Review: 2012 Nissan Leaf SL
By Kevin Miller
I’ve got to admit, my review of the Nissan Leaf has turned out quite a bit differently than I had expected it to. I’m a bit of a self-proclaimed “range anxiety” sufferer, and I somehow expected the electric propulsion of the Leaf and its batteries to leave me stranded, underpowered or underwhelmed. Fortunately, none of those happened. Actually, it was quite the opposite.
Instead of reviewing the Leaf as an “electric car” (you know, one of those almost-a-cars that provides diminished range, experience and expectations), I can review it just as a car with an uncommon powertrain. That said, here goes.
Nissan’s Leaf went on sale in limited markets in December 2010 as a 2011, model, and is therefore in its second year of production. The car is available only as a five-foor hatchback, in SV and SL trim levels. Styling is at once unconventional, and forgettable. Bulging headlamps protrude from a grill-free nose, slim white tail-lamp fixtures snake up trailing edges of the D-pillars but the Leaf is otherwise a conventionally-shaped hatchback. The Leaf I tested was painted a color called Blue Ocean, which complimented the blue-tinged Nissan badges. Blue is totally the new green- just ask Mercedes and Hyundai, among others.
Climbing inside (after unlocking the car with the smart key in my pocket), my Leaf had nice two-tone brown/tan interior, with (cloth) seat upholstery and door trim significantly more upscale than I experienced in the similarly-sized Nissan Versa a few weeks earlier. The driver’s seat doesn’t offer quite enough legroom for my long legs, so I felt cramped behind the pedals all week, though the seat and steering wheel adjust enough to keep me me from being completely uncomfortable.
The dash and upper door trim is constructed of hard tan plastic, though it doesn’t look bad as auto interior plastics in that color often do. Digital instruments in front of the driver occupy two screens; the top one (viewed above the steering wheel rim) shows speed, time, exterior temperature, and a circular gauge which somehow indicates how efficiently you’re driving (it can gradually grow a conifer-shaped tree if you keep up the efficiency; I only once saw the whole tree during my week with the Leaf). Viewed through the upper half of the steering wheel rim, the lower display shows battery temperature, battery charge level and remaining distance range, a linear indicator of interconnected “bubbles” to indicate how heavily power is being used or regenerated, and a configurable trip computer display that shows distance and some energy usage stats.
Single-zone automatic climate control is provided, as is a touchscreen navigation/stereo unit. The on-screen controls for the audio were small touchscreen pads located very close to one another vertically, which made it difficult to quickly touch the intended button while underway. The navigation system is set up to tell you if a destination you’ve selected is farther than the remaining battery range, and also has an (incomplete) database of available charging locations. (I say it was incomplete because it only shows stations Nissan knows about, but none owned by third-party charge providers like Blink). The screen also can display a type of energy consumption readout, though I didn’t think the information was all that easily digestible at a glance. My biggest complaint about the whole system from a usability standpoint (other than the close proximity of the station presets) was that it lacks a simple knob for adjusting the audio volume; instead you have to use a toggle switch on the unit’s face or an awkwardly-positioned button on the steering wheel’s left spoke to toggle the volume higher or lower.
In the back seat, legroom is about average; my knees were firmly pressed against the seat in front of me when I attempted to “sit behind myself.” Toe room under the front seats is nearly nonexistent. Three seatbelts are present across the back, though there are only two headrests, and hip room for a third passenger would be severely compromised. Outboard rear seat passengers each get a bottle holder molded into the door, and there’s a single map pocket on the back of the passenger seat, there is no 12 V socket back there.
The cargo area of the Leaf is bigger than expected, with a large (for a hatchback) space which would fit about eight grocery bags. The front edge of the cargo area is bounded by a plastic-covered bulge which likely contains much of the Leaf’s battery back. The rear seatbacks fold forward in a 40/60 split to create a load space level with the covered battery pack. A removable parcel shelf is present, though it takes a strong understanding of spatial relations to get it in or out because of the shape of the D-Pillar trim. A storage pouch kept in the trunk contains a 120 V “trickle” charger which I used to keep the Leaf charged during its stay with me.
The Leaf does have a couple of features unexpected in an economical commuter car of its ilk, specifically heated front and rear seats, and a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel. A timer can be set to turn the heater (including seat heater and steering wheel heater- or air conditioner in warm climates) on, where it can run from the vehicle’s battery or from the connected charger power supply. Nissan has an available smartphone app that I used on my iPhone to monitor charging (including remaining charge time) and to turn on the heater to warm the car up using power from the plug before setting off on chilly mornings.
