PowerSteering: 2018 Nissan Leaf Review
Electric vehicles are getting easier to own and drive. They can travel greater distances, there are more charging stations, and modern battery technology forces fewer compromises in terms of interior space.
When people think about electric vehicles, Tesla naturally comes to mind. But Teslas are expensive. On the affordable end of the EV spectrum, Nissan has established itself as the go-to purveyor of budget-friendly electric mobility.
The first Leaf went on sale in 2011. A global model, it now ranks, according to Nissan, as “the world’s best-selling electric vehicle.” Now, the 2018 Nissan Leaf is significant improved, falling just short of a complete redesign because it sits on the same platform as the original.
Offering greater driving range, new styling, a reworked interior, and more technology than ever before, the new Leaf represents substantial improvement. And while it cannot match the Chevrolet Bolt EV in terms of sheer driving range, the new Leaf is less expensive and equipped with a more practical trunk.
To learn more about Nissan’s latest electric car, J.D. Power evaluated a 2018 Leaf SL equipped with extra-cost paint and a Technology Package. The price came to $38,130, including the $885 destination charge. This price does not reflect federal, state, or local income tax credits or rebates, which can substantially reduce the price.
What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Nissan Leaf, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this electric vehicle, and what they liked most and least about their Leafs.
Compared to owners of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles (premium brands excluded), Leaf owners are more frequently female (31% vs. 26%), they are younger (51 years of age vs. 55), and they make less money in terms of median annual household income ($123,864 vs. $138,027).
In terms of how Nissan Leaf owners think of their cars, the psychographic profile appears to suggest that they seek inexpensive electric mobility.
Compared to the broader segment, Leaf owners report that they are less likely to pay extra for the latest safety features (73% vs. 80%), less likely to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (82% vs. 87%), and more likely to strongly agree that they avoid vehicles that they think have high maintenance costs (73% vs. 64%).
Furthermore, Leaf owners are more likely to agree that to them a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (68% vs. 51%) and are less likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (47% vs. 62%).
Owners report that their favorite things about the previous Leaf were (in descending order) the engine/transmission, fuel economy, driving dynamics, interior, and visibility and safety. Owners indicate that their least favorite things about the previous Leaf were (in descending order) the storage and space, climate system, seats, exterior styling, and infotainment system.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the Nissan Leaf measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2017 APEAL Study.
Nissan’s restyled Leaf looks like a mash-up of the company’s Maxima sedan and Murano SUV. The result should lift owner satisfaction with exterior styling, though the car still exhibits a significant amount of front overhang, throwing the car’s visual balance off to some degree.
Leaf owners appear to have liked the old model’s interior design, which was more expressive than the new car’s cabin. The old Leaf looked and felt special and different inside. The new one’s interior is more generic and traditional.
Additionally, Leaf buyers should understand that in exchange for a low purchase price, the interior materials leave something to be desired. For example, there is plenty of hard, shiny plastic in this car. But, the price tag relative to the competition is low, so this is a compromise that must be accepted.
What new 2018 Leaf owners need not accept is discomfort. Perhaps my long legs were the problem, but the wide center console and its hard plastic trim proved a constant irritation while driving the car.
The front seats themselves are comfortable. The front passenger’s seat lacks a seat height adjuster, but because it sits high off of the floor, one isn’t necessary. Nissan needs to use denser padding for the door panel armrests, and could stand to put soft material on other surfaces that the driver contacts frequently, such as the upper door panel trim and the edges of the center console.
Because the new Leaf uses the same platform as the old Leaf, rear seat room remains cramped. There simply isn’t much legroom for adults. The seat cushion is mounted nice and high, though, providing excellent support and outward visibility.
Climate Control System
In the new Leaf, Nissan uses the same “bowtie” climate control design that gave the previous Leaf some extra personality. They are easy to see, read, and use.
As for climate system effectiveness, we tested the car in Southern California in the springtime. Temperate weather did not challenge the Leaf’s heating or air conditioning systems.
Though the new Leaf’s interior design is more conventional, it accommodates Nissan’s latest infotainment system, which represents an improvement over the old Leaf.
Featuring stereo control knobs, shortcut buttons for frequently used features, and a flush-mounted display screen, the Nissan Connect infotainment system is easier to use than before. However, the screen size measures just 7 inches across, which makes some of the virtual buttons on the display harder to use. The screen also suffers from glare and easily washes out in bright sunlight.
With navigation, a map shows you how far you can drive on remaining range, and shows where charging stations are located between you and the edge of the range bubble. Additionally, through Nissan Connect EV and Services, owners can remotely program vehicle charging times, check charging status, check vehicle range, and warm or cool the cabin while the car is still connected to the electrical grid.
These functions are in addition to Nissan Connect’s standard offerings, which range from automatic collision notification and a car finder service to safe teen driver functions related to speed, curfew, and geographic boundaries.
Storage and Space
Interior storage space is stingy. Locations are typically undersized or poorly shaped, reducing their practicality.
By measurement, trunk space is generous at 23.6 cubic feet. However, two things impede upon the space before you’ve put anything in it. First, the storage bag for the car’s charger hangs from the left wall, taking up substantial space. Second, in models so-equipped, the stereo subwoofer is bolted to the floor behind the rear seat backs, taking up valuable room.
