 100kW charger, or 80% in 60 minutes on a 50kW charger. This suggests a fairly early taper.
The Leaf still does not employ active liquid cooling in its battery, instead choosing to continue with air cooling. Nissan claims that the new design of the battery reduces internal resistance, which is what results in heat generation within the battery, and still enables it to charge quickly. We will be curious to see real-world charging results when the car hits the road.
Though these charging improvements only really matter if you can find a charger. Nissan still uses CHAdeMO for quick charging in the US, when nearly all other manufacturers have switched to CCS. There are a good amount of CHAdeMO chargers installed in the US, and Nissan has been a leader in making these installations happen, installing over 2,000 chargers and spending $60 million in charge infrastructure themselves.
But it is likely that new charger installs in the US, especially of higher-speed chargers (100kW+), will focus more on CCS than CHAdeMO. Electrify America, for example, will only have one CHAdeMO plug at most of their stations, but several CCS plugs. This could turn out to be a problem in the future, unless Nissan eventually succumbs and goes with CCS (unlikely, given CHAdeMO’s ubiquity in Japan, unless they offer different charge ports in different regions) or offers some sort of adapter.
One nice bonus for Leaf owners is that through Nissan’s “no charge to charge” program, two years of public charging is included free with purchase of a new Leaf in many markets (restrictions apply, click link for details).
While most of the changes with the Leaf Plus have to do with the battery and charging, there are a few improvements to the included technology packages as well.
The infotainment system is upgraded with a new interface, customizable home screen and multi-touch capability. But in the end, it is similar to other in-car infotainment systems in that it just isn’t very good. In a world where the Model 3 exists, every other car infotainment system just isn’t worth bothering with. Thankfully CarPlay and Android Auto are both available. While they were an option on the 40kWh, they are standard on all Leaf Plus models. We mostly used CarPlay for navigation and didn’t spend too much time with the Leaf’s included infotainment system, and we expect most owners will do the same.
The Leaf Plus has added the capability to accept software updates over Wi-Fi. This will allow Nissan to add new infotainment features over time. Nissan did not specify how this would be used except for map updates, but it’s a step in the right direction and they left it open for other features to be added in the future.
ProPILOT (optional) and e-Pedal (standard on all models) are unchanged. I still felt e-Pedal was well tuned except for being a little jarring at very low speeds. ProPILOT’s lane centering and single-lane traffic-aware cruise control features continued to be excellent, perhaps even better than Tesla’s Autopilot, though with a more limited feature set (no auto lane change, no promises of future self-driving capability).
One downside in comparison is that ProPILOT has a more-intrusive “nag” than Autopilot, with video and audio reminders every ten seconds or so, even while in very slow traffic. Also, it’s far too complicated to activate without a Nissan representative in the car coaching you how to do so. I’m sure owners could get used to it, but it really ought to be a single-button activation experience. The car has enough buttons on it anyway, it’s not like they couldn’t use one specifically for one of their marquee features.
Finally, Nissan has improved their NissanConnect features, including their Nissan Owners Portal web app and NissanConnect EV app for smartphones, smartwatches, Alexa and Google Assistant. This includes a new “Nissan Door to Door Navigation” feature which lets you look up a destination on your app which will then give you walking directions to your car (not sure how useful this would be, except for forgetful parkers or perhaps use in car-share services), in-car navigation, and walking directions to your final destination from your parking spot.
So how much will all of this cost?
Unfortunately, we don’t have an answer to that question. Nissan has not yet set a price for the Leaf Plus, so everything in this section will be speculation. All Nissan says so far is that the car will be “competitively priced.” So let’s talk a bit about the competition.
We do expect the price to be something close to that of the Chevy Bolt (which we also really like), as that electric car offers the closest comparison to the Leaf’s feature set. For reference, since we don’t know the price yet, here are what the trim levels will include:
(*update: Nissan has now released pricing, with the base model starting at $36,550 and SL trim costing $42,550 before destination and handling charges of $895).
There are a few considerations here, though. Number one, Chevy has reached the 200,000 vehicle mark in the US, and this will effectively raise the price of that car by $3,750 starting in April. This gives Nissan a little breathing room with the Leaf Plus, and if they end up with a price which is a little higher than the Bolt, the effective price for consumers will still be lower. Nissan has sold around 130,000 electric cars in the US, so they still have time before their credit runs out.
