2013 Nissan Leaf Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 26, 2013

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.

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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. 

8

2013 Nissan Leaf

Styling

The love-em-or-hate-em lines of the 2013 Nissan Line are distinctive, highly aerodynamic, and enclose a practical five-door hatchback.

The lines of the 2013 Nissan Leaf continue to be polarizing--as were those of the startling second-generation 2004 Toyota Prius--with most people either loving or loathing them. You'll find few people who have no opinion on the Leaf's upright yet surprisingly swoopy styling. The Leaf looks like nothing else on our roads, really, with a design Nissan aimed to make "iconic, but not weird." The company admits, though, that the styling comes "right up to the edge of "unusual."

The front of the Leaf droops down to the bumper because it doesn't have to cover a radiator. Replacing a non-existent grille is a large center door with a big Nissan logo on it, rather like a bigger gas door. It pops open to reveal one or two ports for connecting a cable to recharge the battery pack. Headlights (LEDs on most trim levels) are mounted high atop the fenders and sweep back almost to the base of the windshield, with translucent vertical fins sticking up out of the lens that channel air along the body to reduce drag and boost battery range.

The upright side doors contain a window line that sweeps up at the rear, and the tailgate is almost hexagonal, framed by high-mounted vertical taillights containing a strip of red LED brake lights. Most models have a horizontal spoiler extension on top of the tailgate, and the top-level Leaf SL model incorporates a small photovoltaic solar panel into that panel.

For 2013, Nissan has made subtle, invisible tweaks to the Leaf's aerodynamics that it says cut the drag coefficient by one point, to 0.28. Different manufacturers test in different wind tunnels, though, so be wary of making direct comparisons among models. Nissan also added two new paint colors for 2013--Metallic Slate and Glacier White--to join five carryover colors, including a unique Blue Ocean shade that's become the electric car's characteristic color. We recommend avoiding the black if you live in a warmer climate--shedding cabin heat with the air conditioning can sap driving range. We particularly like the rich Cayenne Red color, a rare choice among Leaf buyers.

Inside, the Leaf's cabin styling is radical than its shape. There's no shift lever, just a mouse-shaped "driving mode selector" on the tunnel. While it's not immediately intuitive, drivers quickly learn to pull it back and left once to engage Drive, and once more to switch to the energy-conserving Eco mode.

The instrument panel itself has digital gauges viewed through the steering wheel, plus a small upper panel with a digital speedometer, a clock, and a temperature gauge. In the upper center of the dash on all but the base Leaf S model, there's a large rectangular screen for displaying more detailed and graphic information: energy usage, driving range, maps, nearby recharging points, and more. (The Leaf S gets a smaller, simpler display.) These displays are dynamic and real-time: Switch on the air conditioning and watch available range drop, turn it off and see it rise again.

Once behind the wheel, though, drivers will quickly forget the Leaf is a battery electric vehicle--aside from the quite operation, that is. Some of the fittings are shared with more basic Nissan economy models, though many parts--including the windshield wipers--had to be developed from scratch to be far quieter since a Leaf has no engine noise to mask their sound.

6

2013 Nissan Leaf

Performance

The 2013 Nissan Leaf accelerates smoothly, though its steering and handling feel somewhat remote and it's hardly sporty.

The 2013 Nissan Leaf is a strikingly styled compact five-door hatchback in shape, but from the driver's seat, it's a remarkably quiet five-person car with smooth performance and middle-of-the-pack acceleration. The Leaf will accelerate briskly when asked to, but it requires the driver to push hard on the accelerator. That's almost opposite to many gasoline cars that deliver much of their maximum power in the first inch or two of pedal motion.

The Leaf's 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor produces a respectable 187 lb-ft of torque. It powers the front wheels, which makes driving the Leaf similar to any other front-wheel drive compact car. But its handling and roadholding are far from top of the class. The electric steering is both lightly weighted and numb, providing little feedback from the road and the same degree of centering regardless of how wheel angle. In fact, "appliance-like" seems the most suitable adjective--it's fine, but on the other end of the scale from anything sporty.

Tossing the 2013 Leaf around twisty roads highlights the basic specification: It's a tall, heavy car on fairly small tires (especially the 16-inch wheels on lower-level models), and it carries much of its mass low down in the floorpan (which contains the battery). This means there's not all that much body roll, but the numb controls don't encourage sporty driving either. We also found the Leaf surprisingly sensitive to side winds.

Tapping the Start button near the driver's right knee, pushing the mouse-like Drive Mode Indicator on the console left and down, and pressing the accelerator gets the Leaf underway--in pure silence. Push hard enough, and the Leaf will provide the torque you need to pass other cars in that crucial 40-to-70-mph range. It's not the fastest car in which we've merged into fast-moving freeway traffic, but it'll keep up and get you safely into the flow of other cars if you accelerate hard.

