- World's highest-volume battery electric car
- Striking, futuristic styling
- Smooth, quiet electric motor
- Can seat five (unlike the Volt)
- Lavish financial incentives
- Real-world range of 50 to 80 miles
- Numb, appliance-like steering and handling
- Knees-up seating in rear seat
- Styling is remarkably polarizing
The 2013 is the greenest car you can buy--if you can live with between 70 and 100 miles of driving range on a full battery charge.
The 2013 Nissan Leaf, now in its third model year, remains the highest-volume battery electric car sold in the United States. It was the first modern battery-powered vehicle sold by a major carmaker in decades, and along with the Chevrolet Volt, launched the new era of plug-in electric cars. For 2013, it's has slightly updated equipment and lower prices, with a new base trim level added, and it is now built at Nissan's assembly plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.
Dispensing with worries that electric cars aren't "real cars," the five-door hatchback Leaf is easy to drive, keeps up with traffic, and will transport four people comfortably and five people when needed. Buyers who can afford the higher initial cost will enjoy running costs just one-fifth to one-third those of gasoline cars--depending on their local electric power rates.
The 2013 Leaf retains the striking and distinctive lines of the model launched in 2011, with a body that swells around the wheels, headlamps high up on the hood that sweep back almost to the base of the windshield, and vertical taillights containing a ribbon of red LEDs mounted high along the edges of the tailgate. Rather than a grille to admit air into the radiator it doesn't have, the Leaf has a charging-port door mounted in the center of its nose. Distinguishing among models is easy: the Leaf S base car uses 16-inch steel wheels with plastic wheel covers, rather than the alloy wheels fitted to all previous Leafs. The top-level SL models, on the other hand, can be identified by the small photovoltaic solar panel mounted on the roof spoiler over the tailgate.
The electric motor that drives the front wheels of the 2013 Leaf puts out 80 kilowatts, or about 107 horsepower. Its top speed is capped at 90 mph to conserve energy, but it will propel the 3,200-pound electric car from 0 to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds--hardly blazing, but adequate for daily traffic. Behind the wheel, the Leaf feels somewhat appliance-like, with numb steering and handling and roadholding that are competent but hardly an incentive to toss the Leaf around like a sport sedan.
Unlike the Chevrolet Volt and various plug-in hybrids now on sale, the Leaf runs solely on battery power--there's no engine to provide power as well. The car's floor holds the 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which extends under the rear seat as well. It is recharged by plugging it into the electric grid, mostly using a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station (which Nissan dealers will arrange to have installed, at a cost that will vary depending on your electric service). A Leaf can also be recharged using standard 110-Volt wall current, but it can take as much as 20 hours for a fully depleted battery. New for 2013 is a 6.6-kilowatt charger (standard on all except the base Leaf S model), which cuts recharging time for a fully depleted pack to about 4 hours--compared to 7 to 10 hours for earlier models with a 3.3-kW charger.
A smartphone app lets owners manage charging times, pre-heat and pre-cool the cabin while the car is plugged in, and control the vehicle in other ways. The car will alert them when charging is done, or if it stops before it's complete. The same functions can also be accessed from the car's display screen.
The biggest concern with the 2013 Nissan Leaf is its range, which is expected to be rated at 75 miles. That's not directly comparable to the previous year's 73 miles, though, since the new rating for 2013 blends the 66 miles of range achieved if the battery is charged to 80 percent of capacity (for longer life) and the 84 miles produced by a full charge. Overall, electric range has risen by about 15 percent--from last year's 73 miles on a full charge to this year's 84--but that's not immediately clear from comparing the ratings for the two years. As before, in cold weather and at high speeds, battery range can fall by up to one-third, depending on how the car is driven. The Leaf isn't likely to be a household's only car, though electric-car drivers say their "range anxiety" abates quickly as they gain confidence in their cars.
During 2012, Nissan rolled out the Leaf nationwide, though not initially to every single Nissan dealer. And while sales were lower than initial company projections, the company sold 9,000 to 10,000 Leafs in each of 2011 and 2012--and expects sales to grow considerably as the Tennessee production line gets up to speed and consumers become aware of the lower prices.
The new base model, the Leaf S, starts at $29,650 with destination charge included. That's a considerable drop from last year's lowest price, $35,200, for what is now the mid-level Leaf SV model--which this year starts at $32,670. The highest trim level, the Leaf SL, starts at $35,690. All Leaf models qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, along with various state, local, and corporate incentives. Nissan is continuing to offer a three-year lease at $199 a month as well, which proved highly appealing to buyers who may not have wanted to worry about battery capacity over the lifetime of the car.
The Leaf continues as the battery-powered car that's on the market today, with sales far ahead of other such cars, including the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Ford Focus Electric, and a host of low-volume "compliance cars" sold only in California to meet that state's regulations. The 2013 Nissan Leaf gets high safety ratings, has fully modern features and equipment, and is likely to make an excellent second or third car for many households. And, if the buyers to date are any indication, it may quickly become the preferred car in the household due to its low cost of operation, its zero-emission status, and the smooth and quiet driving experience.