For 2016, Nissan Leaf takes a leap: Thanks to a new battery pack, the all-electric car now boasts a range of 107 miles, the farthest of any electric car except the expensive luxury Tesla. The hatchback Leaf is the size of a compact car with the interior space of a midsize car.
It accelerates silently to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds, and has a top speed of 90 mph, although don’t expect to go 107 miles at high speed (or in cold weather).
The Leaf keeps up with traffic, is easy to drive, comfortably seats four adults and five sometimes, and is well equipped.
Leaf SV and Leaf SL models get the new 30-kWh battery, with a 6.6-kW charger that can fully charge in four hours, as well as a DC fast-charging port. And electric heater keeps the battery warm when the car is plugged in during cold weather.
The Leaf was launched as a 2011 model, and previously had a range of 84 miles.
The base Leaf S carries over the old technology: A flat 24-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, mounted under the floor under the rear seat, sends electricity to an 80-kilowatt electric motor that drives the front wheels and serves as a generator to recharge the battery during braking. The charger is 3.3 kW.
The Leaf is the antithesis of sporty. Underway it feels like a boring economy car except it’s silent.
All Leafs sold in North America are assembled in Tennessee.
The Nissan Leaf comes with heated seats front and rear, heated steering wheel, Bluetooth, rearview camera, 16-inch steel wheels and plastic wheel covers, dark nylon upholstery, and a 5.0-inch touchscreen.
Leaf SV upgrades to the bigger battery pack and faster charging, plus 7.0-inch touchscreen with navigation, power mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels. Leaf SL gets leather seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, and automatic headlights. Options include surround-view cameras and a seven-speaker Bose audio system.
It’s a unique shape, unusual, a little wierd. There’s no grille, just a sloped nose with a hatch over the charging ports. Rising frog-like headlamps trail off almost to the windshield pillars. LED taillights in vertical ribbons flank the tailgate.
The interior is more conventional, although there’s a weird mix of Space Age styling with cheap controls from the Leaf’s economy roots. The parking brake, an old-school pedal, is especially at odds with the car’s image.
The drive selector looks like a mushroom, and the digital displays are dazzling. A two-row instrument panel is clustered behind the steering wheel, with a big screen in the center of the dash that displays range, energy usage, maps, nearby recharging points, and more. The base Leaf S has a smaller screen.
Sound is an issue in any electric car, because with all the engine noise gone, the other road sounds emerge. The Leaf has its own super-quiet windshield wipers; engineers tried to borrow the wipers from a luxury Infiniti, but even they were too loud.
Driving an electric car feels like you’re driving a clothes dryer, but still there’s something nicer about it than driving a car with thousands of explosions constantly happening under the hood. The Leaf is quiet and calm at all times, so silent around town that there has to be an artificial exterior sound to alert pedestrians.
It starts with a button and goes into gear with a mouse. It can accelerate more quickly than an economy car with an engine, which needs more attention from the driver and sometimes gives drama for feedback. The 80-kilowatt (107-horsepower) electric motor, drawing from the lithium-ion battery pack under the floor, sends a strong 187 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels. It’s there when you need it, although the Leaf is not super-quick for passing from 40 to 70 mph.
To get maximum acceleration you have to press hard on the accelerator. It’s designed that way to make sure you really do want to use up that precious energy, kind of like your computer or television asking if you’re sure you want to delete that thing.
At any speed more than 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.
An Eco mode cuts power by 10 percent, when you’re suffering from range anxiety, but it feels like more than 10 percent, dragging the Leaf down to slow and frustrating. For safety’s sake, Eco is over-ridden when you floor it.
The regenerative braking is tuned to feel like an automatic transmission. A B mode increases the regeneration to feel like engine braking. Because of the low center of gravity from the battery pack there’s almost no body roll, but being a tall car on small wheels, 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.
If you’ve already decided to buy an electric car, the best reason to choose the 2016 Leaf is range.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker. Words by Sam Moses.