2016 Nissan Leaf Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Voelcker John Voelcker Senior Editor
June 27, 2016

The 2016 Nissan Leaf remains a somewhat appliance-like drive, but its new range rating of 107 miles raises it to the top of its class—and it's still smooth, quiet, and calming to drive.

For its sixth model year, the 2016 Nissan Leaf receives a significant improvement. That's the new, longer-range battery pack standard in all but the base model, which gives a range of 107 miles—up from the previous 84 miles. Without any other significant changes beside larger touchscreen displays and some infotainment updates, the new battery vaults the Leaf to the top of the affordable electric class, with the highest range of any electric car that doesn't have a "Tesla" on the nose.

The battery-electric five-door hatchback sits on the footprint of a compact car, but has the interior room of a mid-size vehicle under Federal rules. Like the Toyota Prius hybrid, the Leaf's shape is distinctive and unique, which translates to polarizing for many shoppers and buyers. A sloping front replaces the grille a rectangular hatch over the electric charging ports, and its bug-eyed headlights sweep back almost to the windshield pillars. At the back, vertical ribbons of LED taillights flank the tailgate.

The electric Leaf's interior is somewhat more conventional, mixing some Space Age styling and controls with others found in inexpensive Nissan small cars. The mushroom-like drive selector and various digital displays of operating information speak to the distinctive; minor controls and a pendant parking brake nod to the Leaf's economy-car roots.

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On the road, a Leaf operates and drives like a normal car—albeit a quiet one—though many of its controls have a slightly remote feel, since virtually all of them control a device that's electrically actuated. The Leaf's electric drive is exceptionally quiet; Nissan quotes acceleration from 0 to 60 mph of 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. Top speed is limited to 90 mph.

The Nissan Leaf keeps up with traffic, is easy to drive, carries four people comfortably—and five when needed—and comes with the usual features and accessories found on any compact car. While owners will save enormous amounts of money from not having to buy gasoline, its base price is still perhaps $10,000 higher than a similarly sized compact with a gasoline engine. Still, 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 powertrain of a Nissan Leaf is simplicity itself. A flat 24-kwh lithium-ion battery pack (or 30 kwh), mounted below the cabin floor and under the rear seat, sends electricity to an 80-kw (107-horsepower) electric motor that drives the front wheels. Last year, Leaf batteries acquired a revised lithium-ion cell chemistry that's much more resistant to capacity loss due to very high ambient temperatures—a problem seen in a small number of cars in climes like Phoenix.

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. It's important for Leaf owners to learn, though, that high speeds and cold weather can drive down the range delivered by the battery by up to one-third, depending on how the car is driven. Electric-car drivers say "range anxiety" abates quickly as they gain confidence in their cars, however.

For 2016, the Nissan Leaf continues in three trim levels. All Leafs include Bluetooth connectivity, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, an intelligent key fob, and a rearview camera. A heated steering wheel, and heated seats both front and rear are also standard, as is an electric heater that keeps the battery warm when the car is plugged in during cold weather. 

The base Leaf S, which sticks with the older 24-kwh battery and a range of 84 miles, comes with 16-inch painted steel wheels and silver plastic wheel covers, dark nylon upholstery, projector-beam headlights, a smaller 5.0-inch dash display, and a slower 3.3-kw onboard charger.

The mid-level Leaf SV is the first to feature the 30-kwh battery, as well as a 6.6-kw charger that cuts charging for a fully discharged battery to 4 hours—and it also features a standard DC fast-charging port (an option before the 2016 model year). It also has power door mirrors, chrome door handles, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a tailgate air deflector, along with a larger central touchscreen, at 7.0 inches, and navigation as standard.

Standard features on the range-topping SL include leather seats, larger 17-inch alloy wheels, and automatic headlights. A small photovoltaic solar panel on the tailgate air deflector identifies a Leaf SL, though it can only power a couple of ventilation fans that pull hot air out of the cabin on hot days.

Options include surround-view cameras and an energy-saving seven-speaker Bose audio system. All Leaf models qualify for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit, along with various state, local, and corporate incentives. All Leafs sold in North America are assembled in Smyrna, Tennessee, as are their lithium-ion battery packs.

8

2016 Nissan Leaf

Styling

The 2016 Nissan Leaf's shape and unconventional interior are no less polarizing now than in 2011, but they're distinctive for sure

The 2016 Nissan Leaf remains as distinctive a design, inside and out, as it was when first unveiled in 2010. Schematically, it's a standard five-door compact hatchback, tall enough to accommodate a thin battery pack under the cabin floor—and capacious enough to be called mid-size by the NHTSA.