For 2013, there's a new calculation for the Leaf's electric range, which blends the 84 miles achieved at a 100-percent battery charge with the 66 miles produced by an 80-percent charge--which is an option drivers can select to maximize battery life, which increases somewhat if the battery isn't charged to 100 percent all the time. So this year's blended average driving range of 75 miles isn't comparable to last year's 73 miles, which was calculated only at the 100-percent charge level. Overall, range this year has gone up roughly 15 percent.

Like any car running on battery power, driving habits have a major impact on range. Accelerating gently, coasting down to stops, and planning ahead to avoid sudden acceleration or hard braking are all required to maximize driving range. As is usually the case, the most energy-efficient Eco mode is somewhere between slow and frustrating. Nissan says it cuts maximum power only by 10 percent, but it feels much higher. Flooring the accelerator thankfully overrides Eco mode, temporarily, for safety in sudden emergencies.

The regenerative braking is electronically tuned to simulate the brakes in a conventional car, unlike other all-electric cars with much greater regeneration that often permits "one-pedal driving" by drivers familiar with their cars. Below 60 mph, only light braking is required to slow the Leaf, For 2013, Nissan has added a "B" mode that increases the degree of regeneration--giving the Leaf something akin to engine braking, if you like.

The Leaf's top speed is capped at 90 mph, but speeds that high suck up battery energy quickly and range plummets. That highlights the Leaf's most useful duty cycles: around-town use up to 50 mph or regular commutes of predictable distances. And high-speed travel feels breathless, with steering feel getting heavier and acceleration falling off noticeably above 50 or 60 mph as aerodynamic drag starts to increase notably.

One around-town advantage to a clean sheet of paper design that lacks an engine up front: The 2013 Nissan Leaf has an astoundingly tight turning circle of just 17 feet, possibly the lowest of any car on the market today.

Despite its differences, the 2013 Leaf drives pretty much like a very quiet regular car. That should win over some of the worriers and cynics who still view plug-in electric cars as something akin to UFOs. Like the Prius hybrid before it, the Leaf isn't hugely fun to drive, but it's a practical and very competent car. It's just that the Leaf won't use a drop of gasoline, ever.

Now if Nissan could just add some more range ...

7

2013 Nissan Leaf

Comfort & Quality

The 2013 Nissan Leaf's interior has a smart design, and this year, the load bay is larger due to a relocated onboard charger.

The 2013 Nissan Leaf is comfortable to ride in, very quiet in operation, and has a lot of interior volume. Despite its compact shape and size, it's classified as a mid-size car by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)--as is the Toyota Prius hybrid, another five-door hatchback that's viewed as a compact but has far more cubic feet inside than you'd imagine.

The seats of the Leaf are comfortable, and there's plenty of headroom front and rear in its tall shape. Rear passengers ride nice and high, with part of the battery pack under the seat, but they sit in an unusual knees-up position because the floorpan contains the pack and isn't as far below the seat cushion as you'd expect.

For 2013, Nissan has added leather upholstery as standard to the Leaf SL top trim level--fulfilling a common request from buyers. Black interior fabric is also now available as an option to the pale grey velvety standard upholstery, which is made from recycled plastic bottles. The seats are manually adjustable--electric motors to move seats use up battery energy--and the headliner is a thin panel covered in the soft nap often known as "teddy-bear fur," all in service of reducing the weight being moved around to stretch driving range.

The Leaf's interior looks and feels more basic than those of other plug-in cars, including both the Chevy Volt and the Ford Focus Electric. It's closer to that of the Toyota Prius, though less Space Age-y and incoherent. The Leaf's steering wheel tilts, but doesn't telescope. And some interior fittings are similar to those in Nissan's economy cars. It's perfectly acceptable, just more appliance-like than luxurious.

For 2013, Nissan relocated the Leaf's onboard charger from the load bay to under the hood. This increases load-bay volume and, just as important, provides a flatter load floor with the rear seat folded down--removing the hump found in earlier Leaf models that ran side to side between the wheel arches and protruded several inches above the floor.

Traveling in the Leaf is a quiet, smooth, serene experience. The electric drive motor is smooth, though we detected some low but noticeable whine, and there are no engine or transmission noises to mask other sounds. That means tire noise is much more evident, starting around 30 mph and building to a low roar at higher speeds along with wind noise. The Leaf beeps to warn bystanders when the driver engages reverse, and Nissan has also built in a sort of whispery burbling noise as a pedestrian warning below about 20 mph. The Leaf's best speed seems to be the range up to about 40 mph, where it's almost eerily silent.

10

2013 Nissan Leaf

Safety

The 2013 Nissan Leaf has not only the full suite of safety equipment, but also excellent crash-test scores.

