These are interesting times for the Nissan Leaf which for 2016 has up to 27-percent more range than last year.
Introduced as a 2011 model with 73 miles range in December 2010, it was revised to 84 miles in 2013, then revised again this year with a 30-kwh battery and 107-miles range in the upper SV and SL versions, while the S trim carries forward with a 24-kwh battery.
As the original of its type, the Leaf has defined a segment. Discussing it is thus not like reviewing a car such as a Nissan Sentra in the mature internal combustion powered market. The Leaf has been dominant, and unique, which has helped make it so dominant.
Championed from its inception by Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn who continues to speak bullishly of EVs, more than one in four of the three-quarter million EVs sold globally to date in the budding market have been the Leaf. Its best sales year was 2014 which saw 30,200 units delivered in the U.S. In 2015, its U.S. sales plummeted to 17,269. Factors contributing to this included the prospect of the 200-plus-mile range Chevy Bolt revealed January 2015 and due late this year. Also not helping Leaf sales is Tesla’s anticipated 200-mile-plus Model 3, and even rumors last year of this present 107-mile Leaf made folks sit back, as did to an extent a touted second-generation 200-plus-mile Leaf hoped for in a year or two.
The 84-107-mile Leaf therefore is in the unusual position of being a big fish in a small pond – with significantly bigger fish including its own replacement swimming sooner or later to a dealer near you.
Of course inexpensive gas has taken a toll on Leaf sales too, however certain people don’t buy EVs just to save gas costs. Rather, some want to eliminate its use along with emissions and the specter of oil dependence altogether, so the mainstream media’s cheap gas argument is only so valid.
But despite cut-rate lease deals from $200-300 per month for 36 months – now up to $356 for the new SL version – and a free public charging promo for two years, Nissan has struggled to move its EV even though 107-mile range has been available for three months.
So should you still consider one, or wait for what’s next? That is strictly up to you, but for now the proven and refined Leaf still dominates, so we’ll tell you more about it.
The biggest news for the Leaf this year is a superior battery bumping range from 84 miles from 2013-2015 to 107 miles under the EPA cycle.
The new 30 kilowatt-hour battery’s modules contain eight newly designed cells per module – 192 cells total – which compares to the 24 kilowatt-hour battery using four cells per module, also with 192 cells total.
Still air cooled – not liquid cooled as in other EVs – the new battery weighs just 46 pounds more, but fits in the same packaging. This increased capacity in the same footprint is done by improving the cell structure of the laminated lithium-ion battery cells. The electrode material has been improved with revised chemistry for increased power density.
Nissan says an extra added bonus here is enhanced durability under charge and discharge. The company warranties this new battery against capacity loss below nine bars out of 12 on the level gauge for the first eight years or 100,000 miles.
The same capacity loss warranty for the 24-kwh pack in the S is for the first five years or 60,000 miles.
The rest of the car’s electric driveline is essentially the same as it was in 2013 when assembly began in Decherd, Tenn., an hour from the Smyrna assembly plant and new battery assembly plant next door.
An 80-kilowatt AC synchronous motor delivers 107 horsepower and 187 electrically limited pounds-feet of torque – 20 pounds-feet down from 207 in 2011-2012 to stretch range.
Propulsion to the front wheels is via a single-speed gear reduction transmission.
Other energy savers include a hybrid heating system, coefficient of drag of 0.28 – a bit less slippery than the class-leading 0.24 2016 Prius hybrid, but still good.
An “Eco” drive mode reduces electrical draw but still lets the car run normally while saving range.
A dedicated level-two 240-volt system is typically perceived as needed at home. A portable 120-volt trickle charger is included but is day and night slow, requiring 21 hours for the 24-kwh pack, and 26 hours for the 30.
All charging is via the port in front. It has a useful white light to see the plug port(s) at night, and a lock for the port door is standard as well.
Optional on the S and standard on SV and SL is a Quick Charge Port with CHAdeMO style connector. If you plug into a 480-volt “level three” public quick charger, you can zap power by 80-percent capacity in about 30 minutes.
The photovoltaic solar panel spoiler standard on SL models looks nifty while trickling free energy to the 12-volt battery for vehicle accessories.