But it's the polarizing and controversial details that startle people who've never seen one before. There's no grille, just a wedge-shaped nose angling down toward the bumper, with a large rectangular hatch in the center for two charging sockets, complete with Nissan logo in the center. The high headlights sweep almost to the base of the windshield, and their lens have a small clear fin sticking up to manage airflow around the hose for reduced aerodynamic drag.

The window line rises toward the back of the car, and its rear hatch protrudes below the beltine, giving the electric car a slight bustle from certain angles. It's also all but hexagonal in shape. Vertical LED stripes make up the high-mounted vertical taillights abutting the tailgate. The roof ends in a spoiler that extends its line, again for better airflow, and the top-level Leaf SL embeds a small photovoltaic solar panel in it. Even in bright sun, it only produces enough power to run ventilation fans that pull hot air out of the cabin, but it's a distinctive touch anyhow.

The Leaf's interior blends radical design touches and conventional Nissan economy-car hardware. The two-level instrument panel comprises a cluster behind the wheel with a digital speedometer, temperature gauge, and clock, plus a large rectangular touchscreen monitor in the center of the dash that displays driving range, energy usage, maps, nearby recharging points, and more in real time. The base Leaf S has a smaller screen.

The all-electric Leaf was a challenge to keep quiet, Nissan says, because so many sounds normally masked by the background engine and powertrain noise came into stark relief with those sounds gone. The company had to develop specially quiet windshield wipers, because even the ones it fits to its luxury Infiniti cars were too loud without engine noise. Still, some interior fittings appear to have come from more basic Nissan models. The pendant parking-brake pedal in particular seems a 1980s throwback at odds with the car's high-tech appeal.

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7

2016 Nissan Leaf

Performance

The 2016 Nissan Leaf has an appliance-like feel in the way it accelerates, handling, and brakes, but now it offers class-leading electric range.

Despite a slightly appliance-like feel, the 2016 Nissan Leaf demonstrates why electric cars are nicer to drive than cars with engines that exploded vaporized hydrocarbons thousands of times a minute. It's smooth, quiet, and calm under virtually all circumstances, and at around-town speeds it's essentially silent, inside and out. (It is fitted with a pedestrian-alert noise, but occupants won't hear it with the windows shut.)

One thing that may perplex novices: After they tap the "Start" button, putting a Leaf in "gear" requires a gentle tug back and left on a mouse-shaped driving mode selector sitting on the console. Then it accelerates like any other smooth, quiet car. Once underway, the Leaf makes the process as low-effort as possible and offers drama-free driving. And that's despite acceleration that's only average. Its handling and roadholding that's adequate but far from engaging.

If you need to, you get can brisk acceleration out of a Leaf, but you have to push hard on the accelerator—an energy-saving measure to ensure that degree of power is really wanted. The 80-kw (107-horsepower) electric motor that powers the front wheels produces a healthy 187 pound-feet of torque. It draws its energy from the lithium-ion battery pack just under the cabin floor.

New for 2016, the top two Leaf trim levels now use a larger 30-kwh battery giving 107 miles of range; the Leaf S sticks with the previous 24-kwh pack, again rated at 84 miles. That 107 miles of range is longer than any electric car that isn't labeled Tesla, and getting past the crucial 100-mile barrier should make the Leaf a more compelling proposition in its sixth model year.

There's an Eco mode for greater efficiency, which cuts maximum available power by 10 percent—although its effect feels much greater. For safety in sudden emergencies, flooring the accelerator thankfully overrides Eco mode, temporarily. But the Leaf's Eco mode falls between slow and frustrating, and we avoided it while testing the car.

As for range, Leaf buyers need to learn that battery-powered cars are highly sensitive to driving habits and temperature, and each can affect range in a major way. Accelerate gently, coast down to stops, and plan ahead to avoid sudden acceleration or hard braking, and you'll be fine. Nissan has tuned the Leaf's regenerative braking to simulate the behavior of a conventional automatic-transmission car. A "B" mode increases the regeneration to mimic the effect of engine braking if the driver chooses that mode.

If you're a more aggressive driver, though, the Leaf's roadholding and handling may prove disappointing. Its electric steering is numb, with light weighting, and there's very little feedback from the road. No matter which way you turn the wheel, its centering force seems to remain the same. There's nothing inherently wrong or dangerous, but it's a removed experience. Its turning circle, however, is astoundingly tight at 17 feet, since there's no engine to get in the way between the front wheel wells.

