2012 Nissan Leaf

Ed. Note: We’ll have a 2013 Leaf review posted early in June after test driving it. For now, we’re putting the Leaf at the top of the MPGe rank based on EPA numbers of 129 MPGe city, 102 MPGe highway, 115 MPGe combined for the U.S.-built 2013 model.

Nissan has promoted the 2011 Leaf as “the world’s first affordable, zero-emission car.” That chorus was picked up and the little electric car became a media star. It garnered awards such as the 2011 World Car of the Year and 2011 European Car of the Year. In 2011, it was also the first electric vehicle to be included in Wards’s prestigious Top 10 engine list. Not only did Leaf usher in a new beginning of zero-emissions motoring, it also offered a sensible four-door hatchback body style and a pleasant driving experience.

Now in its sophomore year, Nissan has added standard features to the 2012 Leaf. The base SV now comes standard with heated front and rear seats, heated steering wheel, heated exterior mirrors and a battery heater. The SL model adds a standard DC quick-charging port. The upgrades come at a price, however. The 2012 SV starts at $35,200, an increase of $2,420, while the SL is priced starting at $37,250, a bump of $3,530.

However, once a $7,500 federal tax credit is factored in (for those who are eligible, and some states offer additional credits as well), the 2012 Nissan Leaf’s pricing becomes more affordable.

Drivetrain

The 2012 Nissan Leaf is powered by a 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack which generates power output of more than 90 kw, while its AC synchronous electric motor that drives the front wheels delivers 107 horsepower (80 kw) and 207 pounds-feet of torque. (Think of torque as the force that produces acceleration, horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum.) The drive motor and control system are placed under the hood, where you would expect to find an engine.

2012 Nissan Leaf

The drivetrain is completed by a single speed reducer type transmission. There are no clutches, gears or a torque converter like found on a standard automatic transmission. There are two forward operating drive modes: Drive and Eco. Drive provides instant acceleration that increases quite quickly. Eco extends the driving range by limiting acceleration and reducing power to the climate control system. It also provides additional brake regeneration, causing the car to decelerate more rapidly, but also adding electrons to the battery.

The Battery

Weighing about 660 pounds, the battery is located under the floor pan directly beneath the front and rear rows of seats, which keeps the weight low and centered for better on-road stability and handling. The proprietary battery uses lithium manganese technology in the cells, a material that Nissan says was chosen for its resistance to thermal runaway. Four laminated flat, license-plate-style cells make up a module, with 48 modules arranged in three stacks.

Nissan engineers allow 95 percent of the Leaf’s energy storage to be used. This stands in sharp contrast to the 2013 Chevrolet Volt, which only ever uses 10.8 kilowatt-hour of its 16- kwh pack. In most conventional hybrids, the battery is never charged or discharged beyond 60 or 70 percent.

The Leaf is an advanced, practical, affordable and a usable battery-powered car yet, it still is plagued with two issues that have dogged electric cars for more than a century: driving range and recharging time.

Nissan advertises that the Leaf can travel 100 miles on a fully charged battery. But that is based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) LA4 City cycle conducted in laboratory tests. The official EPA electric driving range is 73 miles. While both numbers are achievable – depending on driver habits, speed, terrain, temperature, and battery age – the limited cruising distance is great for a very small number of consumers, but the Leaf is not a breakthrough car that makes electric vehicles practical for the majority of car owners.

2012 Nissan Leaf

(Note: To help consumers compare “fuel efficiency” for a gasoline or diesel cars to electrical energy consumption by electric cars, the EPA has developed a formula called miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). Nissan’s Leaf has an MPGe rating of 106 City/92 Highway and 99 Combined.)

As for charging time, it varies depending on what kind of charging you employ. At the longest, it can take up to 21 hours using a standard 120-volt household current – and this is not very practical for most daily drivers. It’s therefore advisable to install a 240-volt charging station that can recharge a fully depleted Leaf battery in seven hours, with partial charges taking less time. Unit costs start at under $1,000, can be professionally installed for somewhere up to $2,000 for an easy install but can be as high as $5,000 to $7,000 if major electrical work is required. Having your house checked by a qualified electrician might be advisable beforehand to determine what your situation would actually require.

The Leaf’s battery can also be “quick charged” at locations offering industrial-level DC Fast Chargers. They can recharge from 20 to 80 percent of capacity in about half an hour via a quick-charge port that is now standard on the SL model. DC Fast Charging stations have been slow to roll out but have gained momentum of late. Nissan cautions, however, that using quick charging frequently can shorten battery life.

