When it comes to the Nissan LEAF’s visual design, people usually either love it or hate it. Although many LEAF owners look past its Japanese gizmo aesthetic to what its impressive technology can achieve in terms of brisk acceleration and zero-emissions driving, the design of Nissan’s popular electric car is certainly polarizing.
Among the most striking styling features of the Nissan LEAF are its protruding LED headlights, which Nissan says use less energy than traditional headlights. They are specially designed to redirect airflow away from the side mirrors to reduce wind noise and drag. Its other prominent aero feature is a wide rear-end. From the inside, the car feels wide from side-to-side.
Nissan wanted the LEAF to convey a Buck Rogers feel without being so strange as to alienate mainstream buyers. It is adorable, in a geeky way, as long as you’re willing to toss out stereotypical notions of sleek and sexy performance machines. While the LEAF is not as bland as Japan’s most popular mainstream gas-powered sedans, it also doesn’t turn heads the way splashy EVs like the Tesla Model S and BMW i3 do.
Standard infotainment features of the futuristic yet user-friendly LEAF include Bluetooth phone connectivity, automatic climate control, a four-speaker stereo, satellite radio and a USB port. Optional features include navigation, a seven-speaker Bose stereo, Pandora Internet radio capability, a backup camera and Nissan’s Around View Monitor.
All electric cars are known for high-torque from zero rpm—a gear-head way to say that pulling away from a stoplight is a lot of fun. The combination of quietness and quick lift-off make the LEAF a zippy good time in urban driving.
For official LEAF numbers, the EV is powered by an 80-kilowatt electric motor—107 horsepower and 187 pound-feet of torque—that according to Edmunds.com provides acceleration from zero to 60 mph in 10.2 seconds. That’s plenty of oomph for easy highway merges, but again, it’s zero-to-40 mph performance where the LEAF shines.
The LEAF's battery pack is located under the floor beneath the seats, which helps it to feel stable and steady when taking corners. Overall, the excellent performance and handling of the LEAF—and its high-tech interior—give the Nissan EV a premium feel.
Efficiency & Range
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Nissan LEAF provides 84 miles of driving range on a single charge of its 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack. That’s achievable by everyday drivers based on our rule of thumb that a single kWh yields about 3.5 miles of range—but obviously well short of the 100 miles advertised by Nissan when the LEAF first came out in late 2010.
The not-so-useful MPGe (or miles per gallon equivalent) stat offered by the EPA pegs combined city-highway fuel efficiency at 115 MPGe—right in line with competing similarly sized EVs.
If you drive in a Zen-like manner, in moderate weather, on flat ground, mostly around 45 miles per hour, you could see your range approach 90 miles or even reach 100 miles on a single charge. But if you’re in a rush, or climb a lot of hills, a 75-mile bogey is a good basis for planning usual routes.
Be warned the LEAF does not offer an active liquid-based thermal management system (found in many competing EVs). As a result, range and overall battery capacity in very hot and cold weather can be compromised. As with other cars, regardless of powertrain, running a heater or AC at full blast, and speeding along above legal highway speeds, could mean 10 to 20 percent less range.
Nonetheless, for the average 35 to 40 miles of daily driving by Americans, the LEAF’s 24-kWh battery pack goes the distance, with enough energy in reserve for a second day of traveling before needing to recharge.
In its first two model years—2011 and 2012—the LEAF had a big drawback when it came to charging. Its onboard charger was rated at a 3.3-kW maximum, which limited the amount of range you could add in one hour to about 10 to 12 miles. Fortunately, starting with the 2013 model, the upper-level trims come with a 6.6-kW charger that essentially doubles the amount of range added in an hour to about 20 to 25.
That means a full charge from empty to full takes about four hours instead of eight hours with the older models. (In practice, EV drivers almost never need to charge all the way from empty to full.)
Keep in mind that the base-level 2014 $28,900 S model (minus the “Charger Package) is still offered with the 3.3-kW charger. The Charger Package adds $1,300 to the price.
To use the public DC quick chargers that are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the United States, you’ll need to purchase the LEAF with an SV trim and “Quick Charge Package,” or the top-of-the-line SL trim—either one of which will push the purchase price to the mid- or high-$30,000 range before incentives.
