2014 Nissan Leaf Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
August 15, 2014

The 2014 Nissan Leaf is the world's most popular battery electric car, and the greenest--but it can take time to get used to real-world ranges of 60 to 90 miles.

The Nissan Leaf remains by far the highest-volume and best-selling electric car in the world. Nissan has likely now sold 125,000 Leafs or more since its December 2010 launch, and the battery-electric five-door compact hatchback frequently sets new monthly sales records. It's become the de facto electric car, just as the Toyota Prius became the de facto hybrid after a slow start 14 years ago. 2014 Nissan Leaf production for the U.S. is ramping up as the Smyrna, Tennessee, plant increases its production of the lithium-ion cells that store energy to propel the car a rated 84 miles on a charge.

Make no mistake, the Nissan Leaf electric car--with its admittedly unusual looks--represented a huge gamble for Nissan when it was launched, in the same month as GM's range-extended electric Chevrolet Volt. The company bet that the global car-buying public was ready for an all-electric vehicle powered by a modern lithium-ion battery, and that an early and aggressive launch would catapult it to dominance in the new powertrain technology. It's been far from smooth sailing, with everything from self-inflicted launch hiccups to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. A spate of politically motivated negative coverage of electric cars likely didn't help either.

But now in its fourth model year, with a revised "hot-weather" battery chemistry around the corner and a more comprehensive update coming for 2016 or 2017, the Nissan Leaf has settled into its role as the quiet, smooth, predictable electric car that costs just pennies a mile to run--far less than any comparable gasoline car. The Leaf now sells well in those locales where electric cars are popular, including California and the Pacific Northwest, but also in Atlanta and several parts of Texas.

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Little changed for 2014 from the U.S.-built 2013 model, which incorporated several changes over its Japanese-assembled predecessors. The one major change is a rise in its EPA combined rating for electric range, which has risen to 84 miles from last year's 75 miles. This isn't due to any changes in the car, but to the elimination of an 80-percent battery charging mode--which, under arcane EPA rules, reduced the range rating.

As before, in cold weather and at high speeds, battery range can fall by up to one-third, depending on how the car is driven. The Leaf isn't likely to be a household's only car, though electric-car drivers say their "range anxiety" abates quickly as they gain confidence in their cars. Other than that, the only notable difference for 2014 is that the rearview camera is now standard equipment.

Styling hasn't changed in four years, with the lines no less distinctive than in 2011. The Leaf's upright body swells around the wheels, with notably swept-back headlamps that reach almost to the base of the windshield and contain transparent vertical fins that channel air around the car to reduce its aerodynamic drag and conserve battery energy. There's no grille, since there's no conventional radiator, and the nose instead has a central charging port under a Nissan-badged door that looks like a large gas door where the grille would otherwise be. At the rear, vertical ribbons of LED taillights flank the tailgate.

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.

To the driver, the Nissan Leaf functions perfectly well, but many of the controls feel slightly remote, since virtually everything is electrically actuated. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is a bit less than 10 seconds, though because there's no transmission to shift and the Leaf's electric drive is exceptionally quiet, it's hard to gauge how slow or fast the acceleration is. Top speed of the 3,200-pound car is capped at 90 mph.

Mechanicals are fairly simple: A 24 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack is mounted in the floorpan and extends up under the rear seat as well. It powers an 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels, and also serves as a generator under regenerative braking, returning energy that would otherwise be wasted as brake heat to the battery for reuse.

Recharging the battery is usually done by plugging it into a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. Nissan dealers will arrange to have one of these installed, at a cost that varies depending on the condition of your house and garage wiring and electric service. You can also use standard 110-volt wall current to recharge a Leaf, via a charging cord stored in the load bay, but that can take up to 20 hours for a fully depleted battery. All Leafs except the base S trim level have an onboard 6.6-kilowatt charger which will recharge a fully depleted pack in about 4 hours. Owners can direct the car to pre-heat or pre-cool its cabin while still plugged in, via a smartphone app or commands on the car's touchscreen display, which conserves battery energy. The app also provides updates on the charging process, and alerts if the car is unplugged or it stops charging before the battery is fully charged.