Of note, HybridCars.com has reported that in late July some Leaf owners – especially those in Arizona and Texas, two of the hottest and first states to get Leafs – have complained about premature battery capacity losses in excess of 15 percent. They believe it is due to high temperatures, and at this writing are waiting further response from Nissan.

The Leaf’s battery pack is “passively” air cooled, while other automakers, like General Motors, Tesla, Ford and Coda employ “active” systems to distribute a liquid or air to maintain an optimal range of temperature.

Styling

Slightly larger than a Nissan Versa, the Leaf is distinctive enough to set it apart from other hatchback models, but nothing about it shouts “green.” The styling is somewhat polarizing, eliciting comments from, “It’s a stylish, innovative looking glass into the future of the automobile,” to, “It looks like a platypus.” Built on a dedicated platform, it’s not an electrified version of a gasoline powered car like the Ford Focus Electric, it’s an exclusive model all its own.

2012 Nissan Leaf

The Leaf’s exterior is distinguished by a noticeable low hood flanked by two upslanted V-shaped headlights that split and redirect airflow away from the door mirrors, reducing wind noise and drag. With no radiator required to cool a nonexistent gas engine, the nose is grille-free, replaced by a door that opens for access to its charging ports.

A prominent character line flows from the top of the front fender upward towards bulging rear fender wells. In the rear, slim, vertical LED taillights are mounted high and extend downwards following the shape of the hatch door. Designers sprinkled just the right amount of chrome on door handles and a horizontal bar below the hood.

The Cabin And Features

Despite the small platform, the Leaf’s cabin feels spacious and airy, courtesy of an arched roof and a 106.3-inch wheelbase. Wheelbase is the distance between the front and rear axles and helps determine how much space a vehicle can devote to the passenger compartment.

The dash has a simple, clean design with a prominent center stack that features a seven-inch touchscreen, which controls the standard navigation system as well as showing a variety of things like energy efficiency readouts and driving range. In front of the driver, a two-tier instrument cluster is similar to that found in the Honda Insight. The top display includes the speedometer, time, outside temperature and an Eco indicator. The lower display houses the power meter, battery temperature, battery charge level, remaining energy gauge and a gauge that estimates the amount of remaining range in miles still available, based on the charge of the battery. The mileage remaining numbers shown are so overly optimistic or overly pessimistic that some Leaf owners have named the gauge “Guess-O-Meter.”

2012 Nissan Leaf

Quality of plastic materials is on par for the compact class and assembly construction is superb. Seat fabric and other interior pieces are made with partially recycled materials. Front seats are a nice balance between comfort and support. The driver’s seat is manually adjusted for height and the steering wheel tilts but surprisingly doesn’t telescope.

Front head-and legroom is generous, rear seat accommodations a little less so. Rear seats are split 60/40, and fold to expand the 14.5 cubic foot of cargo space, but there’s a step up in the load floor. A low stance makes it easy for little ones to climb in and out of the Leaf without help. There’s plenty of room for two car or booster seats but the latch anchors are difficult to dig out of the stiff seat cushions.

The Nissan Leaf is very well equipped with standard features. In addition to the 2012 upgrades mentioned earlier, the entry SV model comes with keyless ignition/entry, full power accessories, cruise control, steering wheel audio controls, automatic climate control and navigation system. Also included are an advanced trip computer, an AM/FM/CD audio system, iPod/USB audio interface, satellite radio and Bluetooth cell-phone connection.

2012 Nissan Leaf

Stepping up to the SL adds a rearview camera, automatic headlights, fog lights, the quick-charge port and a spoiler-mounted solar panel that trickle charges the conventional 12-volt battery, used to power accessories such as the radio.

There are a lot of gee-whiz features like the navi system’s ability to download custom routes from Google Maps, darken parts of the map that are out of range for the current charge and remembers every place you’ve plugged into. Also, the smart phone app connects to the Leaf in seconds and lets you check state of charge, schedule battery charging times as well as pre-warm or cool the cabin, plus more.

Driving The Leaf

Car and Driver said about the Leaf, “Range aside, the Leaf seems like a normal car.” HybridCars.com staff couldn’t agree more. We have driven several Leafs (Leaves?) on a variety of roads and a variety of distances and our notes always said, “It’s just like a normal car.” It requires no adjustments or changes from how you would operate a gas-powered car, which is what Nissan intended.

