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Now in its fifth model year, the 2015 Nissan Leaf is by far the best-selling electric car in the world. The battery-electric five-door hatchback, which sits on the footprint of a compact car but has the interior room of a mid-size, may even come to define the electric car just as the Prius has defined hybrids. The Leaf's looks haven't changed since its 2011 launch, and aside from minor feature differences, the only notable change for 2015 is an updated chemistry for its lithium-ion battery that Nissan says tolerates high temperatures much better--those in sun-baked Southwestern desert states, for instance.
Some see the Leaf as just another compact five-door hatchback--although a quiet one in motion--while others find its design and unusual styling odd, even ugly. Like the Prius, the Leaf's shape is distinctive, bordering on unique--which translates to polarizing for many buyers and shoppers. Some like the Leaf's sloping front, with the grille replaced by a central door over the electric charging ports, flanked by bug-eyed headlights that sweep back almost to the base of the windshield. The lamp units have transparent vertical fins sprouting from their tops to channel air around the car to reduce aerodynamic drag. At the back, vertical ribbons of LED taillights flank the tailgate.
Inside, the interior is more conventional, with an overlay of Space Age or futuristic styling found in the mushroom-like drive selector and the various digital displays of running information. Tastes vary, but the current Leaf shape is sufficiently polarizing that Nissan has hinted the next Leaf (most likely a 2017 model) will probably have lines that are slightly less outré.
A 2015 Nissan Leaf drives and operates just like a normal car, though many controls feel slightly remote, because virtually everything is electrically actuated. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is a bit less than 10 seconds, though it's hard to gauge how slow or fast the acceleration is because there's no transmission to shift and the Leaf's electric drive is exceptionally quiet. Top speed of the 3,200-pound car is limited to 90 mph.
The powertrain of a Nissan Leaf is simplicity itself. A flat 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, mounted below the cabin floor and under the rear seat, sends electricity to an 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels. As in a hybrid, the motor also serves as a generator to recharge the battery during regenerative braking, returning otherwise wasted energy to the battery.
The new "hot-weather" chemistry in the battery cells for 2015 doesn't change the EPA-rated range of 84 miles, but it is expected to make the pack significantly more resistant to capacity loss due to very high ambient temperatures--a problem seen in a small number of cars in climes like Phoenix, Arizona, where temperatures just above the asphalt can reached 150 degrees F or higher during the summer.
Still, buyers should know that in cold weather and at high speeds, the range delivered by the battery can fall by up to one-third, depending on how the car is driven. Electric-car drivers say their "range anxiety" abates quickly as they gain confidence in their cars, but they also have to learn to take ambient temperature into account.
Other than the hot-weather battery, the only notable differences for 2015 are a new wheel design for the SV trim level and the addition of Hands-Free Text Messaging and Destination Entry for all but the base S model.
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.
The 2015 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 a new alloy wheel design for 2015, 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.
All Leafs sold in the U.S. are now assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, as are their lithium-ion battery packs, though a majority of the components are still imported. But local assembly has helped Nissan steadily boost the pace of Leaf sales, often a hard trick to pull off with a car that's nearing the end of its product life. And the Leaf has settled into its role as the quiet, smooth, affordable electric car that costs just pennies a mile to run--far less than any comparable gasoline car. The Leaf now sells well in multiple locales: not only California and the Pacific Northwest, but also in several parts of Texas and in Atlanta, where buyers benefit from a $5,000 state income-tax credit on top of the Federal income-tax credit of $7,500.