Pros: Zero tailpipe emissions; zero dependence on gasoline; quick acceleration; sufficient passenger space; lots of features
Cons: Limited range; lack of charging points; relatively small cargo space
The moment it went on sale last year, the Nissan Leaf made history as the first all-electric vehicle to be sold in the United States on a wide scale. Not only does this green machine usher in new age of mainstream zero-emissions motoring, but it also offers a practical hatchback body style and a spirited driving experience. The little Leaf is a viable and appealing option for the driver in search of a more sustainable future.
There are a few challenges. Foremost is that the Leaf's cruising range is limited to about 80 miles. That means owners need to be very conscious of their round-trip mileage when planning the daily commute or anytime they go out.
A second challenge is the lack of recharging infrastructure. There simply are not enough charging points available to support long-distance travel in a Leaf. However, that will likely change in the near future.
The last issue has to do with the time it takes to recharge the Leaf. Using a standard outlet will take more than 12 hours, while a home charger will take four to eight hours. The Leaf's quick-charge port charges the car to 80 percent in just 30 minutes. That sounds more convenient, but not when compared with a five-minute stop at a gas station.
The Leaf's $36,000 price may, at first, be a bit of a shocker, but a sizeable federal tax credit lessens the blow. This is also where you factor in all the money you'll save by avoiding the fuel pump.
For 2012, the Nissan Leaf's base price goes up, but it also has more standard features. These include a battery heater, heated front and rear seats, heated mirrors and a heated steering wheel. In addition, the uplevel SL gets a standard quick-charge port.
Comfort & Utility
The Leaf's cabin is spacious and modern. It's headlined by a center touchscreen that is the display for the navigation system and a readout for cruising range and other data. Good-quality materials and overall craftsmanship mean the interior is better than you'll find in most compact cars.
The front seats are well contoured but don't offer much lower-back support. However, there's plenty of headroom and legroom. The same goes for the rear seat. In keeping with the Leaf's green theme, the upholstery fabric is made of recycled materials.
Cargo space is somewhat limited at less than 12 cubic feet, but that area is both expandable and versatile thanks to the Leaf's 60/40 split-folding rear seats. The hatchback configuration adds an extra shot of utility.
The Nissan Leaf is available in SV and SL trim levels. Standard convenience amenities on the base SV include cruise control, power windows and mirrors, push-button start, heated front and rear seats, a heated steering wheel and a six-speaker stereo. The uplevel SL trim includes a backup camera, a cargo cover and a quick-charge port to get the Leaf up to 80 percent power in 30 minutes.
Standard advanced electronics features on the Leaf include Bluetooth connectivity, navigation, USB interface and Nissan Connection, a system that displays battery charging status remotely using a cell phone. The SL also has a standard solar panel to bring efficient power to some of the car's electronics features.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Nissan Leaf is propelled by an 80-kw electric motor tied to a 24-kWh lithium-ion battery. Output is 107 horsepower and 207 lb-ft of torque. The Leaf's cruising range is between 70 and 100 miles. The exact distance is dependent on many factors, including driving style, usage of cabin electronics and even exterior temperature.
Since the Leaf doesn't run on gasoline, a conventional fuel economy rating doesn't apply, but the EPA has developed a miles-per-gallon equivalency formula for electric vehicles. The Leaf's rating is an extremely thrifty 106 mpg city/92 mpg highway.
Standard safety features for the Leaf include ABS, traction control, stability control and six airbags - front, side and head curtain. The Leaf also earned the highest crash test ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
It may be an all-electric car, but driving the Nissan Leaf feels as normal as driving a well-built conventional compact. The biggest difference is that it's much quieter. Aside from its fluttery sound, the most significant characteristic of the Leaf is the high torque output produced by its electric motor. The result is brisk acceleration both off the line and in mid-sprint, where highway passing can feel effortless.
The Leaf's handling is sharp and quick-footed. It benefits from a well-weighted steering feel and quick turn-ins. Not only is it nimble, but the Leaf feels very well planted and stable, thanks in part to its heavy, low-lying battery. Furthermore, its tires feel good and sticky.
Sharing many of the same suspension mechanicals as the proven Nissan Versa, the Leaf offers a smooth ride that feels good for the everyday commute. And to fight off range anxiety, there is an Eco mode that can taper down engine power to give the car a bit more driving distance. Overall, the Leaf delivers a nice blend of personality, comfort and sensibility.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Volt - The Volt is not an all-electric car. It has the ability to run in all-electric mode for about 40 miles, which is about half as far as the Leaf. But when the Volt's electric charge runs out, the car utilizes a gas-powered generator as a range extender for up to 350 miles, eliminating range-anxiety issues. For short-range driving, it's as green and efficient as the Leaf.
Ford Focus Electric - The Focus Electric is one of the few direct all-electric competitors to the Nissan Leaf. The Focus Electric scores on nimble handling and a refined ride. The Leaf is more responsive off the line and offers simpler, more intuitive interior controls.
Honda Civic Hybrid - The Civic Hybrid enjoys all the virtues of the conventional Civic in comfort, build quality and safety. But the gas-electric compact is antiquated in the realm of green motoring. The Nissan Leaf is far more efficient, eco-friendly and sophisticated. The Leaf also offers a much more peppy driving experience.
Our choice for the Nissan Leaf is the uplevel SL. It includes everything the SV has, plus a handy backup camera system, rear-spoiler-mounted solar panel and, most important, the quick-charge port. The SL is worth its premium for that feature alone.