With a stout 207 pounds-feet of torque available from the electric motor the moment the go pedal is engaged, the Leaf’s acceleration is quite robust, reaching 60 mph from a stop in about nine seconds. The rate of acceleration begins to decrease around 45 mph, meaning you need to plan passes at highway speeds. The cabin is commendably quiet up to 60-65 mph, then wind and road noise become noticeable. While top speed is limited to 90 mph, highway driving quickly drains the battery.

The Leaf has a smooth, well-damped ride in urban conditions and on the highway exhibits the solidity of a larger car. Like most small cars the rear independent suspension is a twist-beam design, which limits its effectiveness in the corners. There is little body lean, but the ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires give up grip quickly.

2012 Nissan Leaf

Electrically assisted, the steering feel is natural and contributes to a generally rewarding drive. Kudos to the engineers who designed and tuned the regenerative brake system; brake pedal feel is firm and braking can be modulated, something that can’t be said about other regen brake systems.

While how many miles can be driven on a fully charged battery is most often talked about, another key metric is miles-per-kilowatt-hour efficiency. In our many drives we have registered as low as 3.4 miles/kwh, about 60 miles when driving really stupid with the air conditioner blasting, to as high as 4.27 miles/kwh, around 94 miles driving ultra conservatively. In other words, how you drive the Leaf plays a major role in how far you can travel on a fully charged battery.

Economics

Evaluating the Nissan Leaf can be looked at in two ways: $35,200 is way too many greenbacks for a car that can only travel 70 to maybe 100 miles or, the price is a bargain when you consider it severs the connection between the oil pipeline and your car plus, it produces zero emissions.

If you lean towards the second viewpoint, cost of ownership might be a factor in the buying decision. NADA Guides calculates the five-year cost of ownership is $38,647, which is very close to Motor Trend Magazine’s figure of $38,813. Motor Trend also gives the Leaf an “Excellent” value rating. Using Green Car Calculator to compare the Leaf with the similar size Nissan Versa, the Leaf five year ownership cost is $32,166 compared to the Versa’s $26,693. An additional viewpoint – and more info on going electric – can also be had from the advocacy group,
Plug In America.

Leaf has few competitors, including the 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV that is smaller than the Leaf, capable of 62 miles per charge and starts at $29,125. Ford’s 2013 Focus Electric is Leaf’s closest comparable EV with a starting price of $39,200. There’s also the Tesla Model S, a sport sedan priced from $49,900.

2012 Nissan Leaf

The Nissan Leaf may be the “the world’s first affordable, zero-emission car,” but it won’t restore the ozone layer by itself. While nudging us in the right direction, it also helps reduce oil dependence not to mention need to stop at the gas station and some scheduled maintenance required for internal combustion vehicles.

The Leaf is therefore a highly qualified decision weighing factors consumers did not have to consider before the new vanguard of electric vehicles began a couple years ago. Some benefits are obvious, and others may not be as apparent, but depending on your hot buttons, the value can be just as real, and in some cases, only possible for this kind of car.

Prices are manufacturer suggested retail price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.

 


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2012 Nissan Leaf
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  • Van

    So will the 2014 Model year Leaf sport a NMC battery with 42 KWh of capacity for the same price ($32500) and a 24 KWh NMC battery for $26,000?

  • jwishart

    The author needs to brush up on his units and terms. It’s “kW” and “kWh”, not “kw” and “kwh”. Also, “horsepower” is certainly not the “energy that maintains momentum”. This definition is very confusing and mixes other relevant units. Horsepower and kW are units of power, which is the rate at which energy is being expended. Thus, 1 W = 1 J/s, where J stands for joules, the SI unit for energy.

  • Jeff Cobb

    Jeff,

    The author did not write “kw” and “kwh.” I edited it so, in keeping with the AP Stylebook which, as you may know, is used as a reference guide by the Associated Press, and myriad other publications besides.

    It says:

    kilowatt-hour: The amount of electrical energy consumed when 1,000 watts are used for one hour. The abbreviation kwh is acceptable on second reference.

    What you write as “kWh” is in fact one arbitrary way of writing “kilowatt-hours” and is used in other circles, such as by electrical engineers, among others, and I am well aware of that. That said, “kwh” is not without precedence in journalism, and thus it is not, strictly speaking, an error.

