New & Used Nissan Leaf: In Depth
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The Nissan Leaf is an electric compact five-door hatchback. In its short time on sale, it has become the world's best-selling EV. The Leaf is powered by a lithium-ion battery pack running a front-mounted electric motor and can be recharged in seven hours or less with the right equipment.
As the first mass-market pure-electric car, the Leaf has become something of an icon since its introduction for the 2011 model year, just as the Toyota Prius has become the shorthand for hybrids around the globe. Although sales numbers are still relatively modest, the Leaf continues to quietly outsell all of its battery-electric competition.
The Leaf competes with a variety of different types of plug-in electric cars. These range from the Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car to the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and the more expensive but much more capable Tesla Model S all-electric luxury sport sedan. There are also several so-called compliance cars on sale in California to meet that state's zero-emission laws, but they are available only there, and only in tiny volumes.
There have been essentially two versions of the Nissan Leaf since its launch as a 2011 model. The 2011 and 2012 models were built in Japan, with prices suffering from the expensive Japanese yen as a result. When Nissan moved Leaf production for North America to Tennessee, it made several important changes--and cut the price considerably. The company added a new base-level Leaf S model and made dozens of smaller changes to features and equipment in response to feedback from vocal and enthusiastic early owners.
The latest Leaf models start under $30,000, which means that for California buyers, the effective price after a $2,500 state purchase rebate and a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit can be below $20,000. Hawaii offers a $4,500 purchase rebate, Georgia offers a $5,000 income-tax credit, and there are a plethora of other state, local, and regional incentives as well. Those include the ability to travel with just a single occupant in the carpool lane on the crowded freeways of California.
All Nissan Leafs use a 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack built into the car's floorpan to power an 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels. The compact Leaf offers enough interior room to deem it a midsize car, and its weight of well over 3,000 pounds is clearly more in line with the larger category. Like all electric cars, which can develop peak torque from 0 rpm, it is brisk off the line. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph is in the 10-second range, and top speed is limited to roughly 90 mph.
Electric range for the latest Leaf is rated by the EPA at 84 miles, but that number is not directly comparable to range ratings from previous years, as the states of battery charge--whether to 80 percent (for longer battery life) or 100 percent (for maximum range)--were not consistent among the years. Gentle driving can produce real-world range up to 15 percent higher. Owners quickly learn, however, that range can vary from 65 to 100 miles depending on speed, outside temperature, and how much use is made of the Leaf's heater in cold weather.
The Leaf is now offered in three trim levels. The budget-conscious Leaf S skips several items that were standard on all 2011 and 2012 models, including LED headlights, alloy wheels, and navigation. Above that, there is the mid-grade Leaf SV and then the range-topping Leaf SL.
Significant changes to the Leaf for 2013 included downsizing and relocating the battery charger from the load bay into the engine compartment, which expanded cargo capacity. Equally important to everyday usage was an optional 6.6-kilowatt charger that cut charging time for a fully depleted battery from seven hours to about four, using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. (That power is the same kind used for electric stoves and clothes driers.) All Leafs come with a 110-volt charging cord for use with standard household current, but most do not rely solely on it because it takes up to 20 hours to charge a fully depleted pack.
Most Leafs can also "quick-charge" up to 80 percent of their battery capacity within 30 minutes at special "DC quick charging" charging stations that work on the Japanese CHAdeMO standard. Those stations are still rare, but are being rolled out in regions--Oregon and Washington, parts of Texas--that are working aggressively to adopt electric cars.
All Leaf models except the base S include the ability to pre-heat or pre-cool the car while it’s still plugged in, to reduce battery energy use. They can be controlled for this purpose through a website or smartphone app.
The Leaf's pale grey, coarse, velvety upholstery material is made from recycled plastic bottles and home appliances; a black interior and leather seats are options as well.
The Leaf remains more expensive to buy than a comparably sized gas-powered hatch. Its financial advantage lies in operation costs, which are significantly lower than burning fuel. Even with fluctuation of electricity prices from region to region, the Leaf wins; the national average price per kilowatt-hour is around 12 cents, meaning it costs on average 3 cents per mile. That's compared to 16 cents per mile in a gas-powered car running at 25 mpg on $4/gallon fuel.
Nissan has hugely ambitious plans for selling tens or even hundreds of thousands of electric cars in short order, and the Leaf is just the first of several battery-electric models it will launch this decade. Meanwhile, the Leaf is among the top three most common plug-in cars in North America--and it's just getting started. Renault-Nissan recently announced that it has sold 200,000 electric vehicles, more than any other automaker, and that it now controls 58 percent of the EV market, with the Leaf making up a large portion of that. So even though Tesla gets more headlines, the Leaf still handily outsells it.