2015 Nissan Leaf Review

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John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
May 6, 2015

The 2015 Nissan Leaf is the best-selling electric car in the world, and while it's a little appliance-like, it's a real car that delivers a quiet, smooth ride for only pennies per mile.

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.

Review continues below

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.

8

2015 Nissan Leaf

Styling

The 2015 Nissan Leaf's shape still divides people; some like its distinctive details, others just call it ugly--and the interior's unconventional too

The design of the 2015 Nissan Leaf, even in its fifth year, remains polarizing and controversial. Nissan's goal of making the car "iconic, but not weird" may have skewed a bit too much toward the weird end of the scale, to judge by reactions from at least some electric-car advocates. In form, it's a standard five-door compact hatchback, tall enough to accommodate a thin battery pack under the cabin floor--but it's the details that startle people who've never seen one before.

Get close to a Leaf and you'll see the nose angling down to the bumper, with no grille (no radiator, remember?) and a centered charge-port opening that resembles a large gas door with a Nissan logo on it. Angular headlights up high sweep back almost to the corners of the windshield, with a distinctive clear fin sticking up that smooths airflow around the body. Inside, LEDs are standard on all except the base Leaf S model.

The side doors are conventional, but the base of the window line rises toward the rear. The liftgate is all but hexagonal, and it protrudes a bit below the beltline, giving the Leaf a rounded bustle. The taillights are vertical strips of LEDs, again mounted up high just outboard of the hatch opening. A spoiler on top of the tailgate extends the line of the roof--again, it's to smooth airflow and reduce energy-consuming aerodynamic drag--and the top-level Leaf SL model has a small photovoltaic solar panel embedded in it. That panel only generates enough power to run a couple of ventilation fans that cool the cabin, though Leaf owners will likely get a lot of questions about whether their car runs on sunlight. It doesn't.

Inside, the cabin is a mix of standard Nissan economy-car and radical design touches. The instruments are split in two levels, with a digital speedometer, temperature gauge, and clock on a panel above the digital gauges in a cluster behind the wheel. A large rectangular display in the center of the dash shows energy usage, driving range, maps, nearby recharging points, and more in real time, although a simpler, smaller dash display is used on the base Leaf S model. One thing that may perplex novices: Putting a Leaf in "gear" requires a gentle tug back and left on a mouse-shaped driving mode selector sitting on the console.

Most of the Leaf was engineered from the ground up to operate silently--including specially quiet windshield wipers--but some interior fittings are shared with more basic Nissan models. We're not fond of the pendant parking-brake pedal, a throwback to the Eighties that replaced the electric parking brake on earlier Leafs. Of the available colors, we like the rarely-seen rich Cayenne Red color, and there's also a distinctive Leaf blue. But you'll want to avoid ordering black if you live in a warm or hot climate; using the air conditioning to cool the cabin chews through battery energy and reduces the Leaf's effective range.

7

2015 Nissan Leaf

Performance

The 2015 Nissan Leaf accelerates, brakes, and handles adequately, but it's more appliance-like than involving.

The 2015 Nissan Leaf is a perfect example of why electric cars are simply nicer to drive: It's a quiet, smooth five-door hatchback that delivers drama-free driving despite acceleration that's only average. Its handling and roadholding is adequate but far from engaging; rather than involving the driver in the car's abilities, it makes the process as low-effort as possible. Driving a Leaf is notable only for its calm and simplicity.

When required, the Leaf will accelerate briskly, but the driver has to push hard on the accelerator--an energy-saving measure to ensure that degree of power is really wanted. The 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that powers the front wheels draws energy from the 24-kilowatt-hour battery pack just under the cabin floor; the motor produces a healthy 187 lb-ft of torque.

It's in the handling and roadholding where the Leaf may disappoint those who enjoy the process of driving. There's nothing inherently wrong or dangerous, but the electric steering is numb, with light weighting, and it provides very little feedback from the road. No matter which way a driver turns the wheel, its centering force seems to remain the same. The Leaf does provide an incredibly tight turning circle of just 17 feet--possibly the lowest of any car on the market today--due to the lack of an engine up front between the wheel wells.

There's little body roll in the Leaf, because the heaviest component (the battery pack) is carried at the car's lowest point. Because it's a tall car on small tires (especially the Leaf S base model, which uses 16-inch wheels), we found the Leaf sensitive to side winds. But the lack of road feel or control feedback makes "appliance-like" the most suitable adjective for the Leaf. It's fine, but it's the antithesis of anything sporty.