The steering and handling are direct, but relatively numb. This isn't a car you'll necessarily take to slalom tests or handling gymkhanas, but it does feel slightly appliance-like. We suspect that'll be just fine for those who use the Leaf as a practical, low-cost commuter or around-town vehicle.

The 2014 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 alloy wheels, 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.

8

2014 Nissan Leaf

Styling

The shape of the 2014 Nissan Leaf is polarizing, but the aerodynamic compact hatchback is definitely distinctive--and practical.

Even in its fourth year, the design of the 2014 Nissan Leaf is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Nissan intended to make the first mass-produced battery-electric car of the modern age distinctive--"iconic, but not weird," said executives--and it did exactly that, although some would argue the company ended up doing weird after all.

Squint at the shape and it's a fairly standard two-box hatchback, but get closer and some surprisingly swoopy lines reveal themselves. There's no radiator up front, so the nose angles down to the bumper. There's no grille, but in its place is a large center door carrying a substantial logo for Nissan, and looking like nothing so much as an oversized gas door. And that's more or less what it is: Behind the door are one or two charging ports that let drivers recharge the battery once the car is plugged in. The high-mounted angular headlights sweep dramatically back almost to the base of the windshield, with LEDs inside (for all but the base Leaf S model) and a distinctive clear fin protruding from the top of the headlight cover that directs airflow around the car to reduce drag and hence extend the car's battery range.

The doors are fairly conventional, but the Leaf's beltline sweeps up at the rear. The tailgate, almost hexagonal in shape, has a slight bustle below the beltline and is framed by vertical strips of LED taillights. There's a tailgate spoiler that extends the roofline--again for aerodynamic effect--and on the high-level SL trim, it contains a small solar panel that runs a couple of ventilation fans inside the car to pull out hot air and hence reduce the air-conditioning load on hot days.

Open the doors, and you'll enter a cabin that has design touches as radical as the Leaf's shape. The steering wheel, pedals, and some of the digital instruments are all pretty intuitive, but putting the car in "gear" requires a gentle tug back and left on a mouse-shaped driving mode selector on the console. The two-level instruments put a digital speedometer, temperature gauge, and clock on a small panel above digital gauges behind the wheel, with a larger rectangular display in the center of the dash that shows energy usage, driving range, maps, nearby recharging points, and more in real time. The base Leaf S model makes do with a simpler, smaller dash display.

Some interior fittings are shared with more basic Nissan models, though most of the car--including its windshield wipers--had to be engineered from the ground up for quietness, since there's no engine and transmission noise to mask the sound of accessories. Seven colors are available, with a distinctive Blue Ocean shade unique to the Leaf. We like the rarely-seen rich Cayenne Red color, but recommend avoiding black if you live in a warm or hot climate--since cooling down the interior uses battery energy that will cut into the car's effective range.

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7

2014 Nissan Leaf

Performance

The 2014 Nissan Leaf has perfectly adequate acceleration, steering, and handling, but it's all rather appliance-like.

From the driver's seat, the 2014 Nissan Leaf is a remarkably smooth and quiet five-seat hatchback with drama-free performance and only average acceleration. It may be the world's first high-volume modern battery-electric car, but driving it is notable for simplicity and calm.

The 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor that powers the front wheels produces a healthy 187 lb-ft of torque. 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 handling and roadholding are where the Leaf fails to deliver an engaging drive. The electric steering is numb, with light weighting and very little feedback from the road. The wheel centering seems to remain the same no matter how much the front wheels are turned. The lack of an engine up front, however, provides an incredibly tight turning circle of just 17 feet--which may be the lowest of any car on the market today.

Handling is fine; while the Leaf is a tall car on small tires (especially the Leaf S base model, which uses 16-inch wheels), the mass of the battery pack is carried low, in the floorpan, so there's not a lot of body roll. We found the Leaf sensitive to side winds, however. But there's not a lot of road feel or feedback, which makes "appliance-like" perhaps the most suitable adjective for the Leaf--it's fine, but on the other end of the scale from anything sporty.

