Car reviews - Nissan - Leaf
Feels normal to drive, well-integrated e-Pedal functionality, strong body control, plenty of grip, comfortable ride, loaded with standard equipment – including smartphone mirroring
Room for improvement
Feels normal to drive, uncompetitive driving range – for now, overprotective lane departure warning, not particularly practical, quirky cabin, cheap hard plastics abound inside, pricing?
Nissan’s got prior experience, but the new Leaf isn’t as electrifying as it could be
12 Jul 2019
NISSAN’S been here before. While Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz and Audi might be launching their first full-electric vehicles this year, the Japanese brand achieved that same feat seven years ago.
Needless to say, it has learnt a lot of lessons since 2012, and it’s this experience that Nissan says puts it at the forefront of the electrification movement.
So, it goes without saying that the new Leaf small hatch represents a huge generational leap forward, but with rivals now emerging in droves, will it be able to assert itself as the best there was, the best there is and the best there ever will be? Read on to find out.
Pardon the pun, but the second-generation Leaf is shocking to drive. And no, we don’t mean it’s really bad.
While most other EVs bludgeon you with their well-publicised ‘instant torque’, Leaf is just plain smooth, which is a good and a bad thing.
Of course, you’ve got 320Nm on tap from the get-go – and 110kW later on – but you never feel overwhelmed by it. In this sense, it almost feels similar in delivery off the line to an equivalent small hatch with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
But naturally there are differences that cannot be reconciled for better or worse, such as Leaf’s overtaking prowess. Stomp on the accelerator while already on the move and it builds speed quicker than you’ll realise. In that sense, it’s every bit an EV.
However, given that Nissan expects Leaf owners to rarely take their vehicle beyond city limits (as indicated by our inner-suburbs drive route at the national media launch), they’ll be mostly subject to its plain acceleration off the line.
Obviously, some owners will prefer this, but the theatre that other EVs provide is just lacking here. And yes, we’re even talking about examples that have similar outputs to Leaf.
For reference, Leaf sprints from standstill to 100km/h in 7.9 seconds, which while decent in the grand scheme of things, is about two seconds off the pace of a potent front-wheel-drive hot hatch – that, by the way, you could be buy for similar money. But more on that later.
In the meantime, it’s time we address the elephant in the room: driving range. Leaf’s 40kWh lithium-ion battery serves up 270km on a full charge, according to Europe’s WLTP combined cycle test that is said to be more realistic than its NEDC forebear.
Nissan reckons this more than enough to end range anxiety, with the average Australian only travelling 38km a day, but we’d wager some people would like to go on a long country drive on the weekend, and in that case, this is not the vehicle for them.
Having driven two different Leafs at the national media launch, it’s hard to assess how much damage our 110km mixed drive route did to the battery, but our rough calculations left us on pace to be at least 50km short of Nissan’s claim.
Needless to say, if you’re seriously interested in the Leaf, don’t expect to travel too far in any direction without sitting around at a charging station for at least an hour to get the battery from flat to 80 per cent – and that’s if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a 50kW DC fast-charger.
Domestically, a three-pin AC wall socket can fill a depleted battery within 24 hours, while a 7kW AC wallbox from Jet Charge can fully charge it in about 7.5 hours, which is perfect for overnight charging.
Either way, when models like Hyundai’s Kona Electric provide 450km of real-world driving range, it’s easy to find Leaf a step behind.
Thankfully, an e+ version of the latter with similar range via a 62kWh battery as well as a 160kW/340Nm motor is likely to head Down Under soon enough. On paper, it sounds much more competitive.
That said, one of our favourite innovations that excites which is available on Leaf today is e-Pedal. It allows the driver to start, accelerate, decelerate, stop and hold the vehicle by using the right pedal only.
While similar systems have been employed before, Leaf’s version is the best we’ve sampled yet. While e-Pedal harnesses the regenerative braking system, it is not super aggressive in its execution.
Sure, when lifting off the accelerator, the driver is quickly reminded that e-Pedal is engaged as Leaf begins to noticeably retard, but so long as you modulate the pedal movements, it’s a cinch to drive easily and smoothly.
In fact, e-Pedal is something that quickly feels normal. Yes, you have to tweak your driving behaviours, but it eventually feels very logical. Frankly, we wouldn’t drive Leaf any other way. But if you do choose to disengage it, brake-pedal feel is surprisingly natural.
As far as the Leaf driving experience is other concerned, it is predictably quiet inside around town, although road noise is definitely more noticeable when cruising on the freeway.
Light steering is teamed with a reasonably communicative chassis. Predictably, the latter keeps body roll in check during hard cornering due to the low centre of gravity afforded by the floor mounting of the battery.
Of note, Leaf offers up plenty of grip thanks to its 215/50 R17 tyres that aren’t as skinny as the hoops on some other EVs. The initial tsunami of peak toque can briefly see traction broken, but the recovery is quick and corners at speed do little to upset matters.
Leaf’s suspension set-up (MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam at the rear) produces a comfortable ride on Australian roads, although we haven’t had the chance yet to test it on lower-quality country roads. Around town, though, bumps and lumps are soaked up.
Our main issue, though, with the driving experience is Leaf’s overprotective version of lane departure warning. It is incredibly sensitive, reacting to any move that sees the driver drift off their line. And with feedback delivered both audibly and physically, it really grates.
That said, this feature forms part of Leaf’s extensive suite of advanced driver-assist systems, all of which are included as standard. In fact, Leaf is so highly specified, it even comes with heated rear seats! They are rarely found on a small hatch.
And frankly, you would want the Leaf to be well-specified, because it costs $49,990 plus on-road costs. An expensive small hatch or an inexpensive full-electric vehicle? We’ll let you be the judge.
Treat it subjectively and while Leaf is kitted-out, its interior doesn’t feel anywhere near as premium as it should. Cheap hard plastics abound, with relief only coming from a bit of leather-accented upholstery on the dashboard and door inserts.
The cabin does, however, bring something long overdue: a new infotainment system. Nissan has been lagging behind in this regard for some time, by the new set-up ushers in a higher-resolution 8.0-inch touchscreen that proudly displays sharp new graphics… but it’s all a little too familiar.
Functionality is still limited, as rather than adding new features, Nissan has just made the existing ones look better. But – and this is a big but – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support is finally here. So, don’t worry about using the in-built infotainment system, plug in your smartphone!
As with any new model, Leaf is not without its quirks, namely the lack of reach adjustment for the steering wheel, the presence of a foot-operated park brake, the unintuitive gear selector, the small passenger footwell and the absence of rear air vents.
Leaf is also not the most accommodating vehicle, with six-foot-plus rear passengers afforded no headroom, even if legroom behind our 184cm driving position is generous.
And there’s the rear storage compartment, which is compromised by a high load lip and eaten into by the Bose sound system’s subwoofer (and Leaf’s charging cable).
Needless to say, Leaf is a bit of a mixed bag and it certainly won’t be for everyone. If you’re after an EV that feels ‘normal’ to drive, Leaf is the best example of that yet, but just don’t expect too much excitement in return.
Model release date: 1 August 2019
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