While I obviously love my trucks and brutish SUVs, I have a soft spot in my heart for EVs. Not only are they pushing the limits of design, manufacturing, and technology, they are often a good insight into technologies that will soon make their way to other categories as well. We're starting to see this with hybrid powertrains appearing in trucks and soon we're going to see other features that were pioneered by EV designers. I first experienced the Nissan LEAF at the Chicago Auto Show back in 2011 and it's captivated me ever since. Today though, the LEAF sits in a unique position of combining all the elements needed to be a perfect vehicle for urban commuters.
I think the thing I like about it is that while Tesla has sucked up all the air in the room - their cars are for elite people who can spend tons of money to feel special. On the other hand, the Nissan LEAF has always been an EV aimed at the mass consumer market. While this frankly has revealed their biggest weakness (range) the platform has provided Nissan with an incredible amount of experience in the EV market. This is something that as battery technology has improved that they are prepared to finally exploit and make the LEAF the vehicle it always should have been.
I can't dance around the issue here. The range on the Nissan LEAF sucks for anything more than being used as a commuter car. It's good in city driving and stop and go traffic but the battery drains quickly at high-speed travel on a highway. That's a shame because it's always been a fun car to drive and this latest version is extremely sharp, with lines that make it stand out as more than just an EV. When it was first launched, I loved to look at it and dream of the future, but it was always "an EV". Today though, it's truly something that I'd consider owning based on the driving experience and ability to turn heads.
I'm being tough on Nissan here and it's because I honestly love the LEAF and I enjoy watching it evolve. For instance, when it launched in the 2010 model year the car only had a 24 kWh battery giving it about an 80-mile range. Today it's available in two models with a 40 kWh battery and estimated 150 mil range and the LEAF e+ with a 62 kWh battery providing a range of up to 226 miles. Additionally, the e+ improves on the motor giving it a 45% boost to 214 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. That still lags significantly behind the comparably priced Chevy Bolt with a 238-mile range, though LEAF e+ is 14 hp more powerful.
Unfortunately, a common factor for all EV's is that the stated range isn't anywhere near what you'll get in practice unless you "drive it like an EV". I'm not going buy a car that I have to drive gingerly - range anxiety is real! In fact, I experienced that in the first 90 minutes of testing the LEAF.
Nissan dropped the LEAF off for me at the San Pedro cruise terminal south of Los Angeles and I wanted to test it out by driving it home to San Diego. At a range of 118 miles, this should have been no challenge for the 150-mile stated range. Unfortunately driving with the flow of traffic on I-5 is not the ideal environment for an EV. While it was smooth and relatively comfortable with a good sound system, and tons of safety features including ProPILOT Assist - it drained the battery quickly. This left me to frantically search for a Level 3 DC Quick Charger to top it off. Luckily this is Southern California and I didn't have to search very hard. After about 40 minutes we were topped off and ready to go again.
I suspect that if I was an actual EV owner, things like this wouldn't phase me and charging would simply become part of my normal routine vs a surprise like this was. However, it did illustrate the biggest weakness that all EVs have.
My initial plan for the vehicle was to test ProPILOT Assist semi-autonomous vehicle steering on a short road trip. Unfortunately, the LEAF is not quite there yet but at a price of less than $40,000 for the 62 kWh e+ I'm willing to let that slide. Battery technology will continue to improve and soon we'll hit that 300-mile range where EVs start being truly practical as everyday drivers. For now though, what my experience did inspire me to consider is that this is the PERFECT car for commuters. It looks sharp, handles well, and the technology is really designed perfectly for someone who might be driving in chaotic environments while physically stressed and or exhausted.
ProPILOT Assist is a Magical Dream For Commuters
Back in Chicago, I had a long commute. It was nearly 30 miles each way and took sometimes as long as 2 hours to get to and from work. I was always exhausted on both ends and in the evenings I was distracted by a variety of factors not the least of which were conference calls that I decided to take on the road rather than spending more time in the office. This is a terrible combination and yet millions of Americans do it each day. Adaptive cruise control was the first step and in various press vehicles over the past few years, I've engaged it in stop and go traffic to ensure more precise control of the vehicle. ProPILOT Assist is the next step in that evolution.
To enable it, you first set the target speed of the vehicle the same way you'd do for adaptive cruise control and then engage the blue ProPILOT Assist button. Now, not only will the car stay a safe distance from the car in front of you - but it will also follow curves in the road as well.
This is not full autonomy, you must still have your hand touching the wheel for it to stay engaged. You can take your hand off for a few moments but otherwise, it helps the driver relax and focus on the situation around them better. It also allows you to stretch and relax as well as avoid erratic movements that might be caused by distraction as you reach for a can of pop or to change the channel on the radio. If you do not maintain control of the wheel though, after a few moments the vehicle will give you a series of warnings and then ultimately apply the breaks, slow down within its lane, turn on the hazard lights, and come to a complete stop.
It worked well in our tests though most of our roads had well-marked lanes and I did not use it in the rain because I don't trust even regular cruise control when there's water on the road surface.
Driver Comfort Is Good For Moderate Distances
This isn't a car designed for long road trips but I felt that the seats were pretty comfortable for the 90-minutes we drove it before needing to recharge. This is somewhat surprising because the original LEAF was unabashedly designed to be as "eco friendly" as possible and that includes reducing as much weight as possible. While that eco-friendly trend continues here, Nissan always seems to understand that comfortable, supportive seats are critical to driver comfort and performance.
I'm a big guy with a long torso and while I had to push the seats all the way back, I felt comfortable in the front seat. That left minimal space in the back for anything other than luggage or maybe a small child.
Nissan LEAF Is Just Fun To Drive
If you've never driven an EV before, go down to your local dealership and take one for a spin. 250 lb-ft of torque is a LOT of power for a small vehicle as light as the Nissan LEAF. To put that into practical terms, the Rogue Sport only has 147 lb-ft. While most people focus on horsepower and top speed, this gives the LEAF a nimble driving experience that is quick to enter the highway, allows for rapid acceleration around obstacles, and is well ... just plain fun.
LEAF Is The Perfect Car For Commuters - and It's Gonna Get Even Better!
This car isn't perfect for every use case and it would be hard for most people to have this as their primary vehicle. We're just not quite there yet in terms of charging infrastructure and battery technology. However, with a starting price of $29,990 (as low as $22,490 after potential tax credits) for the 40 kWh version, it's a great option for someone looking for a fun, comfortable, safe, and good looking car to drive back and forth to work.
I can't wait to see how Nissan continues to evolve the LEAF, it is the future but you can drive it today!