The Nissan Leaf is a five-door hatchback all-electric car, already something of an icon, having been around since 2011. Economy aside, it’s best boast is interior space, having the volume of a midsize car in a compact exterior package. The 2017 model is last of the first generation.
An all-new Leaf is expected for 2018, and it is due, because the electric range of competitors keeps increasing. The Leaf is a strong contender with a range of 107 miles, boosted up from 84 miles just two years ago (by a 30-kw battery pack), but the march for mileage continues. The 2017 Leaf cannot match the class-leading Chevrolet Bolt’s 234 miles for miles.
The Leaf is built in Tennessee.
It silently accelerates from zero to sixty in less than 10 seconds, and can go 90 mph, although not for 107 miles. That’s easily quick enough to keep up with traffic. It’s easy to drive, although boring.
Its 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor draws from the lithium-ion battery pack under the floor, creating a strong 187 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels.
The 6.6-kW charger can fully charge in four hours, and there’s an available DC fast-charging port. A plug-in electric heater keeps the battery warm overnight in winter.
The 2017 Nissan Leaf comes in S ($30,680), SL ($34,200), and SV ($36,790) models. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charge.)
The S comes with heated seats front and rear, heated steering wheel, Bluetooth, rearview camera, dark nylon upholstery, 16-inch steel wheels and plastic wheel covers, and a 5.0-inch touchscreen. Leaf SV adds a 7.0-inch touchscreen with navigation, power mirrors, and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The SL gets leather seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, and automatic headlamps. Options include a seven-speaker Bose audio system and surround-view cameras.
With some electric cars, you can’t tell. The Leaf isn’t like that. It announces itself with a weird aero jellybean shape. No grille, rather a sloping nose with a hatch over charging port. Frog-like headlamps rise and creep to the windshield pillars. The tail is striped by vertical LED taillamps.
The cabin doesn’t try to match the aero style, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some space-agey features mingling with some cheap controls. The drive selector looks like a mushroom, and the digital displays are dazzling. The Leaf starts with a button and goes into gear with a mouse. The parking brake still uses a pedal, somehow stuck in the last century.
The instrument panel uses two rows bunched behind the steering wheel, plus a screen in the center of the dash that displays range, maps, energy use, nearby recharging points, and more. On the entry-level S it’s five inches, and on other models it’s seven inches.
Due to federal definitions, the Leaf squeezes into that official midsize interior/compact exterior class. It will seat four comfortably and five without much more effort. That’s only possible thanks to the careful mounting of the battery pack deep under the rear seat.
Since an electric car has no engine to drown out the road noise, a well-isolated cabin is critical. A special detail in the Leaf is its exclusive silent windshield wipers; engineers tried using the wipers borrowed from a luxury Infiniti, but they were too loud. We have to ask: does that mean the new Infiniti will feature Leaf wipers?
Entirely calm and quiet, the Leaf can accelerate more quickly than an economy car with an engine. There’s less drama, but also less excitement. At least less visceral excitement. Being rapidly whooshed can be exciting too.
Those healthy 187 pound-feet of torque is there when you want it, although the Leaf isn’t terribly quick between 40 and 70 mph, the two-lane passing speeds.
At speeds above about 50 mph, the Leaf feels breathless, and the steering gets heavier, like it’s pushing into headwind, which is exactly what’s happening with wind drag, so the range drops like a stone.
The accelerator pedal demands a lot of pressure to get all the way down. It’s a deliberate design, to make sure you’re committed to using up your precious energy and range, not unlike your computer asking you, Are you sure?
The Eco mode cuts power by 10 percent to increase the range, but it sure feels like a lot more than 10 percent to us. It’s a good (and safer) thing that when you floor it, it snaps out of Eco and gives what you ask, all the juice it’s got.
One thing that will be a joy to city drivers, which is most of them because an electric car is really a city car, is the tiny turning circle of 17 feet. Easy to make a U-turn to snag that parking space on the opposite side of the street, like they do all the time in San Francisco.
The regenerative braking is tuned to feel like an automatic transmission. There’s a B mode, which increases the regeneration to feel like engine braking. B mode theoretically brings you more range, because it keeps the battery charge higher and longer; but it requires more concentration from the driver, so allow for that aggressive braking.
The low-mounted battery pack lowers the center of gravity, so the balance is good, and there’s no body roll during cornering, but neither is there much feedback or feel in the steering. Hard cornering isn’t what the Leaf is all about anyhow, nor is that something Leaf owners are likely to engage in, on their way home from the library. However, it is a tall car on small wheels, so it’s sensitive to side winds.
Overall, the Leaf’s handling and roadholding are adequate, but hardly engaging; driven aggressively, it’s disappointing, with numb steering and little feedback. The driver feels removed. But on the upside, the turning circle is a shockingly small 17 feet.
The Nissan Leaf is a contender in the all-electric field. However, a redesigned model is expected for 2018.
Sam Moses contributed to this report.