The driving experience is one of the things that sets the Leaf apart from other commuter hatchbacks, but not as much as I expected. Using the flat little breast-shaped gear selector to select Drive, the Leaf pulls away from a stop just like any other hatchback, if not a bit more purposefully than some underpowered internal-combustion competition. With an 80 kW (107 HP) electric motor with full torque available from essentially zero RPM, the Leaf is happy toddling around town, or cruising on the freeway, where I regularly drove at speeds between 60 and 75 MPH just like in any other car. The brakes felt much more natural than in other regenerative-brake cars like Toyota hybrids or the Chevy Volt, without an abrupt/noticeable transition between regenerative and friction brakes (except in some stop-and-go traffic situations). Steering inputs caused the car to respond appropriately, though there was essentially no feedback through the steering wheel.
An ECO mode is available, which causes pronounced numbing of throttle response, essentially providing the golf-cart-like (lack of) acceleration I had initially expected the Leaf to always deliver. Selecting ECO with a full charge increased my range from 85 miles to 95 miles; turning off the heater further extended my projected range to 103 miles. Driving in ECO mode was really no fun, though. Because I like to have fun when I’m driving, I kept the Leaf in Drive and used the accelerator liberally- the way I do in most vehicles I drive. At those times, the Leaf rewarded me by providing much more enjoyment than I had expected.
Of course every car has to stop at some point to refuel. Most cars available for sale today in the US have a fuel tank sized for a minimum range of around 300 miles, and many provide an even longer cruising range between fill-ups. As I mentioned earlier, by putting the Leaf in Eco mode and turning off the heater I was able to get a projected range of just over 100 miles, which is only about ⅓ of a gas-powered car’s cruising range. The “refueling” time for a totally depleted Leaf battery is about 9 hours using a 240 V charger; it can be as long as 21 hours using the 120 V “trickle charger” supplied in the Leaf’s trunk. I got the Leaf’s range as low as 11 miles (remaining charge showed only the bottom two bars on the battery gauge remaining) and it took 17 hours to recharge using the trickle charger, which is significantly longer than I spend at the gas station filling Autosavant’s long term Ford Flex Limited EcoBoost.
The quicker 240 V charger is not included in the cost of the Leaf; Nissan’s Leaf info web page suggests that the cost of buying and installing the 240 V charger is approximately $2000. That being said: do some research, because here in the Seattle-area a Leaf owner I spoke with said that Blink (an independent charging network provider) installed his charger for free. I can report that several retailers around Seattle offer free charging at Blink stations in their parking lots, though you do have to be a Blink customer (with a membership card that’s read by the charging station) in order to get the free charge.
During my week with the Leaf, I drove it about 170 miles (it had to stay home when I went on a ski weekend 120 miles from home). Over that time, the Leaf’s trip computer indicated that I drove an average of 3.0 miles per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Here in Seattle, I pay 10.46 cents per kWh, so all of the energy I used (which would have cost the same with a 240 V charger) cost just (170 mi /3 mi/kWh*$0.1046/kWh), or $5.92. I most recently paid $3.379/gallon for regular unleaded fuel; so that $5.92 I spent on energy for the Leaf could have gotten me 1.754 gallons of gasoline; I would have had to get 96.92 MPG from a gasoline car over the same driving conditions and distance to equal the energy consumption of the Leaf. Perhaps the Leaf’s 99 MPGe rating isn’t so far-fetched.
Still, operating costs are about more than just fuel costs; the Leaf is an expensive car. The Leaf SV I saw at my local dealer costs $33,630 including $850 destination charge (before the $4499 “Adjusted Market Value” markup); the Leaf SL I tested has an MSRP of $38,270 that included optional $170 floor and cargo mats.. You can get two Nissan Versa sedans for that price, which have more interior space (though fewer features) than the Leaf; even at $4.00/gallon, the $16,340 Versa we recently reviewed with its 33 MPG combined rating has an approximately $9800 head start (after a $7500 tax credit, comparing pricing to the Leaf SV); at that gas price the fuel cost would break even after 113,382 miles, which is beyond the traction battery’s 8 year/100,000 mile warranty term. At $5/gallon, the break-even point shrinks to 83,927 miles.
Realistically, then, the Leaf isn’t just an economy car. It’s a car that is used to make a statement. That statement could be about any number of things; every Leaf buyer will have their own rationale for choosing one. The fact that the Leaf drives essentially just like any other car makes it easier to justify the switch from internal combustion to electric propulsion.
Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, a fully charged battery – and possibly a $3.75 bridge toll – for this review.