Standard on the SV and SL is a 6.6 kilowatt onboard charger that, which via 240 volts, can charge 100 percent in about six hours. The Leaf S can be optionally equipped with the 6.6 charger, but standard is a 3.6-kw onboard charger which enables 240-volt charging in for hours.
The Leaf is sized between a Nissan Altima and Versa. It has a 106.3-inch wheelbase, 175.0-inch length, 69.7-inch width and 61.0-inch height.
Its body shape was originally chosen at the request of focus groups, and intended to make a statement. Whether you like it, think it’s unattractive, or are indifferent, it has made sense to stand out, but if rumors are correct, Nissan will make the second-generation Leaf a more normal design.
Inside, the Leaf gives up nothing to modern automobiles, and provides a comfortable, acceptably roomy environment front and back that’s laden with technology and safety.
All models receive 6-way manual driver’s seat, 4-way manual front passenger’s seats, trip computer showing instant and average energy consumption, driving time, outside temperature and range.
Updates this year include a new graphic interface display. This has better readability and voice recognition thanks to a new beam forming microphone.
Nissan has also updated the Leaf owner website and mobile app with new features and a more user-friendly interface.
Other standard features for all trim levels include Automatic Temperature Control (ATC), center console storage, and RearView Monitor.
Life with the Leaf
Intended as a “mainstream” runabout, the drive experience is up to mainstream expectations – in most ways.
Of course one must get used to having just 84-107 miles range which makes it suitable for most daily trips considering studies show 75 percent of all drivers only need less than 40 miles per day.
If you are an exception and need more range, intraday charging can push more people over the top – that is, having access to charging at work or school, where you shop, or where ever you are going.
Determined Leaf drivers who recharge during their daily driving to and fro have been known to travel 100-150 miles or more in a day with the former 73-84-mile versions, and the new 107 miler is all the better.
In exchange, drivers are rewarded with a fun-to-drive zero-emission car that’s Rolls-Royce quiet, peppy to 40 mph or so, though 0-60 mph can take 10 seconds.
With full torque from 0 rpm, it never seems disappointing for “normal” driving up to highway speeds.
As for that range, a drive on an East Coast winter day in the 30s F saw 96 miles while not in Eco mode with a good 80-percent highway usage, and a few bursts of acceleration.
Reports of the car meeting the 107-mile distance and exceeding it are perfectly credible. Nissan’s own range gauge showed us 114-119 miles after full charges, but range is calculated and adjusted on the fly based on algorithms that try to estimate your actual energy usage.
When running down to the bottom, the indicator gauge goes blank lest someone complain that the car said X miles and ran out before that – which can happen if you do something like travel a big hill, or otherwise demand more energy. The experience is like an electrical equivalent to running on fumes. People get accustomed to the Leaf, however, and learn to work within limits – but it is a factor to consider.
Obviously, sedate driving is rewarded in all cases, and energy sapping driving habits including quick starts, and speeding especially at highway speeds will hurt your distance potential.
Energy savings can also be augmented by reducing accessory drag (including heat, as applicable), while relying on the heated seats and steering wheel.
Propulsion power can also be preserved with an Eco mode and a “B” (Brake) regen-enhancing mode can be engaged on the fly. When driving in “D,” pressing the Eco button feels like someone pulled a spark plug wire from a gas-powered car, and propulsion power is reduced by maybe 20-25 percent. Conversely, going from “B” to “D” feels akin to a mild turbo kicking abruptly on.
Eco mode employs an actuator which pushes back on the accelerator pedal, and this decreases acceleration. If you press the pedal down harder, the same amount of power is still available. Eco mode widens the range at which the regeneration system is active, which results in slightly more aggressive deceleration and braking feel. It also will run the HVAC in Eco mode to assist in energy conservation.
To maximize range, we actually found ourselves preferring Eco as it delivered acceptable around-town and highway acceleration.
Other nuances to the energy supply picture can be seen in how the available range readout changes up or down when switching to Eco or B or D modes, or when tapping energy with the air conditioning or heater.
Yes, there are a few things to adapt to in driving an electric car. At lower speeds for the otherwise very quiet Leaf, a pedestrian warning sound alerts those nearby you are coming in your EV.
Braking and cornering however are relatively “normal,” and with its center of gravity low, the Leaf conceals its sub 3,400-pound curb weight admirably.