To get the Leaf underway, the 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.

Range for 2014 is quoted at 84 miles combined. While that's up from the 75 miles quoted last year, nothing in the car has changed--it has to do with a peculiarity of the battery charging software. Because Nissan previously offered an 80-percent charge mode, the reduced range from that mode had to be factored into the range average--but for 2014, that mode is gone.

Still, any car that runs on battery power is sensitive to driving habits and temperature, both of which can affect range in a major way. To maximize miles available, drivers learn to accelerate gently, coast down to stops, and plan ahead to avoid sudden acceleration or hard braking. There's also a Eco mode for greater energy 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.

Despite some of its performance drawbacks, the 2014 Leaf feels to driver and passengers 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.

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 ...

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7

2014 Nissan Leaf

Comfort & Quality

The 2014 Nissan Leaf has plenty of room inside for four, a useful load bay, and a remarkable lack of noise on the road.

Driving or riding in a 2014 Nissan Leaf is is a quiet, smooth, serene experience compared to any similar gasoline vehicle. The electric motor that powers the wheels is smooth, though we've heard a bit of low but noticeable whine.

Because there are no engine or transmission noises to mask other sounds, tire noise is much more evident from around 30 mph. It builds to a quiet roar at higher speeds, along with some wind noise from air passing over the body--both sounds you're unlikely to register in a gasoline car because of all the other racket from its mechanical bits and pieces. The Leaf's quietest speed is in the range up to about 40 mph, where it's almost eerily silent.

The interior volume of the Leaf is substantial; although it has the footprint of a compact hatchback, its interior volume classifies it as a mid-size car under Federal rules. It shares that distinction with the hybrid Toyota Prius, another five-door hatchback that's looks like a compact but has far more cubic feet inside than you'd imagine.

The seats are comfortable. Rear passengers sit high, over a portion of the battery pack, but their knees are higher than usual due to the thick floorpan that contains the rest of the battery--meaning the floor-to-seat height is shorter than you'd expect. The tall shape means there's plenty of headroom front and rear.

Seat upholstery varies from model to model. The base Leaf S and mid-level SV has a velvety pale gray material made from recycled soda bottles, with black available as an option, and the top SL trim level has standard leather upholstery. The seats adjust manually--electric motors to move seats would use battery energy--and the headliner is a very thin panel covered in the soft nap often known as "teddy-bear fur."

Against other plug-in cars, from the Chevrolet Volt to the Ford Focus Electric, the Leaf's interior looks and feels more basic. It uses more lightweight hard plastics, and the steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope. Some of the interior fittings are shared with smaller Nissan economy cars, which is fine but contrasts somewhat with prices of $30,000 and up.

One other Leaf feature that drivers will notice: A pedestrian-alert sound is generated below about 20 mph to warn bystanders of the otherwise silent car. 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.

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7

2014 Nissan Leaf

Safety

The 2014 Nissan Leaf has many of the latest safety features, but good crash-test scores are marred by the lowest rating on a new test.

The Nissan Leaf has been rated as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the past, but for 2014, it has lost that rating. In part, that's because it got the lowest score of "Poor" on the new and tougher small-overlap crash test. Otherwise, the 2014 Leaf gets the top IIHS score of "Good" for safety on moderate-overlap front crash, side impact, roof strength, and head restraints and seats testing.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), however, gives the Leaf four out of five possible stars as an overall rating and for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety.

Nissan itself said it has tested the Leaf extensively, performing dozens of crash tests, and said the lithium-ion battery pack in the floorpan suffered no damage at all during 40-mph side offset crash tests. Indeed, no incidents of battery fires in Nissan Leafs have been publicized to date.

