- Zero emissions, always
- Distinctive, futuristic design
- Quiet, smooth travel
- Five seats (unlike the Volt)
- Very low running cost per mile
- Range falls in cold weather
- Handling and steering numb
- Rear passengers sit knees-up
- Love-it-or-hate-it styling
The 2014 Nissan Leaf is the world's most popular battery electric car, and the greenest--but it can take time to get used to real-world ranges of 60 to 90 miles.
The Nissan Leaf remains by far the highest-volume and best-selling electric car in the world. Nissan has likely now sold 125,000 Leafs or more since its December 2010 launch, and the battery-electric five-door compact hatchback frequently sets new monthly sales records. It's become the de facto electric car, just as the Toyota Prius became the de facto hybrid after a slow start 14 years ago. 2014 Nissan Leaf production for the U.S. is ramping up as the Smyrna, Tennessee, plant increases its production of the lithium-ion cells that store energy to propel the car a rated 84 miles on a charge.
Make no mistake, the Nissan Leaf electric car--with its admittedly unusual looks--represented a huge gamble for Nissan when it was launched, in the same month as GM's range-extended electric Chevrolet Volt. The company bet that the global car-buying public was ready for an all-electric vehicle powered by a modern lithium-ion battery, and that an early and aggressive launch would catapult it to dominance in the new powertrain technology. It's been far from smooth sailing, with everything from self-inflicted launch hiccups to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A spate of politically motivated negative coverage of electric cars likely didn't help either.
But now in its fourth model year, with a revised "hot-weather" battery chemistry around the corner and a more comprehensive update coming for 2016 or 2017, the Nissan Leaf has settled into its role as the quiet, smooth, predictable electric car that costs just pennies a mile to run--far less than any comparable gasoline car. The Leaf now sells well in those locales where electric cars are popular, including California and the Pacific Northwest, but also in Atlanta and several parts of Texas.
Little changed for 2014 from the U.S.-built 2013 model, which incorporated several changes over its Japanese-assembled predecessors. The one major change is a rise in its EPA combined rating for electric range, which has risen to 84 miles from last year's 75 miles. This isn't due to any changes in the car, but to the elimination of an 80-percent battery charging mode--which, under arcane EPA rules, reduced the range rating.
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. Other than that, the only notable difference for 2014 is that the rearview camera is now standard equipment.
Styling hasn't changed in four years, with the lines no less distinctive than in 2011. The Leaf's upright body swells around the wheels, with notably swept-back headlamps that reach almost to the base of the windshield and contain transparent vertical fins that channel air around the car to reduce its aerodynamic drag and conserve battery energy. There's no grille, since there's no conventional radiator, and the nose instead has a central charging port under a Nissan-badged door that looks like a large gas door where the grille would otherwise be. At the rear, vertical ribbons of LED taillights flank the tailgate.
The Nissan Leaf five-door hatchback is easy to drive, keeps up with traffic, carries four people comfortably and five when needed, and comes with all the usual features and accessories found on any other compact car. While it's still perhaps $10,000 pricier than a comparably sized conventional car, buyers find they save enormous amounts of money from not having to buy gasoline. Indeed, electric cars cost only one-fifth to one-third as much per mile to run as gasoline cars do, depending on how much the owner pays for a kilowatt-hour of electricity.
To the driver, the Nissan Leaf functions perfectly well, but many of the controls feel slightly remote, since virtually everything is electrically actuated. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is a bit less than 10 seconds, though because there's no transmission to shift and the Leaf's electric drive is exceptionally quiet, it's hard to gauge how slow or fast the acceleration is. Top speed of the 3,200-pound car is capped at 90 mph.
Mechanicals are fairly simple: A 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is mounted in the floorpan and extends up under the rear seat as well. It powers an 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels, and also serves as a generator under regenerative braking, returning energy that would otherwise be wasted as brake heat to the battery for reuse.
Recharging the battery is usually done by plugging it into a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. Nissan dealers will arrange to have one of these installed, at a cost that varies depending on the condition of your house and garage wiring and electric service. You can also use standard 110-volt wall current to recharge a Leaf, via a charging cord stored in the load bay, but that can take up to 20 hours for a fully depleted battery. All Leafs except the base S trim level have an onboard 6.6-kilowatt charger which will recharge a fully depleted pack in about 4 hours. Owners can direct the car to pre-heat or pre-cool its cabin while still plugged in, via a smartphone app or commands on the car's touchscreen display, which conserves battery energy. The app also provides updates on the charging process, and alerts if the car is unplugged or it stops charging before the battery is fully charged.
The steering and handling are direct, but relatively numb. This isn't a car you'll necessarily take to slalom tests or handling gymkhanas, but it does feel slightly appliance-like. We suspect that'll be just fine for those who use the Leaf as a practical, low-cost commuter or around-town vehicle.
The 2014 Nissan Leaf comes in three trim levels. Starting at $28,980, the base Leaf S has 16-inch steel wheels with silver plastic wheel covers, uses dark-colored nylon upholstery, and forgoes the large dashboard touchscreen and other amenities. It also has a slower 3.3-kW onboard charger that takes longer to recharge the battery. The mid-level SV model, at $32,000, adds alloy wheels, the larger touchscreen display, and better telematics.
The luxury Leaf SL model, at $35,020, sports a small photovoltaic solar panel mounted on the roof spoiler over the tailgate. It generates just enough power to run two ventilation fans that pull hot air out of the cabin while parked in the sun--reducing the load on the air-conditioning system when the car is used. Options include an energy-saving seven-speaker Bose audio system and Nissan's AroundView Monitor. All models also carry a mandatory $850 destination fee. All Leaf models qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit, along with various state, local, and corporate incentives. Nissan also offers a three-year lease at $199 a month, allowing the benefits of the tax credit (which goes to the lessor) to reduce the monthly payment, as well as reducing worry about battery durability over the life of the car.