No matter how much good I have to say about Nissan’s new Leaf (and I have plenty to say), I’m not sure you’ll believe me.
That’s because the original Leaf, as revolutionary as it was as the first fully electric car to be marketed to the masses, was underwhelming, if for no other reason than that its range was only about 80 miles. Certainly that would be fine for a city commuter, but not real practical for much more than that.
Well, the 2019 Leaf SL Plus that I just tested blows the old Leaf into the discard pile. That little word — “Plus” — means this model has an expanded 250-mile range on a full electrical charge. That’ll get you from here to Madison, or Chicago, and back on a single charge. So, no worries about where to recharge before your return trip.
I’m not naive. I know cars need even longer ranges on a charge if a person is to drive them cross country. But the reality is that this 250-mile range meets about 90-95% of drivers’ weekly needs.
I’ll dive into the charging details and all that in just a second, but let’s talk about why else you’ll like the new Leaf.
First, it looks like a normal hatchback, not some freak show car that makes people cringe, or laugh, when they see it. It doesn’t look weird or so futuristic that it won’t resell in a couple years. It also doesn’t look like a Toyota Prius, which while a wonderful car, does have a fuddy-duddy reputation.
Second, and more importantly on a daily basis, the Leaf is quick, handles like a sports car, and rides like a luxury sport sedan. Not what you’d expect with an electric car, right?
Well, put past perceptions behind you. Electrics are quick. They have better acceleration than most gasoline-powered cars, except maybe the high-end rockets that run price tags of six digits or more.
The reason is simple: instantaneous torque. If you’ve ever driven a golf cart you know that as soon as you touch the accelerator the cart jumps to life. That’s true, only more so with the Leaf. Its 160kw electric synchronous motor delivers 214 horsepower and 250 lb.-ft. of torque. It was more than just fun, it was a hoot to hop on the accelerator at a stoplight and watch this handsome hatch run away from everyone behind me.
As if that weren’t enough, Nissan has given the Leaf sporty, precise handling so you feel you’re driving a sports car, or something akin to a sporty Volkswagen sedan. Handling is quick and easy, making the Leaf a breeze to drive and park in town, and a fun bit to flip around tight corners on winding country roads. And with its extended range you can head out into the countryside with fewer worries now.
Ride is probably the most surprising feature. Several passengers were blown away by the car’s stability and feel, likening it to a compact to midsize luxury sport sedan. The low center of gravity provided by its lithium-ion battery pack enhances that solid feel, helps the handling and contributes to a well-controlled, quiet and comfortable ride.
My wife, who doesn't care what cars I test drive and rarely comments on them, said she loved this car’s feel and ride and wouldn’t mind having one. High praise!
Part of that stems too from the quiet operation that comes with any electric car (no engine noise donchaknow). This one was silky smooth to operate and quiet, even on the highway. There’s a little road noise from the tires, but very little. Then again, in a gas-powered car the engine is usually drowning out the road noise.
My test car was a handsome dark metallic blue with a brown and tan dash, and tan leather seats with suede trim and blue stitching on the seats and steering wheel. Blue signifies the power source in many electric vehicles. The trim was flat black by the air vents and gloss black by the shifter and on door armrests. A sort of carbon fiber-look trim insert also lightened the dash’s appearance.
This top-level SL Plus model features luxury touches like the leather seats, which sit upright and give a good view out the large windshield, plus sightlines are good around the car. Front seats here are heated too, as was the steering wheel.
Other standard equipment inside includes: a thick leather wheel, rear seat air/heat ducts, automatic climate controls, 8-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, nav system with 3D graphics, voice recognition, HD radio and XM satellite, Bose sound system and NissanConnect infotainment system.
I also like that the Leaf includes a flat-bottomed steering wheel that projects a sporty flair, reflecting the car’s attitude, and provides drivers more knee room when entering and exiting the car. All vehicles should now feature such wheels.
Safety equipment includes blind-spot warning, a 360-degree backup camera, rear cross-traffic alert, intelligent lane intervention and dynamic vehicle control. This kicks in when the smart cruise control is engaged and helps keep the car within its lane. Originally, I thought this was cumbersome on vehicles, but I’ve grown used to it, and find it can help, especially in crowded freeway driving. That said, the Leaf handles so well it was easy to keep between the lines, so the system rarely adjusted the wheel.
It's good news too, in that the Leaf easily seats four adults and five in a pinch. Rear seat folks said legroom was particularly good and this being a hatch, there’s a fair amount of storage room (23.6 cu.ft.) behind the second row seats. Those split and fold down, although the Bose system’s amp took up a bit of trunk space.
Gas mileage? Ha! What gas?
The Leaf Plus will do 250 miles on a charge, so most folks could go a full week of driving to and from work without needing to plug in. I let the battery get to 30% and then charged it for more than 24 hours to return it to a full charge. I put on more than 300 miles in my test week.
If you have a 220-outlet in your garage the Leaf can be fully recharged in six-eight hours. My little 110-line took longer, and the charging cable had an adapter for that to work. If you’d drained the battery pack entirely you’d need 35 hours, Nissan says, for a full charge when using the 110 line. More likely, if you were like me and had just 110-volt juice, you’d charge it overnight a couple times a week to keep the battery topped off.
Now for the dollars and “sense” portion of the review. The tested SL Plus is pricy at $43,445 with delivery. Only a few minor options were added here to hit $43,920. Know that currently the federal government will give up to a $7,500 rebate on this electric car. Eventually that will go away after Nissan reaches a government-established sales number.
But you needn’t fret if $44,000 is beyond your budget. A base S model lists at $29,990, plus $895 delivery, while an SV goes for $32,490 and an SL for $36,200. Each level gains more features, as with all vehicle makes. But the base Leaf has a shorter, 130-150 mile range. If you’re using this solely for weekly commuting, that would be sufficient and keep the price more affordable.
The base S Plus lists at $36,550 and it, and the other two Plus models, have the longer range. Note too that all Leafs are built in Smyrna, Tenn., if U.S.-built is a priority for you.
Some folks have also asked if electric vehicles are really cleaner than gas-engine cars, considering that electric power often comes from coal-fired power plants, plus their car batteries must be made using rare minerals. My research says yes. Not only are electrics non-polluting as they drive (no hydrocarbon emissions), but overall have about half the carbon footprint of a gas-powered car.
No car is perfect as far as that footprint, but the newer electrics are indeed more eco-friendly. Now, with the Leaf, and other models coming down the road soon, they also are more practical and fun to drive than their predecessors. Test drive one and see if you don’t agree.
Hits: Acceleration, ride, handling and quiet. Looks like normal hatchback, plus has 250-mile range on full charge. Good seats, heated steering wheel, heated front seats, hatch with wiper, good cargo room and flat-bottomed steering wheel. Good level of safety equipment too.
Misses: 35-hour recharge from zero charge via a 110-volt outlet.
Made In: Smyrna, Tenn.
Motor: 160kW synchronous, 214 horsepower
Transmission: single-speed fixed gear, automatic
Weight: 3,853 lbs.
Length: 176.4 in.
Wheelbase: 106.3 in.
Cargo: 23.6 cu.ft.
Range: 250 miles
Base Price: $43,445 (includes delivery)
Fair Market: $41,446*
Major Options: Splash guards, $200
Carpeted floor mats, cargo mat, $195
Safety kit (first-aid, emergency), $80
Test vehicle: $43,920
Sources: Nissan, Kelley Blue Book
Editor's note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.