2013 Nissan LEAF Dials Down EV Torque

By · May 22, 2013

Nissan LEAF

When Nissan launched the 2013 all-electric LEAF, the company boasted the new car's improvements over the previous model year—faster charging, a larger cargo space, and increased range. But while Nissan executives were keen to talk about how much better the home-grown U.S. LEAF was compared with its predecessor, one little fact went unnoticed: the 2013 LEAF has less torque than Japanese-built 2011 and 2012 models.

On paper, the difference isn’t huge: the 187 pound-foot units of torque in the 2013 LEAF compared to the previous model’s 207 lbs-ft. Those who have driven the two models however, say that the difference is noticeable. The 2013 feels less punchy on initial acceleration, despite reaching 60 miles per hour faster than the previous model.

Nissan says the 2013’s reduced torque stems from a redesigned motor and the desire to improve range and driver experience. But excuse me: shouldn’t automakers be maximizing—rather than reducing—the torque characteristics of electric motors?

Drivability in the Name of Range

Nissan justifies reducing the torque in its 2013 LEAF by stating that too much torque affects handling as well as range.

“The natural response of an electric motor is to give its maximum torque from standstill, making it an excellent choice as a vehicle power unit, due to its rapid response to driver input,” Nissan said. “In an automotive application, it is desirable, particularly from standstill, to limit the torque from the motor to reduce the tendency to wheel-spin. Without this, customers would experience not only wheel-spin, but more front tire wear and unnecessary energy consumption.”

Essentially, Nissan is sacrificing initial torque in order to improve energy consumption and reduce tire wear during the frequent stopping and starting of city traffic. Although we’ve heard from several drivers that this makes the 0-30 time feel slower in the 2013 LEAF. (Nissan said it does not provide 0-30 second times for its cars.)

The same justifications are used to limit acceleration on many electric motorcycles, including models designed for first-time riders. Believing riders may not be capable—or sensible enough—to understand the implications of a high-torque electric motor, output is electronically limited to prevent unexpected wheelies and to improve range.

Unfair Disadvantage

While limiting the torque output of an electric vehicle and restricting its initial acceleration may improve its range, the resulting drive characteristics could perpetuate the myth that electric cars are slow and boring.

Many gasoline cars and motorcycles on sale today can easily spin wheels, pull wheelies, and generally loose traction due to too much torque. Yet they are sold with this capability marketing as a welcome bonus. Do automakers, including Nissan, see EVs as cars not intended to be fun and fast?

Let the Driver Decide

Keep this in mind: not all EVs and electric motorcycles on the market today have intentionally limited, factory-set torque. Some, like the 2013 Zero range of electric motorcycles and the 2013 Tesla Model S, feature user-configurable torque, regenerative braking and speed limiters. Others simply have a sport mode, or a way to turn of computerized traction control.

In some ways, it makes sense to limit torque for first-time EV drivers, but like performance sports cars—which invariably can be customized either at the shop or within the car—automakers need to let drivers choose between performance and efficiency when they sit behind the wheel.

Telling drivers what they want, or assuming they prefer efficiency over performance, is a mistake.

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