With its heaviest component (the battery pack) carried at the car's lowest point, the Leaf has little body roll. But we found it sensitive to side winds, presumably because it's a tall car on small tires (especially the Leaf S base model, which uses 16-inch wheels). Overall, the Leaf's 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.

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. Higher speeds in a Leaf make the car feel breathless; they also burn through battery range. Steering feel gets heavier and acceleration falls noticeably above 50 or 60 mph as wind drag rises. 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. Top speed is capped at 90 mph.

Despite some handling shortfalls, the 2016 Leaf feels 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.

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7

2016 Nissan Leaf

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Nissan Leaf's capacious cabin includes a useful cargo bay, and is whisper-quiet at lower speeds.

Smooth, quiet, and calm, the 2016 Nissan Leaf is almost serene at 40 mph or less, notably free of any vibrations or mechanical noise. You may hear a bit of low whine from the electronics and electric motor from time to time, but only above that speed does tire noise more evident—just because there's no engine or transmission noise to mask it.

At highway speeds, tire noise has risen to a muted whir—especially on rough pavement—and you'll also hear the whoosh of wind passing around the Leaf's carefully sculpted shape. 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.

There's a lot of room inside the Leaf for a car with a compact footprint—enough for federal rules to call it a mid-size vehicle. Not only is there ample head room front and rear, but rear passengers sit high—unlike cars with drooping rooflines that push rear-seat occupants down toward the floor. Because there's a flat battery pack below the floorpan, though, riders in the rear will find their knees slightly higher than they may expect due to the resulting shallow footwell.

Both the mid-level Leaf SV and the base Leaf S use a velvety pale gray seat upholstery that Nissan proudly explains is made from recycled soda bottles. The top SL trim level has standard leather upholstery, and after many customer requests, the company added a black cloth interior trim to the other two as well. Power seats aren't available, to save battery energy. The Leaf's thin headliner is surfaced with soft-nap "teddy-bear fur," which camouflages a rather insubstantial feeling panel.

Still, the interior of the electric Leaf feels and looks considerably more basic than you'd expect from a car pretty much priced at $30,000 or more. Competitors like this year's new Chevy Volt and the low-volume Ford Focus Electric do much better on that front. Some of the plastics feel distinctly lightweight, just like the headliner, and we spied a few interior fittings from smaller Nissan models. That makes sense to save money, but jars in a car with such a high-tech reputation. We also noticed that the steering wheel tilts, but doesn't telescope.

Still, riding in the Leaf underscores once again that 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. And all the Leafs we've driven—built for North America in Smyrna, Tennessee—have been well screwed-together and free of rattles, squeaks, and other oddities.

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6

2016 Nissan Leaf

Safety

Safety ratings for the 2016 Nissan Leaf are marred by a "Poor" score from the IIHS.

The 2016 Nissan Leaf is now only adequate in its safety ratings, with the IIHS having given its performance last year on the new, tough small-overlap front crash test the group's lowest rating of "Poor." Before that test was instituted, the Leaf's other ratings—all the highest "Good"—had earned it a Top Safety Pick designation, but times change and standards evolve. As a 6-year-old model, the Leaf hasn't kept pace with those changes.

The NHTSA gives the 2016 Leaf four stars out of five, not only as an overall rating, but also for frontal crash, side crash, and rollover safety tests.

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. Two years ago, the company made standard a rearview camera on all models.

Also standard is a pedestrian-alert sound produced below about 20 mph to warn bystanders that the otherwise silent Leaf is approaching. 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.

The expected suite of electronic safety systems can be found on the 2016 Leaf, including braking assist, traction control, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, and a tire-pressure monitor. Six airbags are standard: 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.

But the Leaf forgoes increasingly common electronic safety features, including adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and assist, and automatic emergency braking. Those will likely appear in the second-generation car, due in 2017 or 2018.

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8

2016 Nissan Leaf

Features

The 2016 Nissan Leaf now has a 107-mile range on its top two trim levels, giving more value for money this year.

The 2016 Nissan Leaf largely carries over from previous years, with the same three trim levels, absent one crucial and long-awaited improvement: the top two trim levels now include a 30-kilowatt-hour battery pack that gives a range of 107 miles, up from last year's 84 miles, which remains the range of the base Leaf S model.

