New & Used Nissan Leaf: In Depth
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The Nissan Leaf is a full electric mid-size hatchback that can seat up to five passengers. It’s the first EV built and sold by a global automaker and it has become an icon in the world of electric vehicles—similar to how the Toyota Prius has ruled over the hybrid market.
But the 2013 Leaf has several important changes from its 2011 and 2012 predecessors. Most importantly, it's built in the U.S.--on the same Tennessee assembly line that makes gasoline cars, no less--and its price is considerably lower. There's a new base-level Leaf S model, and Nissan has made dozens of smaller feature and equipment changes in response to feedback from enthusiastic and vocal owners.
For 2012, more Leafs were sold globally than any other pure electric car. But the first two years' worth, made in Japan, suffered from the expensive Japanese yen. Nissan has high hopes for lower-cost Leafs (along with several new-model offshoots as well) now that it's paying for them in dollars.
Indeed, the new 2013 Nissan Leaf S base model starts at $28,800 before delivery, meaning that the effective price in California after a Federal income-tax credit and a $2,500 state purchase rebate is less than $20,000. Things are even better in Hawaii, which offers a $4,500 purchase rebate. There are many other state, regional, local, and corporate incentives as well, including the ability to travel with just a single occupant in the carpool lane on California's crowded freeways.
The Leaf competes with a variety of different types of cars that can recharge from the electric grid. 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 a number of so-called compliance cars on sale in California to meet that state's zero-emission laws, but they are sold in tiny volumes--whereas Nissan has enormously ambitious plans for selling tens or hundreds of thousands of electric cars in short order.
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 interior room close to that of 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 at 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 miles per hour.
Electric range for the current Leaf is likely to be rated by the EPA at 75 miles, but that number is not directly comparable to the previous year's 73 miles. The 2013 rating is an average of the Leaf's range with its lithium-ion battery pack charged to 100 percent (84 miles) and to 80 percent (66 miles). Last year's 73-mile rating compares directly to this year's 84 miles, meaning that real-world range could be up to 15 percent higher. Owners quickly learn, however, that range can vary from 65 to 100 miles depending on speed, temperature, and how much use is made of the Leaf's heater in cold weather.
The 2013 Leaf expands the range of trim levels from two (SV and SL) to three, adding a new base-level Leaf S model that forgoes the alloy wheels, LED headlights, and navigation system that were standard on all 2011 and 2012 Leafs.
Other changes for 2013 include relocation of a smaller battery charger from the load bay into the engine compartment, expanding cargo capacity, and an optional 6.6-kilowatt charger that reduces 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 that will take up to 20 hours for 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.
For 2013, all Leafs except the base Leaf S model include the ability to pre-heat or pre-cool the car while it’s still plugged in, to reduce the load on the battery. The pale grey coarse, velvety upholstery material is made from recycled plastic bottles and home appliances, and a black interior and leather seats have been added for 2013 as well.
Other upgrades include an improved hybrid cabin heating system that uses less electric energy, a reduction in aerodynamic drag, and some changes to the vehicle information and energy usage readings in the instrument cluster and display screen.
While the Leaf's purchase price is still far higher than a comparable gasoline compact hatchback, its running costs are much lower--though the cost of electricity across the country varies far more than even the price of gasoline. But at the U.S. average cost for electricity (about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour), the Leaf costs about 3 cents a mile to run on electricity--versus 16 cents per mile for a 25-mpg car running on $4/gallon gasoline.
The Leaf is the first of several all-electric models expected from Nissan, which has placed a large bet on all-electric cars versus plug-ins that are either adapted conventional hybrids (like the Prius Plug-In) or use a range extending engine (like the Volt) to provide longer travel distances. Coming soon are both an electric Nissan local delivery van and an Infiniti electric luxury coupe.