The Car Connection Nissan Leaf Overview
The Nissan Leaf is a five-door hatchback, and it's the first mass-market electric car to be sold in the United States.
New in the 2011 model year, the Leaf is now powered by a higher-capacity battery that gives it more range on each charge—a must-have feature, since its rivals now include the range-extended Chevrolet Volt and the Tesla Model S.
For 2017, the Leaf is largely unchanged ahead of a major redesign expected for next year. Last year, the SV and SL models gained a larger 30-kwh battery pack, which gave it them a boost from 84 to 107 miles of range. Late in the 2016 model year, Nissan extended the higher capacity to S models and dropped the old 24-kwh pack. While that may have been confusing for some model year 2016 shoppers, for 2017 every Leaf boasts the bigger battery.
MORE: Read our 2017 Nissan Leaf review
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.
Nissan now offers the Leaf 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.
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. There are numerous 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.
Until 2016, all Leafs used a 24-kwh lithium-ion battery pack built into the car's floorpan to power an 80-kw (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels. The compact Leaf offers enough interior room to deem it a mid-size 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 0 to 60 mph is in the 10-second range, and top speed is limited to roughly 90 mph.
Electric range for the 24-kwh 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.
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-kw charger (later made standard on all but the base Leaf S) 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.