Those three trim levels are the base Leaf S, a mid-level Leaf SV, and the top-of-the-line Leaf SL.The base car comes with 16-inch painted steel wheels with silver plastic wheel covers, a 3.3-kw onboard charger, and projector-beam headlights. It also includes Bluetooth connectivity, an intelligent key fob, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, and a rearview camera. A heated steering wheel, and heated front and rear seats—which makes passengers feel warm but use less battery energy than full cabin heat—are also standard. All Leafs also now include an electric heater that keeps the battery warm during cold weather when the car is plugged in.

But the Leaf S dispenses with cruise control, though new for this year, it gets a 5.0-inch display that incorporates hands-free commands, text messaging, and a USB port. It also gets the Nissan Connect system with mobile apps. We recommend the 6.6-kw charger option to reduce charging time for a fully depleted battery to four hours from twice that, using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. DC quick-charging is also optional; it lets owners recharge to 80 percent of battery capacity in about 30 minutes.

The mid-level Leaf SV gets not only the 30-kwh battery, but the 6.6-kw charger as standard, as well as standard DC fast-charging port (formerly an option). It also includes 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. LED headlights and running lamps are optional. Its central touchscreen is larger, at 7.0 inches, and it includes navigation as standard along with Nissan Connect.

The range-topping Leaf SL adds many standard features. They include larger 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, and automatic headlights. 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 Nissan Leaf model qualifies its buyer for a $7,500 federal income-tax credit for purchasing a plug-in car. If you lease the car—an option for those worried about long-term battery life—the federal tax credit goes to the loaner, reducing paperwork and letting the buyer benefit immediately in the form of lower monthly payments. A plethora of state, local, and corporate incentives are available as well, including single-occupant carpool-lane access in California.

Owners can control every Leaf except the base Leaf S with a smartphone app that shows real-time information on the car's operation and charging status. Sophisticated owners can set a Leaf to charge only when energy rates are cheapest, usually in the wee hours—though they will have to enter their local rate structures manually. So far, Leafs don't communicate with electric utilities about rates. A hybrid heater that consumes less battery energy than the standard resistance heating is offered as an option for Leafs used in colder climates.

In previous years, the top and bottom models have sold best—an inversion of the usual sales curve for conventional cars. At the low end, we suspect that Leafs are being bought to save money on running costs, while at the top, affluent buyers want to drive electric while still retaining the bells and whistles of pricier, more luxurious models.

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10

2016 Nissan Leaf

Fuel Economy

The emission-free 2016 Nissan Leaf is powered entirely by grid electricity, which gives it our top rating.

No gasoline car can match the efficiency and low cost-per-mile of the 2016 Nissan Leaf. That's because it runs solely on grid electricity. Think of it as the sensible, sober, affordable alternative to the undeniably faster and sexier Tesla Model S. The Leaf has another distinction as well: It's by far the highest-volume electric car ever built.

The EPA rates the efficiency of the base-model 2016 Leaf S, with its 84-mile range, at 114 MPGe. The Leaf SV and SL versions with the new, larger, battery pack rated at 107 miles of range take a minimal hit in efficiency, falling to 112 MPGe. The BMW i3 remains the sole high-volume electric car that uses less electricity to travel a mile than the Leaf.

Using grid electricity for driving brings enormous cost savings. Every 100 miles, a 25-mpg gasoline car consumes $12 of gasoline (assuming $3/gallon prices). Covering the same 100 miles in an electric car costs just $3 at the average U.S. electricity rate of 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. All Leafs, except the lower-range base Leaf S, come with a 6.6-kw onboard charger that can recharge a fully depleted battery in about four hours from a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. The 3.3-kw charger on the Leaf S takes roughly twice as long.

Skeptics often ask about a "coal tailpipe," or the displacement of exhaust emissions to centralized smokestacks at power plants. Still, recharging a Leaf with power from the oldest, dirtiest coal plants has a lower "wells to wheels" carbon footprint—including extracting, refining, and transporting the fuel—than most vehicles on U.S. roads. In states with the dirtiest grids, only a 50-mpg Toyota Prius emits less carbon per mile than a Leaf.

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January 16, 2016
2016 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SL

Good car with some weaknesses.

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Generally a good car. Very quiet and powerful. Burns up tires way too fast due to weight of car and high torque even though I drive in eco mode always. Heater controls are a weak point as you have to take eyes... + More »
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December 17, 2015
2016 Nissan Leaf 4-Door HB SV

Finally gasoline free!

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I loved my 2012 Chevy Volt, but after 50,000 miles with slow charging and still being tied to the gas pump, I'm thrilled to be 100% electric with the 2016 Nissan Leaf SV! The new Leaf gives you an average 107... + More »
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Styling 8
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