    ###

    As for your other comments starting with: “Also, ‘horsepower’ is certainly not the “energy that maintains momentum”. This definition is very confusing and mixes other relevant units …”

    Larry Hall says: I write so readers who are not knowledgeable about automobiles are not befuddled by technical terminology and, at the same time, try not to talk down to those with knowledge. In the case of torque and horsepower, the key words are, “Think of … ” In the context of how I write, if you “Think of” horsepower as the energy that sustains momentum, it’s a very good analogy for those who are not familiar with the word. Knowledgeable folks know what horsepower is and read on.

    Cheers,

    Jeff Cobb

  • petrecon

    Curious that journalism, that casual trade, dealer in supposed clear exposition, can choose to be arbitrary in this matter. The capital letters in these standard units of physical measurement are abbreviations of the family names of the early investigators who did the fundamental characterizations of various physical properties. Honoring the dedication and insight of the likes of Watt, Ampere, Ohm, Henry, Faraday, Newton, etc., in this manner seems the right thing to do, AND follows the precedent of the international scientific community.
    BTW: Is there an AP Stylebook app that grinds through text to make it less formidable?

  • Jeff Cobb

    petrecon:

    RE: Curious that journalism, that casual trade, dealer in supposed clear exposition, can choose to be arbitrary in this matter.

    I did not say journalism chooses to be arbitrary in this matter. I said writing in general is arbitrary in that one group chooses one form, and another discipline or group might choose another form.

    RE: Honoring the dedication and insight of the likes of Watt, Ampere, Ohm, Henry, Faraday, Newton, etc., in this manner seems the right thing to do …

    You note the origins of the capital letters honor the family names. But when you see the term “kilowatt-hour” it has already been accepted to write in long form as “kilowatt-hour.”

    To stay consistent, we should also be writing “kiloWatt-hour” if we wish to go with the idea of capitalizing for respect.

    In fact, the term is now generic, and the state of the language has moved on from its roots of paying overt respect to the name of Watt when writing those letters “kilowatt.”

    Therefore, abbreviation to “kw” and “kwh” is more accurate to the term being abbreviated (all lower case). It is sort of a hold-over to (arbitrarily choose to) write “kWh” but still accept “kilowatt-hour.”

    This has nothing to do with deliberate disrespect for the family name, Watt. In fact the language evolves, despite attempts to always freeze it in time.

    As for your final question, our style strives to be as easy as practical to read. It is not close to dense technical material you may find in more dedicated scholarly journals, nor are the sentences overly complex.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Regards,

    Jeff

  • SPIKE

    Excellent review but I must disagree with “The rate of speed begins to decrease around 45 mph, meaning you need to plan passes at highway speeds. “.

    I have been driving a 2012 Nissan Leaf for 8 months now and have never had to plan ahead while accelerating any speed. Where I drive, highway speeds of 70 to 75 mph are common and the Leaf does not have a problem keeping up with the flow of traffic. While it is more effecient to decellerate or let the other car pass ahead of you, the Leaf can be driven quite aggressively. I have blown past many a sports car when the mood strikes me.

    Also the top speed is 94mph, which is an eerily quiet and smooth experience.

  • SPIKE

    Here is a site with various Nissan Leaf speed tests. While it is obviously not a Tesla it is hardly a Smart Fortwo

    http://www.mynissanleaf.com/wiki/index.php?title=Road_tests

  • Miranda

    Absolutely no indication of this at all. Seems highly, highly unlikely.

  • Miranda

    The car is surprisingly robust off the line but its acceleration does start to go down after that–more so than most cars. You’re right that it’s perfectly usable on the highway, though it’s certainly no rocket, so an on-the-whim passing of cars is harder than in something with real highway grunt.

  • davehead

    I wouldn’t buy one. I like the IDEA of an all-electric car but not the price. The batteries simply cost too much, and I can get great 41mpg economy from a ~$15,000 cheaper Civic HF. (Note: This is also why I turned my back on electric-powered RC airplanes. The batteries cost more to maintain/replace than the fuel versions.)

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  • ashok kumar

    How many life of Nissan leaf car batteries ?

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  • Anonymous

    “Girls, girls… You’re both pretty!
    (that was for the two Jeffs)

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  • TonyChannel

    Nissan Leaf brings both style and innovation. The five-door hatchback Leaf is as easy to drive.how to get rid of acne scars

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