I respect the Nissan Leaf even though it’s only recommendable for its value. The respect comes easy. Initially launched at the end of 2010 with a range of 73 miles, Nissan proved to the world that you could build and sell an affordable electric vehicle. More than a decade later, most automakers still aspire to fulfill this promise.
I respect that. While the range has improved and the price has stayed relatively low, the Leaf is a bore. The five-seat hatchback lacks the charisma, style, packaging, and punch of a slew of newer electric vehicles, despite having a high TCC Rating of 7.2 out of 10.
My kids’ polar impressions embodied the two sides of the Leaf. My son, 15, who thinks with his e-wallet now that the costs of car ownership have dawned on him, appreciated skipping gas stations for Dad’s electricity and clever one-pedal driving of the Leaf. My daughter, 14, who thinks with her heart despite all facts (she thinks she’s getting a Wrangler), slouched when the Leaf approached her on school grounds.
“What is this thing?” she groaned.
“You don’t get it,” her brother, riding shotgun, sighed. “As usual.”
During a week of mostly highway driving around Chicagoland with the temperatures never exceeding the teens, my teens’ arguments are distilled below.
Hit: The original affordable EV
Every automaker from Tesla to Kia has pledged to make an affordable EV for the masses but Nissan has done it, and continues to do it, more than a decade later. With the small 40-kwh battery pack, the 2022 Leaf can be had for less than $29,000. The starting price for the Leaf Plus with a larger 62-kwh pack costs $33,425 (including a destination fee of $1,025). That’s a bit more than the $31,995 Chevy Bolt EV, but increased fire risks and a botched recall continue to affect the Bolt. Also, the Leaf still qualifies for the available $7,500 federal tax credit. Without it, the well-equipped SL Plus I tested cost below $40,000, which is about $6,000 less than the average new car price. For fleets or EV adopters on a budget, that’s a win.
Miss: Range was out of range
My Leaf’s 215-mile estimated range was as accurate as New Year’s resolutions come February. Time and again, the Leaf fell short. On one 62-mile roundtrip with no elevation grade and an outside temp of 22 degrees, the range meter estimated 133 miles at the onset. We returned home the same way and finished with 43 left. I let my daughter have her seat warmer on, and the heat was set at 72 degrees. Where did the 28 miles of range go? Highway driving and January in Chicago.
On average, the heater sapped about 8% of range. After one overnight charge on my home 120-volt outlet, the meter listed 182 miles. With the heater on it dropped to 169 miles. Similar percentage drops occurred at various states of charge. It’s not a big deal, gas cars are less efficient at 75 mph and HVAC draws off more energy, but relying on a range meter is an estimate at best.
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Dashboard
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Steering Wheel
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Instrument Cluster
Hit: Heat pump
Unlike many newer EVs, certain grades of the Nissan Leaf (such as mine) come with a heat pump. Unnecessary in warmer smile states, a heat pump is more costly but also more efficient than a resistive heater. Car and Driver found that a resistive heater drained anywhere from 17 to 35% more energy from a battery of a Tesla Model 3. We’ll take the 8% loss with the heat pump in the Leaf. Heaters in gas engines use the exhaust heat from the engine to warm the cabin. EVs can use a resistive heater but it sucks energy from the battery. A heat pump in an EV works like an air conditioner that doesn’t directly draw from the battery.
Miss: Quakes like a Leaf at higher speeds
The Leaf operates with less efficiency and less composure at highway speeds. It’s more pronounced than in other electric vehicles I’ve tested. Averaging about 75 mph on the highway, the efficiency dropped from an EPA-rated 3.1 miles per kwh to about 2.6 miles per kwh. Going any faster unsettled the ride and made it feel as if I were abusing the car. The larger packs of the Leaf Plus models lead to a higher ride height, and it feels as if Nissan offset the weight gain with less advanced suspension and tuning. Louder, rougher, shakier, the Leaf quaked on the highway. It operates much more efficiently and smoothly around town and when there are opportunities for the regen braking system to recapture some energy.
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Gear Shift
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Instrument Panel
2022 Nissan Leaf SV Hatchback Temperature Controls
Hit: One-pedal driving
Shifting the mushroom to B model results in the most significant regen braking setting, and active the E-Pedal setting so you can brake to a stop without ever pressing the brake pedal. It took a day or two for me to learn that when coasting in this mode, I needed to keep my foot lightly on the accelerator at times, instead of just letting go. Once I embraced this change in driving habits it was pretty easy to go lightly into a stop, seamless and smoothly enough to elicit a comment from an otherwise taciturn teen.
Even with the larger pack, the front-drive-only Leaf lacks the off-the-line punch that makes other EVs fun to drive. The second iteration of the hatchback’s styling falls more into line with the Nissan family, instead of eco-consciously standing out, but its inoffensive style inside and out lacks any daring. Aside from the mushroom-like gear shifter on the center console, it looks and feels like a car meant to get the job done, without dropping any tailpipe emissions.
Even with a dozen hatchback-like crossover electric vehicles on or coming to market this year, the Nissan Leaf still has a place for budget-minded owners and fleets. It doesn’t elicit much emotion, but you can get your thrills from the money saved.
2022 Nissan Leaf SL Plus
Base price: $38,375, including $975 destination
Price as tested: $39,225
Drivetrain: 214-hp motor with a 62-kwh battery pack in front-wheel drive
EPA fuel economy: 215-mile range, 104 MPGe, 3.1 miles/kwh
The hits: Value, heat pump, one-pedal driving
The misses: Range estimates, boring