Words: Don Cheng
Photography: Don Cheng
Published: July 9, 2020
Long before the Tesla Model S was available to consumers, when the Model 3 was just a figment of Elon Musk’s imagination, the Nissan LEAF was the electric vehicle for mainstream drivers. In fact at that time, the LEAF was the world’s number one selling EV, only being surpassed in 2019 by the Model 3.
The first-generation LEAF, which initially began deliveries in 2010, broadened its appeal to buyers by maintaining an accessible price point and maximizing functionality. It utilized a five-door hatchback body and smart battery placement incorporated into its chassis design, which were kept out of the trunk and relocated to under the rear seats, retaining trunk space and keeping a low center of gravity. Despite its laughable range of 117 kilometres on a full charge, the LEAF’s positive sales were a strong indicator that the market was indeed still hungry for a people’s EV.
The second-generation LEAF is now facing fierce competition, mostly from Tesla and also from other mainstream brands. While the hatch is now capable of tripling the paltry range of its predecessor, the majority of that increase comes from bolstered battery capacity. For 2020, Nissan has continued to add further refinements aimed at bringing back its mainstream EV appeal.
To start, four models are now available. In order of hierarchy, they are the 40 kWh S, 62 kWh S Plus, SV Plus, and SL Plus. Nissan adopts a practice that is standard across many gas-powered vehicles, offering different powertrains to suit the needs of consumers. The 40 kWh S comes with a 110 kW motor, giving the compact up to 240 km of range. Moving up into any of the Plus trims (S, SV, or SL) swaps the 110 kW power plant for an uprated 160 kW motor and 62 kWh battery, the latter supplying an additional 123 km of range, for a total of 363 km.
Our particular test vehicle was the optioned out SL Plus, which from a cursory glance, is almost visually identical to the 40 kWh S. That’s a good thing, as the second-generation LEAF represents a radical departure from the bulbous looks of its predecessor (a product of its purposeful form over function design). The front fascia for example has been redesigned with Nissan’s more angular and aggressive looking signature V-Motion grille. The sloping wedge silhouette terminates at a blacked out C-pillar, giving the impression of a floating roof design, another signature design element carried over from other Nissan models. Yet despite the more angular revisions, the hatchback maintains the same 0.28 drag coefficient found in the original model - an important factor in maintaining efficiency when slicing through the air as you drive down the road.
Dive deeper and there are a few subtle clues to signify its Plus designation, apart from the Plus badging and e+ logos found under its charging port, as the front and rear fascia benefit from blue highlights too. Inside, the “eco” blue theme continues. I suppose blue is to Nissan what green is to the rest of the world, with leather-appointed seating surfaces, and a leather wrapped steering wheel with blue contrast stitching. The rest of the interior is a run-of-the-mill affair. For example, large swathes of hard plastics are cleverly disguised under a coat of metallic black paint, and only the driver’s window has an auto up/down feature. Moreover, the automaker’s otherwise responsive infotainment system (NissanConnect) is displayed on an 8-inch touchscreen rendered impossible to view when under direct sunlight - though these instances are rare as Nissan nixed any option for a sunroof to save weight and subsequently, range. While none of these setbacks are offensive in itself, combine them with an MSRP nearing $53,000 and it’s a hard pill to swallow to be on the bleeding edge of the automotive future.
To see where the extra costs come from though, look no further than the technologies bequeathed in the LEAF. Standard fare across all models is Nissan’s Safety Shield 360, an armada of monitoring technologies including front and rear emergency braking, cross traffic warning, blind spot warning, lane departure, and high beam assist. This SL Model also comes equipped with the automaker’s ProPilot technologies. When activated, the system works in conjunction with the monitoring hardware to constantly scan the road, adjust speed, and maintain the hatchback’s position between lanes. The result is a semi-autonomous driving experience that for the most part, just works. During my week with the LEAF, I did notice a few situations where the system would get jumbled and shut itself off. For example, when others decide to cut into your lane suddenly, the car will still rely on you to anticipate and react to it - which isn’t really a fault of the system as it only acts as a semi-autonomous driving aid, and not Tesla’s full blown Autopilot.
The LEAF supports one pedal driving through a user activated e-pedal. Switch it on, and the LEAF will trigger stronger regenerative capabilities by using the electric motor to convert the car’s kinetic energy into electric energy stored in the battery. Unlike the Chevrolet Bolt though, Nissan’s e-pedal will slow the car all the way down to a stop and then activate its hydraulic brakes to hold the car in place without the user having to put their foot on the brake pedal. The brake pedal is still functional during this process should you need to uh….step in, and assist. Though I did find it to be extra stiff with the e-pedal on.
I spent most of the week driving with both the ProPilot and e-pedal activated, and the LEAF provided an incredibly civil driving experience. As with all EVs, the missing petrol sucking rattle can up front resulted in a cabin that felt more quaint. Steering effort is almost non-existent at low speeds, but ramps up to a reasonable weight as the car picks up speed. And despite its non-sporty intentions, the steering feels fairly accurate and responsive. Invariably, as the week progressed, so did my need for more juice to power the LEAF. In this regard, I was pretty happy to see support for both CHAdeMO and Type 1 charging ports up front. Quite impressive was utilizing the CHAdeMO port, allowing the car to charge at a blistering pace, attaining up to 80% of its capacity in as little as 45 minutes. Though users be warned, there aren’t as many CHAdeMO stations as the more popular Type 1 stations throughout the GTA.
The LEAF has been the number one selling EV for nearly a decade, and the second-generation model brings onboard a much needed increase in range that will alleviate even the most anxious range-anxious buyers. Had it been released in 2015, it would’ve further extended the LEAF’s position, but the arena is now hotter than ever. It’s truly difficult to ignore Tesla's overwhelming EV presence, one perfunctory glance at their respective MSRPs and you would see why. At an as-tested price of $53,198, that’s $512 less than a equally spec’d Model 3, which from the factory comes with an additional 39 km of range, a perkier 0-100 km/h time, and the brand cache that Tesla has developed over the last decade. There’s still a lot to like about the LEAF, and we still see much potential for the lower and more affordable trims, but hike up the price ladder and it dangerously begins to encroach into a weight class way above its paygrade.
Model: 2020 Nissan LEAF SL Plus
Paint Type: Scarlet Ember
Base Price: $52,898
Price as Tested: $53,198
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,480 / 1,790 / 1,560
Curb weight (kg): 1,580
Powertrain: 160kW AC Synchronous Electric Motor
Horsepower: 214 hp
Torque: 250 lb-ft
Transmission: Single speed reduction gear
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD