Pros: Never uses a drop of gas; longer range than last year; available luxury equipment; drives just like a normal car
Cons: Even at its peak, range is only 100 miles; long-term reliability is uncertain; performance may leave something to be desired
What's New: The 2013 Nissan Leaf is substantially updated for the new model year. The biggest changes are a new base model and a larger on-board charger. Other revisions include more cargo room and new features, such as leather seats and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The Nissan Leaf went on sale in late 2010 as a 2011 model. Billed by Nissan as the world's first mass-produced electric car, the Leaf's arrival generated major fanfare in the automotive industry. But it wasn't just car enthusiasts who anticipated the fully electric hatchback. The Leaf also scored big points with technophiles and drivers looking to cut down their environmental impact. And it found a following among those who just wanted to escape costly fuel bills.
But it's rare that a car is perfect when it first goes on sale -- and the Leaf was no exception. While the EV's vocal owners were largely happy with their new car, many had suggestions for Nissan about how it could be improved. Although many automakers would wait for an all-new model to make changes, Nissan took a different approach. The company listened to its customers and rolled out a heavily revised Leaf for the 2013 model year.
The biggest change is a new 6.6-kW on-board charger that lets the Leaf recharge in half the time it took the 2012 model to recharge. There's also a new entry-level S model at a lower price. New features for 2013 include leather seats and 17-in alloy wheels. The charge port can be opened with the key fob. And a new B mode increases regenerative braking as the Leaf slows down. In short, the Leaf may look the same as last year's model, but it includes many changes under the skin.
Comfort & Utility
The front-wheel-drive, 5-door Nissan Leaf now comes in three trim levels: S, SV and SL.
The base-level Leaf is the newly available S. Added for 2013, the Leaf S starts at around $29,700 with shipping. It includes Nissan's Intelligent Key system, which allows drivers to open the doors and start the car without removing the key from a pocket or a purse. It also includes heated front and rear seats, Bluetooth, split-folding rear seats, a CD player with USB and auxiliary connection and a heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel. Optional on the Leaf S -- and standard on the other trim levels -- is the new 6.6-kW charger that speeds up charge times.
The mid-level Leaf, the SV, is last year's base model. Nissan lowered the SV's price by $3,380 for 2013, making the base price around $32,700 with shipping. In addition to including all the features from the Leaf S, the Leaf SV adds a navigation system, the new 6.6-lW charger, 16-in alloy wheels and Nissan's CARWINGS system. This system lets drivers use a smartphone to check on their battery charge remotely, or even activate the Leaf's climate control system. SV models also add audio controls to the steering wheel and Pandora radio capability.
The top-end Leaf is the SL trim, which starts around $35,700 -- a $2,410 reduction from last year. But the Leaf SL still offers luxury car-like equipment, including leather seats, 17-in alloy wheels and automatic LED headlights. It also includes a quick-charge port that lets drivers plug into high-speed chargers.
The Leaf's pricing is always quoted without tax incentives, but with such incentives, the Leaf can look far more enticing to most shoppers. The federal government, for example, offers a $7,500 income tax break on Leaf and many competing EV models. And many states offer further tax incentives, as well.
The Leaf's interior is inviting, especially for a compact car. Virtually all the materials are top-notch, though the occasional piece looks and feels like cheap plastic. That's not true of the Leaf SL's leather seats, which rival top-line automakers for comfort and quality. They even include visible stitching in a contrasting color.
In terms of interior styling, the Leaf isn't as revolutionary as its powertrain. The steering wheel is largely unchanged from previous Nissan models. The same is true of the dashboard, climate controls and air vents. That's a good thing for most shoppers, as it means the Leaf will be easy to use in spite of its high-tech motor. The only uncommon features include the Leaf's fully electronic gauge cluster and its shift lever, which is easy to operate once drivers get used to it.
Despite the Leaf's small appearance, interior room is ample, both front and back. Yes, the rear seats can be slightly cramped, but they're far better than backseats in many similarly sized compact cars. Unfortunately, the Leaf's large interior doesn't include its cargo area. While it's not small, the Leaf's rear space certainly concedes some room to the car's batteries. At just 24 cu ft with the seats down, the Leaf offers half the cargo room of Nissan's subcompact Versa hatchback.