For 2014, the formerly optional rearview camera has been made standard equipment on all three trim levels. The 2014 Leaf comes with the usual electronic safety systems, including anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, braking assist, traction control, and a tire-pressure monitor. It has six airbags as standard equipment: front-seat riders are protected by bags in the dashboard and the sides of the car, and all four outboard passengers are covered by side-curtain airbags that shield the entire window area front and rear.

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8

2014 Nissan Leaf

Features

The 2014 Nissan Leaf ranges from a very basic model up through a semi-luxury trim, but its features aren't on par with its price.

Following some new features and a number of upgrades added last year, the 2014 Nissan Leaf continues relatively unchanged. The only new feature for 2014 is that the rearview camera, formerly an option, is now standard on all trim levels--with a corresponding price boost of $180 across the board.

All Leafs come standard with an electric heater to keep the battery pack warm when the car is plugged in during cold weather, 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.

There are three 2014 Leaf trim levels: the base S, the mid-level SV, and the top-of-the-line SV. Nissan says that during 2013, sales were highest for the low- and high-end model. That may reflect two different sets of buyers. one looking for low running costs--a Leaf costs one-fifth to one-third per mile what a gasoline car does--and another that wants an electric car, but also wants all the bells and whistles.

The 2014 Leaf S starts at $28,980 (plus a mandatory $850 delivery fee that applies to all three trim levels). It's fitted with 16-inch painted steel wheels with silver plastic wheel covers, projector-beam headlights, and a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger. While Bluetooth connectivity, an intelligent key fob, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror are standard on all Leafs, the S model has neither cruise control nor an in-dash navigation system. It also forgoes the remote-connectivity feature that lets owners communicate with their Leaf via smartphone. Leaf S buyers can upgrade to a 6.6-kW charger as an option, however, cutting charging time for a fully depleted battery from 8 hours to 4 hours using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station.

Optional DC quick-charging (now found at about 160 stations nationwide) recharges a depleted battery to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes or less. For long-term owners, it's worth noting the Leaf uses a quick-charging standard known as CHAdeMO different from the CCS standard that will be rolled out on U.S. and European electric cars. The two standards are incompatible, but at least this year, there are far more CHAdeMO chargers in the U.S. than CCS chargers. 

The mid-level Leaf SV fits the 6.6-kW charger as standard, along with 16-inch alloy wheels, power door mirrors, chrome door handles, and an air deflector at the top of the tailgate to cut its wind resistance and reduce energy use at higher speeds. Starting price for the SV is an even $32,000, plus the destination fee. Options include LED headlamps and running lamps.

The Leaf SL, the top trim level, starts at $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.

Available options include black upholstery and a hybrid heater that consumes less battery energy than the standard resistance heating. 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.

Except for the base Leaf S, all 2014 Leafs can be controlled via a smartphone app. Drivers can obtain real-time information on the car, most importantly its charging behavior. That information is also displayed on the car's in-dash monitor, including charging status and battery energy indicators, distance estimators to keep a Leaf driving within its range, and pre-heating or pre-cooling while still plugged in. Owners can also direct the car to charge when energy rates are cheapest, usually in the dead of night--though owners must program this manually based on their local rate structures. 

All 2014 Nissan Leafs are eligible for a $7,500 Federal income-tax credit for the purchase of a plug-in car. A three-year, $199/month lease on the Leaf is available too, for those buyers concerned about long-term battery life. The monthly payment can be that low because the Federal tax credit goes to the loaner, reducing paperwork and letting the buyer benefit immediately from the credit rather than waiting until that year's taxes are filed.

In Georgia, Leaf owners qualify for a $5,000 state tax credit; in California, Leaf purchase earns a $2,500 purchase rebate in the form of a check from the state. Various other state, regional, and corporate incentives are available as well--including the much-prized ability to drive in California carpool lanes with only a single occupant.

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10

2014 Nissan Leaf

Fuel Economy

The 2014 Nissan Leaf is a zero-emission vehicle, running entirely on electricity, and that makes it as green as you can get.