The EPA-rated electric range this year is quoted at 84 miles combined. Still, buyers need to know that any car running on battery power is sensitive to driving habits and temperature, both of which affect range in a major way. Drivers learn to accelerate gently, coast down to stops, and plan ahead to avoid sudden acceleration or hard braking, all in the name of conserving energy. There's also a Eco mode for greater efficiency, which cuts maximum available power by 10 percent--although the effect feels much greater. Flooring the accelerator thankfully overrides Eco mode, temporarily, for safety in sudden emergencies. In the Leaf, Eco mode is somewhere between slow and frustrating, and we avoided it in our road tests.

As well as temperature--the lower it gets, the less range the battery delivers--high speeds burn through battery energy, reducing range as well. High-speed travel in a Leaf feels breathless, with the steering feel getting heavier and acceleration declining noticeably above 50 or 60 mph as aerodynamic drag rises. Top speed is capped at 90 mph. While the Leaf is fine for freeway commuting, it may be most useful in around-town use up to 50 mph or regular commutes of predictable distances.

To get the Leaf underway, a driver taps the Start button, pushes the mouse-like Drive Mode Indicator on the console left and back, and simply presses the accelerator. The result is motion in virtual silence. When you need torque to pass other cars, it's there if you floor the accelerator, but it's still far from lightning-fast in the crucial 40-to-70-mpg range.

Nissan has tuned the regenerative braking to simulate the brakes of a conventional car. There's no possibility of the "one-pedal driving" found in cars like the Tesla Model S or BMW i3, with their much greater regenerative braking. There's now a "B" mode, however, that increases the regeneration to mimic the effect of engine braking if the driver chooses that mode.

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. Despite some of its performance drawbacks, the 2014 Leaf feels to drivers and passengers just like a regular car that happens to be very, very quiet. It's a convincing sales tool for the benefits of electric cars, and many Leaf owners become de facto evangelists for the joys of plug-in travel, offering rides and drives to friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues.

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

7

2015 Nissan Leaf

Comfort & Quality

The 2015 Nissan Leaf's five-door hatchback shape offers interior room, a useful cargo bay, and a serenely quiet cabin at lower speeds.

The 2015 Nissan Leaf is smooth, quiet, and mostly serene on the road, especially at 40 mph or less, compared to any compact vehicle with a gasoline or diesel engine. You may hear a bit of low whine from the electronics and electric motor from time to time, but otherwise, it's smooth and notably free of vibrations.

As the Leaf gathers speed, tire noise is far more evident because there's no engine or transmission noise to mask it. Starting around 30 mph, you'll hear the tires on pavement increase in volume to a muted roar at highway speeds, plus the whoosh of wind passing around the bodies. It's hard to explain to novices how quiet electric cars are, and how jarring a return to gasoline cars can be after spending a day in a Leaf. What you hear in the electric Nissan is noises that are largely masked by mechanical racket in conventional cars. But up to about 40 mph, the Leaf is almost eerily silent.

The front seats are comfortable, there's plenty of headroom front and rear, and the rear passengers sit high--unlike cars with drooping rooflines that drop rear-seat occupants down toward the floor. Still, riders in the rear will find their knees slightly higher than they may expect, since instead of the conventional footwell, there's a flat battery pack just under the floorpan.

The base Leaf S and mid-level SV use a velvety pale gray seat upholstery that Nissan proudly explains is made from recycled soda bottles. Customer demand for black interiors, however, ensured that you can now get black as an option. The top SL trim level has standard leather upholstery. Still, power seats aren't offered--to save battery energy that could otherwise move the car--and the thin headliner is covered in "teddy-bear fur," a soft nap that camouflages an otherwise very insubstantial feeling panel.

In fact, there's a lot of room inside a Leaf. It's classified as a mid-size car under Federal rules, even though its footprint is that of a compact car--similar to the Toyota Prius hybrid, another car that looks like a compact but due to the tall five-door layout, has much more volume inside than you'd imagine.

While it's capacious, the Leaf interior looks and feels more basic than those of most other plug-in cars--especially the Chevy Volt and Ford Focus Electric. We recognized some interior fittings from smaller Nissan models, which makes sense to save money but jars in a car that will likely depart the dealer with a bottom line over $30,000. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, and some of the plastics feel distinctly lightweight, just like the headliner.

7

2015 Nissan Leaf

Safety

The 2015 Nissan Leaf earns mostly adequate--if not perfect--crash-test ratings, and has the standard electronic safety systems.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) no longer deems the 2015 Nissan Leaf a Top Safety Pick, as newer vehicles offer more safety features and crash-safety tests are more stringent now than they were in 2011. While the IIHS gave the Leaf its highest score of "Good" for safety on its four traditional safety tests--moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, roof strength, and head restraints and seats--the Leaf scored badly on the new and tougher small-overlap front crash test. The IIHS gave the Leaf a Poor rating on that test, its lowest of four levels.

The 2015 Leaf gets four stars out of five from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) not only as an overall rating, but also for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety tests.