As a result, I could fit two full-size suitcases placed lengthwise on their sides. Additionally, a roll-aboard could fit, along with a couple of backpacks, all beneath the car’s cargo cover. Still, this beats the Leaf’s most natural competitor, the Chevrolet Bolt EV.
Fold the seats down, and the previous Leaf platform’s packaging constraints remain. Space only expands to 30 cu.-ft., a full 26.6 cu.-ft. less than the Chevy Bolt. The rear seat cushion is mounted above the car’s battery, so the Leaf’s seatbacks simply fold flat. The result is a dramatically uneven load floor and, in comparison to the Bolt, not much in the way of maximum utility.
Visibility and Safety
Door-mounted side mirrors and front quarter windows help to make it easy to see outside of the new Nissan Leaf. Additionally, the car is offered with an available 360-degree surround-view camera system that provides front, rear, and curbside close up views of the Leaf’s surroundings.
As is expected in a thoroughly reworked new car, the 2018 Leaf is offered with a full array of driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies. A highlight is the company’s ProPilot Assist distance management and lane-centering system.
Nissan is clear that this is not self-driving technology, and while it is characterized as a system that can help “ease driver fatigue, and stress, in heavy traffic and on the open road,” the automaker provides a long list situations which can limit ProPilot Assist’s effectiveness.
In short, don’t count on it unless conditions are perfect, and even then, something could occur that reduces the technology’s effectiveness.
From my perspective, this does not ease fatigue and stress. It adds to it. I found that while using ProPilot Assist in Los Angeles that it caused more problems than it cured. Ultimately, I preferred driving the car without the system engaged.
The 2018 Nissan Leaf uses a 110-kW electric motor and a 40-kWh lithium-ion battery. Together, they produce 147 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. of torque.
During my week with the car, the battery recharged at a rate of 4.4 miles of range per hour when using a standard household power outlet. A 240-volt home charging station would significantly improve upon this, and when using a municipal Quick Charger you can expect an 80% charge in 40 minutes.
Acceleration is quick, but the faster you go the less responsive the Leaf is. This, however, is true of most electric vehicles, which rely on instantaneous torque rather than horsepower in order to feel lively in urban driving situations. Nevertheless, the Leaf climbed a local mountain grade at a steady 80 mph, so it has enough high-speed motivation to stay well out of the way of other motorists.
A stylish shift knob and button is easy to use and understand, and the car offers three driving modes. Most of the time, I used Eco Mode, which dulled the Leaf’s responses but did a better job of maximizing driving range.
The EPA says that the 2018 Leaf will provide 110 MPGe in combined driving. I cannot report what testing produced, because none of the Leaf’s displays (as far as I could tell) provides this particular metric.
What I can report is that the Leaf consistently under-delivered in terms of expected driving range, despite my consistent use of the car’s e-Pedal aggressive regenerative braking system and Eco driving mode.
For example, when embarking upon my test loop the Leaf indicated that the battery was fully charged and that I had 152 miles of range. I traveled 71 miles at an average speed of 41 mph, and the car had used 54% of its battery charge.
Electric vehicles have low centers of gravity due to the significant weight of the battery mounted low in the vehicle’s platform. Low centers of gravity typically produce better, more secure handling. That is true of the new Leaf.
In fact, it feels a bit a like a slot car, hugging the road and whipping around corners and curves. Competence, however, is different from enjoyment, and nothing about how the Leaf is tuned suggests that it should put a smile on its driver’s face.
From the torsion-beam rear suspension and dissatisfying brake pedal feel to the light and slow steering and 17-inch Michelin Green X Energy Saver tires, the fact that the Leaf tackled local mountain roads with grace is largely due to that lower center of gravity.
The exception is something called Intelligent Trace Control, which is a brake-activated torq ue vectoring system. No doubt that contributed to the Leaf’s steadiness and obedience.
If all that weight low in a vehicle contributes to favorable handling, it can have a negative impact on ride quality. In the Leaf, there is some expected choppiness to the ride, but an Active Ride Control system aims to help smooth out the bumps through subtle braking and adjustments to motor torque delivery.
Also, it is worth noting that the Leaf is remarkably quiet inside, except for some wind noise that intrudes from the rear of the car when driving on the freeway. Not even rougher pavement produces an appreciable amount of extra rumble.
A pioneer in affordable electric vehicles, Nissan has allowed competitors to leapfrog it in terms of driving range, practicality, and what I would characterize as “shiny bauble” factor. Adopters of new technology like to have the newest, latest, and greatest thing, and the 2018 Leaf’s shine is tarnished by its old platform and restricted range.
In turn, this has placed significant pricing pressure on Nissan, which as a result evidently seeks to dominate the entry-level electric space where vehicles such as the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, and Kia Soul EV currently reside.
Nissan, though, is readying a more suitable Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 competitor with greater battery capacity and driving range. Naturally, it will cost more when it arrives for the 2019 model year. But the new battery option will also allow Nissan to compete across the spectrum of non-premium electric vehicles.
However, until the Leaf gets a true complete redesign with a new platform and vehicle architecture, it could remain compromised by its ungainly proportions, cramped rear seat legroom, and sparse maximum cargo capacity.
Nissan North America supplied the vehicle used for this 2018 Nissan Leaf review.
For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.