The back-up camera with 360-degree view in our SL models was handy too.
Overall, the Leaf experience includes novelty that does not wear off overly soon. The range limits are something one can usually get used to, and once adjusted, the whole prospect is workable.
Buy or Wait?
We do like the Leaf, think Nissan did a great job ushering in a new kind of car, but as diminished sales figures all last year and into this year indicate, buyers have been holding back.
Today the Leaf is still a highly competitive choice at its price point. Nissan has long reported folks who lease it outnumber those who purchase it outright, and leasing may be all the more the way to go at this juncture.
A fair number of off-lease used Leafs and resale values declining comparatively steeply have added to the case of leasing versus buying, as will pending contenders.
This month Tesla will show its Model 3 but that may not be here until 2018, though this remains to be seen. The one car that on paper clearly outclasses the Leaf is the 2017 Chevy Bolt due to go into production late this year.
And, aside from possible competitors, as available, like the BMW i3, Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric, Kia Soul EV, Ford Focus Electric, and VW e-Golf, there’s also another contender for forward thinking early adapters – the next Leaf.
Nissan has demonstrated a 200-250-plus mile Leaf test mule and says the next Leaf will compete favorably with the Bolt, but when this will be is unknown. It’s believed it may not be until 2018 but Nissan would be well served to speed up that timeline, if this is an option.
The rate of improvement in electric cars is not as fast as some have erroneously stated when comparing computer chips under Moores’ Law, but the time of double the range for similar prices is in view.
So, it’s an awkward time for Nissan which rushed to market with its EV but now is lagging others on revealing a new benchmark – in part because it does not want to cannibalize sales any more than it has already.
That said, the established and twice-updated Leaf still is a competent electric car that can deliver what a lot of people need it to do.
Powering The Leaf Is Still Cheaper Than $1.79 Gas
The Leaf is essentially a normal hatchback that comfortably seats four, can make it with five, has decent storage capacity – but has the effective maximum range of maybe a 3.5-4.25 gallon “gas tank” (battery). (This is compared to an imaginary internal combustion car’s 25 mpg multiplied by 3.5 = 87.5 miles easily attainable range. On a slower route, the 30-kilowatt-hour SV and SL Leafs might be good for as much as 110 miles or more).
A decreased “fuel” supply that takes longer to refill may not sound too flattering for a $30,000- $37,000 car (before substantial potential subsidies), but while we’re imagining, imagine the Leaf’s “fuel” costs may be less than half what you’d pay for $1.79 gas – for as long as deflated fuel prices last, and not counting if you have solar or other “free” charging access, which some do.
Figuring Actual Cost To Power A Leaf
A reliable formula to calculate your actual cost of “fuel” (electricity) is to divide miles driven by MPGe and multiply by 33.7 (33.7 kwh=energy of one gallon of gas). Then use your actual electricity cost to calculate your actual operational cost.
The EPA figures electricity at 12 cents per kw and calculates based on 15,000 mile per year.
For simplicity’s sake, and to compare to an imaginary 25-mpg gas car, let’s figure 10 cents per kilowatt and cost to travel on one gallon of gasoline, or 25 miles.
Specifically, you can divide 25 miles driven by the combined 112 MPGe and multiply by 33.7. This equals your actual kwh consumed.
In this case, kwh consumed = 7.52.
Take 7.52 times your actual price per kw (10 cents in this example). This equals about 75 cents to drive 25 miles. A 25 mpg gas-powered car would use one gallon of gas at say $1.79 per gallon.
The Leaf’s hypothetical 75 cents per gallon cost is less than one half $1.79 per gallon of a comparable hatchback.
Can you live with a small fuel tank if you get an inflation-protected 75 cents per gallon “fuel” price? What’s more, there are places where public chargers let you fill for free (like your Nissan dealer’s quick charger!) This would further reduce your “fuel” costs. Of course, some public chargers do require a fee, and at higher electric rates, and in these cases, you will pay more.
To make it work from a dollars-and-cents viewpoint, the Leaf must be driven enough miles to offset the electric car’s price premium over a comparable gas car.
This does not account for how you will also benefit the environment, and contribute to a solution that needs consumer acceptance to reach critical mass.
Throw in being able to recharge mostly during off hours at home and the fact that the car is just plain fun to drive and you could have a winner.