Nearly every public quick charger uses the CHAdeMO standard, which is the same standard found in the LEAF’s fast-charging port. Very few drivers rely on quick charging on a regular basis, but it’s good to know that in a pinch on longer trips you could recharge to about 80-percent from empty in about 25 minutes.
Passenger & Cargo Room
The LEAF comfortably seats five adults. Passengers in the back seat sit slightly higher than those in the front. Given its range, the LEAF is not intended as a long-distance highway cruiser—so the level of space and comfort is quite good for short and mid-distance trips, even when loaded with five passengers. Seats come standard with eco-friendly cloth upholstery, or in leather on the high-end SL package.
The LEAF has a decent 24 cubic feet of cargo space. Fold down the rear seats to increase room to 30 cubic feet. This cargo capacity is similar to the Ford Focus Electric or smaller hybrids like the Honda Insight or Toyota Prius C, although not nearly what is offered in the Prius Liftback. Still, the cabin storage spaces, door pockets, center console and glove box are well designed and generous.
The Nissan LEAF has side airbags; front and rear head curtain airbags; and front seat-mounted torso airbags—as well as electronic stability control and antilock brakes.
It earned a respectable four stars for the four major scores given by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: overall rating, frontal crash, side crash, and rollover.
In its similar tests, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Nissan LEAF a “Good” rating, its top score. IIHS named the Nissan LEAF a “Top Safety Pick.”
On. Jan. 8, 2014, Nissan announced a modest $180 increase in the starting price of the 2014 all-electric LEAF, compared to the 2013 model. The entry-level S trim is now priced at $28,900. The only change in features is the inclusion of the RearView Monitor as standard equipment on all models, where it was previously part of the “Charge Package.” There is also one new exterior color—Gun Metallic—bringing the total number of available colors to seven. (A voice command navigation system and text message reader is also now available.)
The LEAF’s SV and SL trim choices will also be offered in 2014 with a $180 increase. The LEAF SV is now priced at $32,000, and the SL at $35,020.
U.S. sales of the LEAF set records in 2013—largely due to a hefty $6,400 drop in price in January 2013. Apparently, with the drop in price last year, and the establishment of very attractive $199 monthly lease packages, Nissan discovered the right market price for sales growth of its popular electric car. The base-level model can now be had for even less than $199 a month. It makes sense to shop around, based on reports that some Nissan dealerships are keener to make deals on EVs than others.
The Nissan LEAF qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit, and a $2,500 rebate in California (which also grants a white HOV sticker, allowing solo-driving in carpool lanes.)
Comparisons of Similar Cars
In 2013, Nissan sold 22,610 LEAFs—trouncing the nearest competing similarly-sized and priced fully electric models. The Ford Focus Electric came in a distant second place with 1,738 sales in 2013 across the United States. This sales statistic makes the emphatic point that—in terms of price, capabilities and availability—the Nissan LEAF is in a category of its own for pure battery-electric vehicles.
Buyers wanting a pure EV, but entirely turned off by the LEAF’s looks, can consider competing electric cars that are based on gas-powered designs: the Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Spark EV, Honda Fit EV, or Fiat 500e. The Chevy Spark is perhaps the standout in this pack, specifically based on a compelling lease price and its 400 pound-feet of torque, more than a Ferrari 458 Italian supercar. (Although, the Spark is also not exactly a looker.) It’s too early to tell how the Volkswagen E-Golf, due later in 2014, will stack up.
Well-heeled buyers can always upgrade to a Tesla Model S, which is a much larger, capable and more expensive EV. Those willing to mix in a little internal combustion with electric propulsion—or wanting to break the boundaries of electric driving range—could consider one of the many excellent plug-in hybrids on the market, starting with the Chevy Volt.
As of mid-2012, the LEAF is available at Nissan dealerships in all 50 states. That makes it the only pure EV available throughout the United States. Many, but not all, dealerships will have models available to test drive and purchase on the spot.
In the most EV popular markets, consumers are advised to comparison shop between competing dealership to look for the best purchase price and/or lease terms.