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 ...