The 2014 Nissan Leaf is the world's best-selling battery-electric car, and it's far more affordable than the Tesla Model S that comes in second. Both of them run entirely on power from the electric grid, making them completely zero-emission vehicles all the time--and that makes them the very greenest cars anyone can buy.

But the Nissan Leaf uses its battery energy more efficiently. The 2014 Leaf is rated at 115 MPGe (a measure of energy efficiency that indicates how many miles a car can travel electrically on the amount of energy contained in 1 gallon of gasoline). The Model S, on the other hand, comes in at 89 or 95 MPGe, depending on which battery pack is specified.

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.

Using the electric grid to "fuel" a car brings enormous cost savings. A 25-mpg gasoline car requires $16 in gasoline every 100 miles, if gas costs $4/gallon, whereas an electric car costs $1 to $8 in electricity to cover the same distance--depending on your local electric rates, which vary quite a lot throughout the U.S.

How green a Leaf actually is, in terms of wells-to-wheels carbon emissions, will depend on which grid is used to recharge. Some states and locales have far dirtier grids than others. Recharging a 2014 Leaf on power from the oldest, dirtiest coal power plants is still cleaner--measuring "wells-to-wheels" carbon that includes extracting, refining, and transporting the fuel--than the average 25-mpg vehicle. But if you compare to a 50-mpg Toyota Prius, burning the gasoline in a Prius turns out to be slightly better overall in a small number of areas (North Dakota and West Virginia, for example).

Luckily, California--which will buy more plug-in cars than the next five states combined--has a relatively clean grid. In that state and many others, a Leaf is far greener than any gasoline or hybrid car ever will be.

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February 4, 2016
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB S

Love this car. It is everthing the greatest.

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It is a great go to car. Great shopping car. Great get to work car. It is perfect. Interior is great. The dash is great.
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February 1, 2016
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Such a quiet easy to drive car

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This car is such a pleasure to drive, quiet and stable. I wish it had more range because of this I am forced to use other cars not so fun to drive.
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January 28, 2016
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

a total money saver

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A total money saver, and lower emissions from elec sources. range manageable especially in view of the value of fuel saved. Quietness a sublime bonus. Its quirky looks have grown on me.
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September 23, 2015
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

I absolutely love this car. Wish it had a better range, but its great for running around town!

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This is the second LEaf I've had. I had to have one when they first came out. I had wanted an electric car for 15+ years. It was a dream come true. I wish they didn't add noise to make it safer for people... + More »
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August 5, 2015
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

Awesome car

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My 2014 Nissan Leaf is an awesome car. It has never had any issues and starts, air conditions, drives perfectly every time
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May 17, 2015
2014 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB S

ultimate savings, very environment friendly

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Not exactly the mileage per full charge as advertised, but still a real energy saver. Great service from Nissan Palm Springs.
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April 21, 2015
For 2014 Nissan Leaf

Our first electric gets the job done on a daily basis, but weekend ski trips -- that's another story.

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We replaced our 18yo Camry with a 2014 Nissan Leaf. It's the all electric one that looks a lot like the Nissan Versa. Four people fit easily, and almost comfortably. Adding a 5th gets cozy. We use this car for... + More »
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April 20, 2015
For 2014 Nissan Leaf

The best car I have ever owned.

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The car is simply wonderful to drive. Our solar array charges it, so no carbon footprints are added to this world's climate. I'm really quite proud to own it, which makes a statement about preserving the... + More »
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April 20, 2015
For 2014 Nissan Leaf

A well-designed car; fun to drive. Electric cars and nuclear energy are the future.

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A great car, fast acceleration from stop. No maintenance and much cheaper than gas. After a year and 15,000 miles the battery is still 100%. I get 80 miles on a charge with "normal" driving & I have a level II... + More »
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April 20, 2015
For 2014 Nissan Leaf

The Leaf is a great city and suburbs vehicle.

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I really thought carefully and did a lot of research before I leased the Leaf for 3 years. I've had it for 11 months now and I am wishing that I had bought the car outright! Using the Level 2 charger for about... + More »
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