While earlier models of the Leaf received top ratings for safety, the 2013 Nissan Leaf has not yet been fully rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It receives four out of five stars for rollover safety--the same as 2011 and 2012 models--but has not been rated for frontal or side crash safety, so there's not yet an overall rating.

Earlier Leaf models, however, received the NHTSA's highest five stars for overall safety, comprised of five stars for side crash and four stars for frontal crash safety.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the 2013 Leaf its highest rating of "Good" for moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, and roof crush safety. It has not rated the latest Leaf on its new small-overlap front crash test. Previous model years of Nissan Leaf were deemed a Top Safety Pick by the IIHS.

Nissan itself tested the Leaf extensively in dozens of crash tests, and said the lithium-ion battery pack in the floorpan suffered not damage in 40-mph side offset crash tests.

The 2013 Leaf comes with the standard array of electronic safety systems, including braking assist, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, and a monitoring system for tire pressure. It has six airbags: front-seat riders are protected by bags in the dashboard and the sides of the car, and all four outboard passengers are covered by side-curtain airbags that shield the entire window area front and rear.

8

2013 Nissan Leaf

Features

The 2013 Nissan Leaf adds a few new top-end features, including leather upholstery, but it's still somewhat austere for the price.

The 2013 Nissan Leaf gets some updated equipment and new features, following requests from owners and potential buyers alike. You could view it as part of the Leaf's mission to dispel prevalent myths about electric cars, one being that electric cars don't offer the same level of features and equipment as a "regular" car.

The 2013 model year brings a new base trim level, known as the Leaf S, at a new and much lower base price of $29,650, including a mandatory $850 destination charge. Compared to previous years and models, the Leaf S substitutes 16-inch metal wheels with plastic wheel covers for alloy wheels, and replaces LED headlamps with less expensive projector-beam lights, and loses the cruise control. There's no navigation system, and no remote connectivity to let users communicate with the car via mobile phone.

Options for the Leaf S include a new 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger, which reduces charging time for a fully depleted battery pack to roughly 4 hours from the previous 7 to 10 hours. A rearview camera is also optional.

The previous base trim, the Leaf SV, now becomes the middle of three trim levels. It rides on 16-inch alloy wheels, has the 6.6-kW charger as a standard feature, and includes dual powered door mirrors, a rear air deflector at the top of the tailgate, and chrome door handles. The LED headlamps and running lamps are optional. The SV starts at $32,670 including delivery, or about $2,500 less than the 2012 price for the same trim level.

For 2013, the top-end Leaf SL model has added several new features, among them leather seats and a new design for its 17-inch alloy wheels, as well as the 6.6-kW charger. The SL models also adds automatic headlights and a backup camera. It can be recognized by the small photovoltaic solar panel mounted on the roof spoiler over the tailgate. The price starts at $35,690, again including delivery--a reduction of roughly $1,500 over the 2012 sticker.

The SL model also includes a standard DC quick-charging port. This type of charging (now found at about 160 stations nationwide) can recharge the battery to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes or less. But the Leaf uses a quick-charging standard known as CHAdeMO that has not been accepted as an international standard, and U.S. and European cars have settled on a different standard--known as CCS--that's incompatible with the Leaf system.

Other changes for 2013 include available black upholstery (previously all Leafs used a pale grey synthetic fabric made out of recycled plastic bottles), a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and long sun visors. Bluetooth hands-free connectivity is standard on all 2013 Leaf models, as is an intelligent key fob and auto-dimming rear-view mirror. And the charging port door on the nose is now illuminated by a light inside, and can be locked and unlocked using the intelligent key.

All Leafs except the base S model can be controlled via smartphone app, which gives the driver lots of information on the car and its charging behavior. All the information is also displayed on the car's in-dash monitor, including distance estimators to keep a Leaf driving within its range, charging status and battery energy indicators, and pre-heating or pre-cooling while still plugged in. Owners can also direct the car to charge when energy rates are cheapest, usually in the dead of night. While plug-in electric cars may one day "talk to" the grid to charge when electricity costs are lowest, for now owners must program this manually based on their local rate structures. 

A new option for 2013 is a hybrid heater that replaces the electric resistance heater used previously, but consumes less battery energy. Owners can disable climate control altogether if they like, all in service of teaching drivers how to extract the highest number of miles from the energy stored in the battery. As always, though, heating (or cooling) the cabin while the car is still plugged in minimizes range loss by using grid power rather than the stored energy in the battery pack.

As of last year, standard equipment on all Leafs includes the formerly optional winter package. It provides an electric heater for the battery pack, heated seats passenger both front and rear, and a heated steering wheel. Warming riders' backs and backsides and the driver's hands makes everyone feel warmer, but uses much less battery energy than heating the entire cabin.

