2018 Nissan Leaf Test Drive Review: If Only It Wasn't A Car

Test Drive

New generation brings lots of improvements, but nobody is buying cars these days.

The all-new 2018 Nissan Leaf may have a lot of things going for it, but it’s got one huge thing going against it: it’s a car. And perhaps even worse, a hatchback. Now, I’ll be driving a wagon or hatchback until the last one has crumbled into a pile of rusty debris, but I am not the North American market, nor am I a typical consumer. The typical American consumers have spoken, and they want crossovers and SUVs, and luxury ones if they can afford it.

There is no denying that electric vehicles hold a special fascination with the automotive media because the manufacturers, both mainstream and exotic, are developing technology, prototypes, and concepts at a pace more like Silicon Valley than the traditional automotive industry. But when it comes to the real thing for real consumers, viable options have been few and far between. We are all still waiting for the equivalent of the second-generation Prius and its meteoric rise in popularity. The Tesla Model S and Model X make headlines, but is too expensive for the average American family, and the Model 3 is still stuck in endless production delays.

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Its price is also creeping steadily out of affordable range and solidly into luxury car territory rather than the second coming of the Ford Model T. Several companies trotted out patchwork conversion to appease California emissions regulations (Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, Chevrolet Spark Electric, Kia Soul EV), but not until the past couple of years has anything arrived on the scene to join the Nissan Leaf as serious attempts to sell electric vehicles nationwide. With greater variety, consumers can start to shop around and find a vehicle that fits their needs, and as sales of plug-ins increase, chargers are becoming more common, making charging availability less of a worry for potential owners.

The Chevrolet Bolt and Hyundai Ioniq Electric are here already, and Hyundai is adding a second electric vehicle shortly in the form of the Hyundai Kona Electric crossover. Although the Chevy Bolt is a great little car with unexpectedly long 238-mile range, it’s still a small car. The Ioniq might be a more reasonable size, but offers only 124 miles of range. The Nissan Leaf splits the difference with a healthy 151 miles of range and decent size, so at the moment it’s the Goldilocks choice of the bunch, at least until the Kona arrives with its best-of-both-worlds 250 miles of range and crossover practicality.

Considering Nissan knows the value of small crossovers, what with its extensive lineup of SUVs, it makes you wonder why it didn’t have a Leaf crossover waiting in the wings at launch, or simply relaunch it as a crossover. Nevertheless, it’s a car and it’s not selling all that well even with its newfound 151-mile range, up from 107 miles for the 2016 model. Later this year Nissan will offer a larger battery that will take its range to 225 miles, but how is it as a car? The 2018 Leaf is powered by a 110-kilowatt electric motor, which is the equivalent of 147 hp, but the good news is that it also comes packing 236 lb-ft of torque.

As it’s a front-wheel drive car, the throttle tuning holds back torque when you first roll away, and accelerating mildly saves energy and range anyway, but it also saves you from needlessly spinning the efficiency-minded tires. However, once rolling along, that 236 lb-ft can provide a quick surge of acceleration – perfect for a passing maneuver or ramping up to highway speeds for a seamless merge. At higher cruising speeds, it’s fine for cruising but accelerating demands more time. As an electric car, its natural habitat is the city, where its good visibility and light steering make it easy to maneuver, although its turning circle is a bit wide, so parking lots and maneuvers require extra attention.

Of course, it’s all made easier by the standard back-up camera, and a 360-degree Around-View Monitor on top-trim SL models. However, the Nissan Leaf is also an excellent highway cruiser, its wide, low body hugging the road and feeling planted, although the steering here feels a bit too light and vague. Nissan’s ProPilot adaptive cruise and driver aids were excellent, maintaining a consistent gap even in heavy traffic, and helping with the steering by nudging the car back to center thanks to lane keep assist. As you would expect in a practical, efficiency-first car, the Nissan Leaf rides on a comfort-first suspension, although it is a bit clunky on rougher roads.

Even though it's uninspiring in corners, with plenty of understeer if you go looking for it, it gets the job done respectably. If you’re looking for a bit more fun in your electric car, have a bit more budget, and don’t need much range, the BMW i3s may look goofy, but handles like a champ. While the Leaf drives very much like an ordinary, boring car in most respects, it does have a couple of EV tricks up its sleeve as well. In Eco mode, it simply dulls throttle to make your acceleration more efficient. It also has an e-Pedal mode that uses aggressive regenerative braking to slow you down as soon as you lift off the accelerator.

This allows one-foot driving as you will come to a gradual, complete stop just by easing your right foot up as you approach intersections or traffic. Then again, the adaptive cruise takes care of all of that all on its own in traffic, with lane keep assist helping with the steering so that’s even better. The goofy little shifter divided opinion in our household. I’ve always found the light action and odd gear setup in the Prius and some other hybrids irritating because it feels insubstantial and takes more getting used to than other novelty transmission selectors like dials and buttons. However, my wife loved it, as it was so easy to shift and a relief for the joint problems she suffers.

