The Nissan Leaf is by far the best-selling electric car in the world, with almost 250,000 units sold as of mid-2016. But it's only one among a handful of all-electric, five-seat small cars sold in the U.S.
Other five-door compact hatchbacks include the BMW i3, the lower-volume Ford Focus Electric and Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive, and a new entry launched for 2015, the Volkswagen e-Golf.
Which one should you buy--the newer e-Golf, or the now more capable Leaf?
When the electric VW appeared at dealerships in fall 2014, the technical specs of the e-Golf and Nissan Leaf were all but identical. The 2016 Leaf, however, has received a significant boost in range for all trim levels (the base S model gained the bigger battery midway through the 2016 model year, so shop carefully), meaning that it now bests the e-Golf on the all-important question of how long it can travel before a recharge.
The Leaf is now rated at 107 miles, while the VW stays at 83 miles--a notable difference. The e-Golf remains largely unchanged for 2017, but it is expected to receive a similar boost in capacity for the 2018 model year. So far VW hasn't released any specifications or details on that updated electric car, which will likely appear in the spring of 2017.
For now, since we don't know anything about the 2017 Leaf, this comparison isn't quite complete since we've updated the way we rate cars.
Range rating aside, the Leaf and e-Golf take diametrically opposed approaches to designing and selling electric cars. The VW e-Golf is simply one of several different powertrains in the lineup of the seventh-generation Golf that launched last year. You have to look carefully to see that it's not a conventional Golf powered by a gasoline or diesel engine. The Leaf, on the other hand, is a dedicated electric vehicle sold only with battery power (though various underpinnings have been adapted from other Nissan models).
After selling 90,000-plus Leafs in the U.S., the shape of Nissan's electric car is a familiar one--at least in places like California, where cars with plugs sell well. The design is distinctive and polarizing, with long headlights that sweep back almost to the base of the windshield and a snub nose with no grille at all, just a large central door that covers the charge ports. The VW e-Golf, on the other hand, is ...well, it's a Golf, meaning a crisp-edged, conservatively styled hatchback obviously descended from the first Golf/Rabbit that hit U.S. shores in the 1970s to replace the mainstay Beetle.
2016 Nissan Leaf
2016 Nissan Leaf
2016 Volkswagen e-Golf
2016 Volkswagen e-Golf
On the road, the Leaf's steering, brakes, and handling are all competent, unremarkable, and noted only for being slightly numb. It's been called "appliance-like," which isn't necessarily as insulting as it may sound. Everything works, as expected, quietly and competently. The Golf is peppier and behaves more like a driver's car, with the same roadholding abilities as its four-cylinder counterparts--although it's had to be retuned for the added weight of the battery pack. The Golf interior is all but identical to that of any other Golf, while the Leaf's control layout and dashboard has some resemblance to the Space Age design of the Toyota Prius hybrid.
The Leaf's battery packs, of 24 or 30 killowatt-hours (of which it uses about 85 percent) is not liquid-cooled. In earlier cars, that could lead to rapid capacity loss in extremely hot climates. A 2015 change to the battery chemistry makes the cells in the current car far more resistant to heat degradation, and Nissan says that has solved the problem. The VW's 24.2-kwh pack isn't liquid-cooled either, but no stories have emerged thus far about its durability.
Both cars have electric motors powering the front wheels, with outputs of 80 kilowatts (110 horspower) for the Leaf, and 85 kW (114 hp) for the e-Golf. The e-Golf can charge at up to 7.2 kw, meaning it will finish recharging a little quicker than the Leaf, which is fitted with a 6.6-kW charger onboard charger on all except the base model (which charges at 3.3 kW).
The two cars are also all but identical in passenger volume: 91 cubic feet for the e-Golf, 92 cubic feet for the Leaf. The e-Golf has only 17 cubic feet behind the rear seat, though, against the Leaf rated at 24 cubic feet. That may be the penalty VW pays for using stampings adapted from those for gasoline cars.
The Leaf comes in three trim levels, with the S base level starting under $30,000, progressing up through the mid-level SV and the high-end SL, which can approach $40,000 if lavishly outfitted. The VW e-Golf has two trim levels: the Limited Edition (LE) is the base, starting a bit above $34,000. The more luxurious SEL Premium model of the e-Golf adds roughly $2,000.
With such similar specifications for certain model comparisons, buyers have three questions to consider. First, does a 107-mile range compared to 83 miles trump all other considerations? (If so, go for the Leaf.) Second, am I more comfortable buying a high-volume electric car than a model that not all VW dealers today sell or repair? (The Leaf wins here, too.) Third, and most personally, do I want my electric car to blend into the crowd (e-Golf) or am I comfortable in a car people will notice (the Leaf)? On that measure, the risk-averse will opt for the e-Golf.
Your results may vary--but by our ratings, the VW e-Golf is the electric car to drive.