Perhaps more important, after close to four years on the road and a slew of headlines about fires in other electric cars, we're not aware that a single person has died in a Leaf accident--or at least that it's been publicized. Nissan knew its first electric car would undergo extra scrutiny on the safety front, and it performed dozens of crash tests during extensive testing of prototype Leafs. Even in a 40-mph side impact, the battery pack under the cabin floor suffered no damage.

Last year, the rearview camera--formerly an option--was made standard on every Leaf. Nissan's electric car also provides the expected suite of electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, braking assist, traction control, and a tire-pressure monitor. Occupants are protected by six standard airbags: front-seat riders have bags in the dashboard and the sides of the car, and side-curtain airbags shield the entire window area front and rear to protect all four passengers in the outboard seats.

A pedestrian-alert sound is generated below about 20 mph to warn bystanders that the otherwise silent Leaf is approachign. It's a sort of whispery burbling noise that's distinctive, although it doesn't necessarily sound like a car. The Leaf also beeps in reverse for the same reason.

8

2015 Nissan Leaf

Features

The 2015 Nissan Leaf is still pricey for the features it provides, due to its electric powertrain, but three trim levels let buyers choose.

Revised battery chemistry aside, the 2015 Nissan Leaf electric car largely carries over from the previous model year. Three trim levels are available: the base Leaf S, a mid-level Leaf SV, and the top-of-the-line Leaf SL. In previous years, the top and bottom models have sold best--an inversion of the usual sales curve for conventional cars. We'd suggest that means Leafs are being bought to save money on running costs (the low end) and by affluent buyers who want to drive electric while still retaining as many bells and whistles as possible from pricier and more luxurious models.

At the low end, a 2015 Leaf S carries a sticker price of $28,980. On top of that, there's a mandatory $850 delivery fee that applies to all Leafs, no matter which trim. It's fitted with 16-inch painted steel wheels with silver plastic wheel covers, a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger, and projector-beam headlights. It forgoes cruise control, an in-dash navigation system, and the remote-connectivity app that let owners use smartphones to communicate with their Leafs. It does have Bluetooth connectivity, an intelligent key fob, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and a rearview camera. Also standard is a heated steering wheel, and heated seats both front and rear--which makes passengers feel warm but uses far less battery energy than heating the entire cabin.

Thankfully, Leaf S buyers can upgrade to a 6.6-kW charger as an option--one we'd strongly recommend--to reduce charging time for a fully depleted battery from 8 hours to 4 hours when a 240-volt Level 2 charging station is used. DC quick-charging is also optional, which lets owners recharge their batteries to 80 percent of capacity in about 30 minutes at more than 500 CHAdeMO sites nationwide. Another battery note: All Leafs now include an electric heater that keeps the battery warm during cold weather when the car is plugged in.

As owners will quickly learn, heating (or cooling) the cabin while the car is still plugged in dispenses with substantial range loss by using grid power rather than the stored energy in the battery pack. So a hybrid heater that consumes less battery energy than the standard resistance heating is offered as an option for Leafs used in colder climates.

The 6.6-kW charger is standard on the mid-level Leaf SV, which also gets power door mirrors, chrome door handles, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a tailgate air deflector to reduce energy use at higher speeds by cutting wind resistance. The Leaf SV starts at an even $32,000, plus the destination fee. LED headlights and running lamps are optional.

At the top of the range, the Leaf SL carries a base price of $35,020 (plus destination), and adds quite a number of standard features. They include larger 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, automatic headlights, and a DC quick-charging port in addition to the standard Level 2 port. You'll recognize the Leaf SL by its small photovoltaic solar panel on the tailgate air deflector; that powers a couple of ventilation fans to pull hot air out of the cabin on hot days, reducing the air-conditioning load on the battery.

Every Leaf except the base Leaf S can be controlled via a smartphone app that lets owners view real-time information on the car's operation and charging status. The monitor inside the car also shows that data, as well as battery energy indicators, distance estimators to keep a Leaf driving within its range, and pre-heating or pre-cooling while still plugged in. More sophisticated owners can set a Leaf to charge only when energy rates are cheapest, usually in the wee hours--though the local rate structures have to be entered manually. So far, Leafs don't communicate with electric utilities about rates

All Nissan Leaf models qualify for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in car. For buyers concerned about long-term battery life, Nissan offers a three-year, $199/month lease on the Leaf too. The Federal tax credit goes to the loaner, reducing paperwork and letting the buyer benefit immediately in the form of lower monthly payments, rather than waiting until that year's taxes are filed. There are also a plethora of state, local, and corporate incentives available, from a $5,000 income-tax credit in Georgia to a $2,500 purchase rebate and single-occupant access to the carpool lane in California.