Nissan can’t rely on this advantage though, because other vehicles are coming. Unlike the time of our last Leaf review, the Hyundai Kona and Kia Niro have been announced and are coming soon. Perhaps Nissan’s saving grace in this comparison will be that those cars aren’t meant to be nationwide releases, and instead will be restricted to compliance states. Nevertheless, compliance states make up the bulk of US EV sales, so Nissan still needs to consider this competition seriously.
On the other side of the price range, Nissan doesn’t want to raise the price of their car too high, because then people will cross-shop against the Model 3. If the Leaf Plus starts at ~$36k (Bolt price) and costs ~$42k when fully loaded (~$6k is the difference between the Leaf S and SL), a base model mid-range Model 3 at ~$43k will start to look attractive to prospective buyers.
And that has been an important development since I wrote my Leaf 40kWh review last year. Since then, the Model 3 has come out, and taken over. In my Model 3 review I heaped praise on the car, which really does deserve the best words I could find for it. It’s a truly great automobile. It may be more expensive than the Leaf at the moment, but once (if?) Tesla gets the price down and if the Leaf ends up being expensive enough fully loaded, it may be a hard sell to sway people away from going for the Tesla.
It’s clear that Nissan considers these cars their competition, as they shared a slide showing comparable vehicles in their presentation.
But are these cars really the Leaf’s true competition? With the exception of the Model 3, none of these cars are nearly best-selling vehicles in their class. If Nissan wants to expand the pie, they should be targeting gas cars, which the Leaf offers numerous advantages over.
While this review has mostly focused on comparing the Leaf to other electric competition, the comparison is far rosier when put up against gas vehicles. In that case, the Leaf is way more efficient, responsive on acceleration, cheap and convenient to fuel up at home, comfortable to drive, and environmentally friendly.
So what really matters most is whether the Leaf, at whatever price Nissan sets, can attract buyers who would otherwise buy a gas car. As long as Nissan can convince people to buy a Leaf over, say, a Toyota Corolla, perhaps they won’t care if Tesla siphons away some of the higher-end Leaf buyers.
Not only is this better in terms of the size of the market, as the pool of gas car buyers is unfortunately still larger than the pool of electric car buyers, but it’s also better for the environment to convert gas car sales to electric. So Nissan would be wise not to only target Bolt/Model 3/Kona sales and instead to try to increase the size of the pie and bring in new converts from the foreign land of pollution-ville.
In the end, I probably could have saved a lot of words in this review by stating that the Leaf Plus drives like a Leaf with a bigger battery.
It’s a good, perfectly usable car, a great daily driver, in a pretty attractive package and at what will likely be a reasonable price. It’s efficient enough but still peppy. In none of these measures is it particularly exceptional, but it’s above average in all of them and this goes together to make a solid package.
Like its 40kWh predecessor, the one exceptional feature of the Leaf Plus is that it is very comfortable. While the more expensive Model 3 can be a little bumpy at times (it’s a sportier car, anyway), the Leaf offered a great, smooth ride for the whole day. And that’s coming from someone who is just finishing physical therapy for some lower back pain, something which a full day of driving might have exacerbated in a less comfortable car.
This is why the Leaf is still the best-selling electric car worldwide, with some 380,000 units sold globally. It’s just a good car, and Nissan has committed themselves to it, to their credit.
But the industry is changing, and changing quickly. Not only have cars come out since my last Leaf review which surpass its capabilities in many ways (Model 3), but other cars will come out soon which will offer reasonable challenges to the Leaf Plus (Niro/Kona/Soul EV, $35k base Model 3 – if it’s happening, a possible upgraded battery in the Ioniq, etc.). Like everyone in the EV space, Nissan will have to keep moving if they want to have any chance of remaining the best-selling EV worldwide.
So this review concludes by stating that the Leaf Plus is more of a good thing. Nissan has put together another solid package which improves on last year’s offering in many ways and which offers good options for buyers. Those who realize they’ll rarely need 200 miles of range can save several thousand dollars with the base model, and those who want more power, greater range and additional included features still have a good choice in the Plus. Assuming the price comes in at the level we guessed above, the Leaf Plus remains an easy car to recommend for buyers looking for a comfortable, usable daily driver.
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