There’s no more favorable climate for an electric car than Southern California. The year-round temperatures are right in the happy zone for lithium-ion-battery function, and the winter is so mild that neither range-sapping heat nor A/C is needed for about five months of the year. The political climate is also right, with the state and many of its cities offering additional incentives to buy an EV—atop the federal spur that can return up to $7500 to a buyer’s pockets. From using the carpool lane when driving solo to no-cost meter parking in Santa Monica to free charging when parked at LAX while you’re winging off to somewhere with worse weather, California would really think it was swell if you’d stop driving your fossil-fuel burner. There’s even a bill in front of the State Assembly that, if passed, would require new passenger vehicles in California to be zero-emission by 2040. Oh, and there’s another $1000 to $1500 for you if you get rid of your pollution machine; and how about a $500 rebate to make that home charger more affordable?
Dinking along in traffic in a school of unwashed Corollas and RAV4s is made more palatable in the Leaf thanks to the near silence of the electric motor, now making 147 horsepower, up from 107. Electric motors solve two small-car problems: a traditional lack of torque and the noise of a strained four-cylinder. Under the hood, where you’d expect an internal-combustion engine to be, is a big metal cube that houses the power-delivery module, the inverter, and the electric motor. Only 67 decibels of motor, wind, and tire noise make it into the cabin at full whack. At 70 mph, a speed briefly attainable in L.A., there’s a luxury-car-grade 65 decibels. Noise problem solved. Yet even with 40 more horsepower, the Leaf’s acceleration is not to be confused with that of a Tesla Model anything. A zero-to-60-mph run takes an adequate 7.4 seconds, but it’s the torque that impresses. A mere tap of the accelerator releases a dry gulch of instant push—236 pound-feet’s worth—that’s good for a quick 2.8-second jump from 30 to 50 mph, enough to flatten your occipital bun into the headrest.
Just don’t smash the accelerator too often or the air-cooled, 40.0-kWh lithium-ion battery, 10.0 kilowatt-hours more than before, will start discharging like it’s a dollar-store D-cell. Nissan claims a 150-mile range, and in our estimation, it’s possible to extract that, though you’ll need to be gentle and slow, two things C/D editors are not. We left our desert testing facility with a 98 percent charge and a 151-mile range displayed. Cruising along at 75 mph, we noticed that the range started falling faster than the odometer was climbing. Slowing to 65 mph stabilized the two readings and ensured that we’d easily make it back to L.A. This approach even retained enough juice for the 34-mile run over the San Gabriel Mountains on the squiggly Angeles Forest and Angeles Crest highways.
There’s little incentive to take an EV onto a canyon road, but the Leaf’s platform, an adaptation of its predecessor’s, mounts the battery in the floor. Putting the weight low helps keep the Leaf’s 3494 pounds on an even keel. The Michelin Energy Saver A/S tires were clearly chosen for their low rolling resistance, and they start howling well short of the 0.79 g of available grip, but the Leaf isn’t ever out of sorts. Steering feedback is good and the low-grip chassis is unerringly stable, plus the motor’s torque can launch the Leaf out of corners with ease. Just don’t turn on the ProPilot Assist system (part of the $2200 Technology package on our mid-level Leaf SV) when you’re on a fun road.
On gradual curves or a straight road, ProPilot Assist centers the Leaf in its lane and, if you ignore the Nissan’s warnings, will allow for hands-off steering for a few seconds at a time, provided it can read the lanes. Its ability to do so is shown on the digital half of the gauge cluster, but it signals with an annoying beep every time it loses the trail. As with all adaptive-cruise-control systems, speed rises and falls relative to traffic, but we found that ProPilot Assist slowed the Leaf down too early and too often, to the point of being seriously aggravating. ProPilot Assist won’t steer through sharp curves, though in the name of science, we tried it in the canyon anyway. The system does slow the car for tight corners, but it prefers speeds and g-forces that will make you think a Sears driving-school instructor is operating the brake pedal. There’s nothing “Pro” about it.
To make the pain of going slowly a little easier, Nissan fits the new Leaf with an e-Pedal function that can be turned on and off. Flipping the e-Pedal toggle ahead of the clam-shaped shifter injects Novocaine into the accelerator in an attempt to mellow out any eagerness in your right foot. But the e-Pedal’s best trick is increasing regenerative braking. Without touching the brake pedal, the driver can steadily and predictably bring the Leaf to a complete stop. Should you hit the brakes at 70 mph, the Leaf will stop in a long 191 feet. But in traffic’s waves of acceleration and deceleration, one-pedal driving is a major convenience; once you try it, you won’t want to go back.
Back home after our instrumented-testing session, the Leaf showed 41 miles of range remaining. Add that to the 105 miles traveled, and the Leaf could have gone 146 miles in our mix of freeway cruising and canyon-road bombing. Plugged into a household 120-volt outlet, the battery took about 26 hours to replenish. On a 240-volt unit, an empty-to-full charge is said to take about seven hours. A fast-charging CHAdeMO connection is optional on base S models for $1590 and standard on SV and SL trims. Public 440-volt DC fast chargers take a claimed 40 minutes to bring the battery to 80 percent charge. We found a fast charger—they’re outnumbered by 240-volt units by about 10 to 1—but it was out of order. Alas, even L.A.’s love of EVs is not perfect.
With the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as the first Leaf, the new version offers an identical 93 cubic feet of passenger space and 24 cubic feet of cargo room as last year’s model. The interior is more attractive for 2018, though. The large digital display next to the analog speedometer is configurable in a number of ways, and the touchscreen works quickly and without bugginess. That said, the Leaf’s interior quality feels on par with a $20,000 Sentra’s, which is a reminder that when you buy a Leaf, you’re essentially buying a $20K car and a really expensive battery.
Without incentives, the Leaf starts at $30,875. A mid-level SV such as our test car comes standard with fast-charging capability, a 7.0-inch touchscreen, 17-inch wheels, navigation, adaptive cruise control, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay for $33,375. Our tester also had the Technology package, which includes ProPilot Assist, LED headlights, and a power driver’s seat, plus the All Weather package’s heated front seats, steering wheel, and outside mirrors. Adding splash guards and floor mats brought the total to $36,845. Nissan’s pricing places the Leaf below the $37,495 Chevy Bolt, with its 238-mile range, and above cars such as the Fiat 500e, which can go only 87 miles on a charge.
The Leaf’s larger battery and superior range give it a major advantage over marginally less costly EVs, but the same logic applies when comparing the Bolt with the Leaf. Nissan seems to grasp that logic and will soon offer a 60.0-kWh battery, matching the Bolt’s, which should take the Leaf’s range beyond 200 miles. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the Tesla Model 3. Tesla promised 220 miles of range for its 3 at a starting price of $36,000, but the company currently only builds a long-range 310-mile version that starts at $45,000.
Nissan’s little electric car offers the most range for the money, besting the 124-mile Hyundai Ioniq EV and the 125-mile Volkswagen e-Golf, which are similarly priced. But adding ProPilot Assist and a number of other options puts the Leaf perilously close to the Bolt and Model 3. We’ve yet to drive the 3, but the Bolt is more fun to drive and goes farther on a charge than the Leaf. Going farther is what’s most important in this class of EVs, and although the Leaf is vastly improved and more practical than before, the Bolt has made its way past California dreaming.