10

2015 Nissan Leaf

Fuel Economy

The 2015 Nissan Leaf runs entirely on electricity from the grid, meaning it has no emissions--it's as green as you can get.

Any battery-electric car is the greenest way to drive in all but a few states, and the 2015 Nissan Leaf uses less energy--and cheaper energy at that--than any gasoline car without a plug. More than that, it's the affordable alternative to the undeniably faster and sexier Tesla Model S, and it's the most popular electric car in the world.

The Leaf's battery is recharged entirely on grid power, usually overnight, and the EPA rates the energy efficiency of the 2015 Leaf at 115 MPGe (a measure that indicates how many miles an electric car can travel on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline). The Tesla Model S, on the other hand, comes in at 89 or 95 MPGe (depending on its battery pack). Among high-volume electric cars, only the new BMW i3 uses less electricity to travel a mile than the Leaf.

The wells-to-wheels carbon emissions of any particular Leaf will depend on where it's recharged; some areas have dirtier grids than others. But even recharging a Leaf on electricity generated in the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants has a lower carbon footprint--measuring "wells-to-wheels" carbon that includes extracting, refining, and transporting the fuel--than the average vehicle on U.S. roads. Only a 50-mpg Toyota Prius emits less carbon per mile in those few states with very dirty grids (North Dakota and West Virginia, for example).

Driving on energy from the electric grid also brings enormous cost savings. Every 100 miles, a 25-mpg gasoline car consumes $16 in gasoline if gas costs $4/gallon. That same 100 miles in an electric car costs just $1 to $8 in electricity costs, depending on local rates.

All but the base-model Leaf S come with a 6.6-kilowatt onboard charger that can recharge a fully depleted battery in about 4 hours from a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. The 3.3-kW charger on the Leaf S takes roughly twice as long. (On standard 110-volt household current, using the charging cord stowed in the load bay, a recharge can take up to 20 hours.) Installing the Level 2 box in a garage or carport may require some house rewiring, but no more than if you were installing an electric stove or clothes dryer.

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February 7, 2016
For 2015 Nissan Leaf

Driving the future today!

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Never been more pleased about a car we own. For us it is perfect for all our needs as retired grandparents. Cheap as chip's to run, every conceivable extra for our comfort, ultra reliable and a pleasure to... + More »
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February 6, 2016
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

does what it supposed to do.

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Car has worked fine for the 18 months we have had it and the 17,000 kms we have traveled in it. Range is as expected with winter cold range less than I thought it might be. Last year, when it was minus 31, it... + More »
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February 4, 2016
For 2015 Nissan Leaf

Great car, but could use a little more range

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While it couldn't be our only car because of its range, it fits our needs very well most of the time. I love driving an electric car...quiet, smooth and green. I'm tall, so I'd like the seat to slide back a... + More »
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January 1, 2016
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Amazing around town, back & forth to work automobile

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While is it not the 200+ range Tesla Model S, the Nissan Leaf has sure met my needs and expectations. Put winter tires on to combat this Wisconsin winter, very nice handling and no issues with the snow. Range... + More »
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December 30, 2015
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB S

2015 Nissan Leaf - Never going back to gas

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I felt comfortable with the 84 mile range capacity (I try to never say "limit") after I looked up the mileage to a location that is 80 road miles away, using Google Maps. Then I printed a map and drew a circle... + More »
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December 24, 2015
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

2015 Nissan Leaf the freedom of driving by gas stations

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I first experienced range anxiety the first out of town trip, other than that no problem. Comfortable, solid ride. Heated steering wheel can get a little warm, but nothing is perfect. Great sound system. And... + More »
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December 2, 2015
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Nissan Leaf is almost perfect in many ways.

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Other than range anxiety, this car is perfect: fun to drive, economical, reliable, and great pick up! My Leaf has a Bose audio system that delivers awesome sound, plus the satellite radio adds to the luxury of... + More »
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October 25, 2015
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

Needs more range and a more up to date navigation/ entertainment system

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Good little city car that is fun to drive. Road trips need careful planning. Nissan needs to work with the states to install more quick chargers along the highways. The navigation / entertainment system is... + More »
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October 15, 2015
2015 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Zero emissions and still saves $3500 a year in fuel compared to the Honda Civic

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While I love the price savings of $500 a year on hydro. Compared to the $4000 I was spending to drive the same distance in my Honda Civic before. Never mind the meer $10000 SUVs cost annually. And it's an... + More »
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October 11, 2015
For 2015 Nissan Leaf

Beta testing the new improved Carwings

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Upgraded from 2013 to 2015 top of the line! Great car just wished telemetrics worked as promised. Apparently system upgraded 29 September. We received our Leaf 1 October. Unable to sigh user's agreement for... + More »
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