It’s always interesting to see things from a different perspective, and there will be many that appreciate the low effort of the Leaf shifter. With low-effort steering and shifting, and a whole suite of driving aids to keep you safe and help with rush-hour stress, the Leaf is an easy car to drive, that’s for sure, but the cabin posed some challenges even while offering the latest features and tech. For starters, the seating position never felt comfortable for me even though the seats themselves were well supported and nicely contoured. But the steering wheel only tilts and the dead pedal is a tiny, useless space that wouldn’t let my foot and leg get comfortable.

Call me a princess with a pea under her 20 mattresses if you want, but who wants to drive a car in which you never feel comfortable. But here again, different people might have a different reaction, and my wife found the Leaf’s seat and driving position excellent, so either I’m a weird shape, too tall at five-ten, or the Leaf is designed with short people in mind (my wife is about five feet tall). While the driving position was polarizing, we both agree that the infotainment system and interior, while practical and easy to decipher, had some strange missteps. The materials were generally sub-par for a car starting at $29,990 and climbing up to almost $40K in top trim with the $885 destination fee.

Meanwhile, the graphics in the touchscreen felt a decade behind, except for Apple CarPlay, which was convenient as usual, but I cannot understand why Nissan stretched the graphics, making all the icons and text distorted. Granted, that’s a bit of a personal nitpick, but it cheapens the experience. Another oddity was the button for rear seat heating, which is on the side of the front passenger seat, and activates both sides at once rather than each side being able to control it individually. As far as space goes, the headroom and legroom was good in both rows, plus plenty of cubbies and pockets for stuff and to add a measure of practicality.

The rear seats split 60/40, taking the cargo capacity from 23.6 cubic feet to 30. But it’s not a flat load floor as the folded seats are a foot above the trunk floor because of the 40-kWh battery pack beneath it. That battery was more than enough for our average needs, but we also pushed it out of its comfort zone and had a little mini-adventure finding charging. When using it for the daily commute, which is about 40 miles round trip, plugging the Leaf into a normal 110V household outlet was enough to charge it overnight. If you used up over 100 miles of its range, it would take over 24 hours on a standard household plug.

So anyone with a long commute would be wise to have a 240V outlet or stage 2 charger installed in your garage or within reach of your driveway. A home charging station should cost about a thousand bucks to install (estimates vary for a wide variety of reasons), but possibly more if it requires extensive wiring work. Cutting charge times in half definitely seems like the way to go for peace of mind. If you live in a condo, well, good luck with that. On our way out to drop someone off outside the city, we had scouted out locations for charging because we knew we would need charging to make the round trip. We also tried using the onboard navigation system.

It was pretty much useless, suggesting dealerships in strange locations when some were available nearby, and is far less user-friendly than a smartphone. After trying Google Maps and finding a Stage 2 charger at a dealership, we then tried PlugShare, which uses Google Maps data but features more detailed information about the charger types and even the availability of connected chargers. We found one Stage 3 CHAdeMO charger within easy range, but it failed to accept any of our credit cards, so we made way for that one at the very limits of our range. We made it with a few miles to spare, and a half hour later, had almost 100 miles of range and made it home with plenty to spare.

It goes to show both the challenges of EV living and the quickly developing infrastructure serving EV owners. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have even undertaken this trip in a Leaf, and likely would have been stranded or stuck for hours waiting for a recharge. But now it’s just a bit of added planning and extra time, some of which can be spent grabbing a bite to eat or doing some shopping. Curiously, the Level 1/2 charging cable that comes with the car is a $1,590 option on the base $30,875 S model and part of the $2,200 Tech Package (that also includes ProPilot, driving aids, and other good content) on the $33,375 SV models.

But it really should be standard equipment and something I would want even if a charging station was set up at home. With that in mind, the fully loaded SL with the Tech package (which adds ProPilot Assist and a few other tech features for $650) adds up to $37,735 with destination, but don’t forget that the Leaf qualifies for the $7,500 federal tax credit, plus any incentives in your state, which could make it highly competitive with regular gas hatchbacks like the Volkswagen Golf or Honda Civic Hatch, especially if electricity is cheap and gas expensive where you live.

When all is said and done, the 2018 Nissan Leaf is a substantial improvement over the previous generation, mainly because the range is solidly above typical daily needs and then some, and it drives as well as it needs to for a commuter appliance. While it has been a smashing success right out of the gate in Canada (already setting its best sales year ever in just four months on sale), it’s off to a slow start in the US with a couple of average months since going on sale, and nowhere near its 2014 peak. While it has its quirks and flaws, it’s a good car overall, but in a market hungry for crossovers, it might be missing an opportunity to lead the pack in sparking consumers’ interest in electric vehicles on a larger scale.

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