Regardless of trim level and sticker price, all 2013 Nissan Leafs qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for purchasing a plug-in car. In California, Leaf owners qualify for a $2,500 purchase rebate from the state. Depending on where the buyer lives and works, other state, regional, and corporate incentives may be available as well--including the much-prized ability to drive in the carpool lane on crowded California freeways with just a single occupant.

For 2013, Nissan will continue its three-year, $199/month lease on the Leaf. The cost can be low because the Federal tax credit goes to the loaner, reducing paperwork and letting the buyer benefit immediately from the credit rather than waiting until that year's taxes are filed.

10

2013 Nissan Leaf

Fuel Economy

The 2013 Nissan Leaf is a zero-emission vehicle and in most states has a much lower carbon footprint than even a Toyota Prius.

While the 2013 Nissan Leaf is no longer the only battery-electric car on the market, it's the highest-selling one thus far--and far more affordable than the Tesla Model S that might nip at its heels in sales volume by the end of the year.

But like any electric cars that runs solely on power from the electricity grid, the 2013 Leaf is one of the very greenest cars anyone can buy. So far, the EPA hasn't yet issued its ratings for the latest Nissan Leaf. Last year it was rated slightly higher in energy efficiency (at 99 MPGe) by the EPA than than last year's Chevrolet Volt (at 94 MPGe), though both cars have been updated slightly this year. (MPGe, or "Miles Per Gallon Equivalent," is a measure of energy efficiency meant to convey how far a vehicle can travel electrically on the amount of stored battery energy that represents the energy contained in a single gallon of gasoline.)

With the new 6.6-kilowatt charger that comes standard in all but the base 2013 Nissan Leaf, recharging a fully depleted battery now takes only 4 hours using a 240-Volt Level 2 charging station. It may require some house rewiring, but no more than if you were installing an electric stove or clothes drier. On standard 110-Volt household current, a recharge can take up to 20 hours.

The greenness of a particular Leaf will depend on where it's driven; the electric grids of some states are far dirtier than those of others. A 2013 Nissan Leaf recharged on power from the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants is still cleaner--comparing "wells-to-wheels" carbon emitted through the process of creating the fuel as well as powering the car--than the average 25-mpg vehicle. But if you compare to a Toyota Prius rated at 50 mpg, however, a few areas (North Dakota and West Virginia, for example, have exceptionally dirty power), burning the gasoline in a Prius turns out to be slightly better overall. Luckily, California--which will buy more plug-in cars than the next five states combined--has a relatively clean grid, so the Leaf is about as green as you can get there.

As for costs, a mile run on electricity is usually far cheaper than a mile driven on gasoline. But the difference will vary quite a lot depending on the price per kilowatt-hour of electricity where the car is recharged.

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The Car Connection Consumer Review

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May 4, 2016
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

This is a great car--fun to drive and helps save the environment. The only thing its lacking is 200 mile range.

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This car is very responsive and easy to drive. We'll buy another when they get to that 200 mile range. Love our Leaf!!!
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March 1, 2016
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

Very good car

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My 2013 Nissan Leaf is the best car I ever drove. I have been driving from the age of 13years, & I have had about 25 different cars, but this is the best car I ever had.
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February 27, 2016
For 2013 Nissan Leaf

Perfect for my needs

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I love the head room and the all around comfort and the performance. My only complaint is that the buttons for the window controls and the for locks have no lighting so they are difficult to find at night.
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February 21, 2016
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

need to have longer range or quick 440v charger.

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North East not support 440v. Auto makers need to build infostructure.
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January 28, 2016
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

I Love My Leaf!

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I love my Leaf! The ONLY complaint I have is, as a busy mother of two, I wish it was a little bigger. I haven't run into many issues with range (less than 5 instances in almost 3 years), and the cloth interior... + More »
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January 18, 2016
For 2013 Nissan Leaf

Leaf is a great car!

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I really have no complaints about this car. The only reason I rated the interior/exterior as 4/5 stars is because my back does not like the shape of the driver's seat, but perhaps it is just my back. The car... + More »
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October 30, 2015
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

Terrific all around commuter car.

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We were the first Leaf owner on our island of approx. 10k population 2 years ago. Now there are more than 40 owners here! We all love this zero emmission aspect and easy commuter to nearby cities.
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October 23, 2015
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Enjoy the Nissan Leaf

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I was a little hesitant about buying a Leaf, especially the distance of around 85 miles, but I have adjusted my driving style, by using it for commuting back and forth to work. kid errands, to the market and... + More »
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October 11, 2015
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB S

So far so good

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Impressive , interesting , dependable .... All going d
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September 24, 2015
2013 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB S

Excellent car. It became our main car.

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We have a leaf and a mini-van. We use to put 12,000 miles a year on the mini-van. I change the oil on the mini-van every three thousand miles, it is now the end of September and I last changed the oil last... + More »
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