From its powertrain to its infotainment system, the Leaf is packed with technology. The most important new tech feature is the car's on-board charger. It's twice the size of last year's charger, which means charge times with a 240-volt charger are twice as fast. While it took six hours to add 75 miles of range last year, it only takes three hours for the 2013 model. The 6.6-kW charger is standard in SV and SL models, and optional in the Leaf S.
The Leaf also adds a new B mode to its transmission for 2013. Also used on the Toyota Prius, B stands for Brake or Braking. Drivers can select the mode to improve the Leaf's regenerative braking. They might feel the car slow down more than usual when they let off the gas, but that's a good thing. It means the Leaf is transferring energy back to its batteries to improve its range. The 2013 Leaf also boasts a more efficient climate control system that won't wear the batteries down as quickly.
Nissan's CARWINGS system is also impressive. Not only does it let drivers use a smartphone to check the Leaf's charge status and turn on the climate control, it also works with the navigation system to scan for the closest public charger. That's a big deal for drivers experiencing range anxiety, which is the fear of running out of juice on the road.
Performance and Fuel Economy
All Nissan Leaf models are front-wheel drive. Regardless of trim level, the Leaf is rated at 107 horsepower and uses a single-speed automatic transmission.
From a performance standpoint, drivers used to sporty cars will clamor for more. Because the Leaf uses an electric motor, its full 187 lb-ft of torque is available at any speed. But while that makes the Leaf feel quick from a stop, it doesn't translate to impressive passing speed. Still, drivers who have spent time in economy cars won't notice much difference from a Honda Fit or Nissan Versa.
Of course, the Leaf trades performance for efficiency. While it's officially rated at 130 miles per gallon "equivalent" in the city and 102 mpge on the highway, the Leaf never actually uses any fuel. Instead, it offers a fully electric range of up to 100 miles -- though that number can vary substantially based on driving style. In the city, the Leaf is far more efficient, thanks to its regenerative braking. That means energy is transferred back to the batteries as the Leaf slows down. On the highway, where drivers don't brake as much, the Leaf is less efficient.
Our test of the 2013 Leaf involved both city and highway driving. Surprisingly, the battery charge, which is now displayed in the gauge cluster, was just below 50 percent after 50 miles of mixed driving. The test even included constant use of the Leaf's climate control and stereo. Of course, the battery capacity will deplete over time. But in its fully charged state, the 2013 Leaf seems capable of reaching nearly 100 miles on a single charge -- though, due to range anxiety, many drivers will never take it that far.
All 2013 Nissan Leaf models include dual front airbags, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. The Leaf also has standard anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and a tire pressure monitor.
The Leaf has performed well in government tests. The hatchback earned an overall 5-star rating in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) crash tests, which measure front impact, side impact and rollover protection. The Leaf also received the Top Safety Pick from the independent Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). The IIHS rates cars based on front, side and rear crash tests, as well as on rollover protection.
For all the new technology in the Leaf, it certainly operates just like a normal car. That's high praise for Nissan, since the Leaf isn't meant to confuse drivers with gadgetry and high-tech equipment. While it can be a little slow, highway merging is acceptable, as is passing. The seats are comfortable, and the driving position is good. Visibility is great, especially with the redesigned rear headrests. The ride is supple, and while steering is light, it provides adequate feedback to the driver. The only major difference between the Leaf and a gas-powered car comes during acceleration, when the Leaf doesn't make a sound.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Volt: The plug-in hybrid Volt is among the Leaf's biggest competitors. Although it isn't fully electric, the Volt can be operated in electric mode for around 30 miles before its gas engine kicks in.
Ford Focus Electric: The Focus Electric is among the only other fully electric cars on the market. Based on the Ford Focus hatchback, the Focus Electric has a similar range as the Leaf -- though its $40,000 base price is much higher.
Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid: The recently released Prius Plug-In operates much like the Volt. While the Prius Plug-In is priced higher than the Leaf, it offers more room and -- with its range-extending gasoline engine -- more range.
Before drivers consider a Leaf, they should decide whether it fits their lifestyle. Many car owners need to travel more than 100 miles at a time, and others don't have access to a charging station. Some will want more performance. But if the Leaf fits into your lifestyle, it's hard to ignore the major savings that comes with driving a car that doesn't require fuel. That's especially true with the Leaf's low lease rates and available federal tax credits. For drivers who do choose a Leaf, we recommend a mid-level SV model, as it has all the luxury you'll need, plus the new 6.6-kW on-board charger.