YOUNTVILLE, Calif.—Nissan arguably doesn’t get nearly enough credit for mainstreaming the electric vehicle. Sure, Tesla made EVs cool among Silicon Valley’s venture-capital set who aspire to a clean, fast, and prosperous future. And the Chevrolet Bolt is GM’s second bite at the cherry that actually worked, proving all those EV-1s didn’t die in vain. But since 2010, it’s Nissan that has actually been selling the most cars, with more than 290,000 Leafs worldwide, 114,000 of them here in the US.
Now there’s an all-new Leaf, one with better range, more power, better technology, and for less money than before. After spending the day driving one, I came away impressed.
The outgoing Leaf might have sold well, but there’s no escaping the fact that, by 2017’s standards, it was outdated technology. The electric motor has been carried over, but there’s a new inverter, among other improvements. Power output is boosted from 80kW (107hp) to 110kW (147hp), and it’s more torquey—320Nm (236ft-lbs) in the 2018 versus 254Nm (187ft-lbs) in the old model.
Previous Leafs launched with a 24kWh battery, and even when they were bumped mid-life to a 30kWh pack, their range was dwarfed by the Model S and then the Bolt. Lithium-ion know-how has come a long way since then, and so the second-generation Leaf now comes with a 40kWh pack, which means about 150 miles (241km) of range on a full charge. The new pack keeps the same footprint and still uses 192 cells, but now these are bundled as 24 modules of eight rather than 48 modules of four. A 60kWh, longer-range battery is in the pipeline, but we’ll have to wait until model year 2019 for that one. Although Nissan says battery management is improved, we know that some people are still concerned that, without active thermal management, degradation over time will be more of a problem than it is for EVs from Tesla or GM.
Every Leaf now ships with an onboard 6.6kW charger. Supplied with such power, the battery will fully recharge in 7.5 hours. (At 3.3kW, this will take 12 hours, and expect to spend 35 hours charging if you’re limited to a 110v supply.) The SV and SL trim levels also include a CHAdeMO DC fast charging port at 50kW that will add 69 percent (or 88 miles of range) in 30 minutes, or 80 percent (105 miles of range) in 40 minutes. Nissan says it’s exploring the possibility of accepting greater power inputs, but there is nothing concrete to report on that front as of yet.
Finally, at some point, it will also be possible to connect one’s Leaf to the house grid and use it as a mobile battery pack. The idea emerged in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku-Oki earthquake, and between 4,000-5,000 Leaf-to-Grid installations have been completed in Japan. But Nissan USA is still working with charger manufacturers to make that a reality over here; the company tells Ars that it’s protective over the battery warranty and needs to be satisfied that such installations won’t affect the packs’ performance.
Seven years is almost as long a time in car design as it is in battery technology, and so the 2018 Leaf looks very different from its predecessor. Its face now wears the corporate V-Motion grille, with a 3D-patterned, semi-translucent center section that proved impossible to photograph. The car is a more conventional two-box hatchback design now, complete with must-have styling touches like the floating C-pillar and a rear diffuser that looks more than just decorative. The coefficient of drag (Cd) remains at 0.28—a better statistic to bench race would be the drag area (CdA), but no one seems to give those out anymore.
The interior is similarly all new and much larger than before. Rear legroom is easily sufficient for adults, and there’s 23.6 cubic feet (668L) of cargo room. The interior doesn’t feel quite as funky as the Bolt’s—perhaps the choice of black, black, and more black on our test cars is to blame—and the materials don’t always feel as high-grade to the touch. But it’s worth remembering that the most fully loaded Leaf only costs as much as a base-spec Bolt: our test vehicle was a Leaf SL with the technology pack, and it retails for $37,738 before any tax credits or other EV incentives.
From the driver’s seat, a chink finally appears in the Leaf’s armor: the driving position. More specifically, it’s the steering wheel, which only adjusts for rake, not reach. Even for someone as short as I that means the “Italian ape” driving position—arms straight and legs splayed. That this was our biggest complaint when addressing the job Nissan’s designers and engineers completed is a good sign. On the road, the steering feel was good, as was the handling, aided as in most EVs by a very low center of gravity. The suspension is also stiffer than the previous model, with good control over broken surfaces and potholes.
A significant new addition to the Leaf driving experience is its e-pedal mode. You see, first-generation Leafs drove like normal cars, accelerator to go, brake pedal to slow, and a bit of torque creep engineered in to replicate that side effect of an automatic transmission plus internal combustion engine. But every EV to hit the streets since has done things differently; pushing the accelerator pedal of a Model S, Bolt, or BMW i3 will make it go, but lifting that pedal has the opposite effect, causing deceleration via regenerative braking. While you can (and often will) use the brake pedal in these vehicles, for driving in traffic or at urban speeds, it’s quite possible to do everything with one pedal.
Now the Leaf can do that, too, using a feature activated by a button just ahead of the transmission controller. Nissan has tuned the regen effect to be quite strong—similar to the BMW i3. Lifting the pedal will slow your roll at 0.2G and activate the brake lights. Completely lift off the pedal and the Leaf will slow to a full stop with the friction brakes coming in seamlessly. Nissan says the system has been tested extensively on the hilly streets of San Francisco, the toughest real-world test it could find.
Performance is right where you’d expect a car with about 150hp and 3,500lbs (1,587kg): a little slower than the Bolt, but less than 10 seconds to 60mph. Mid-range acceleration felt strong, and you’d never be worried about joining a busy Californian freeway or darting into a sudden gap. And Nissan’s estimate of 150 miles of range on a full charge seems about right.
New driver assists
All Leafs ship with automatic emergency braking as standard, but if you want the latest-and-greatest advanced driver assistance systems, you’ll have to opt for either the SV ($32,490) or SL ($36,200) trim levels and then spec the $650 Technology Package. That gives you an electronic parking brake, high-beam assist for the LED headlights, blind-spot warning and rear cross traffic alerts, and adds pedestrian detection to AEB. It also includes ProPilot Assist, Nissan’s latest level 2 semi-autonomous driving system. (If you just want adaptive cruise control, it is standard from the SV trim.)
Come to think of it, Nissan might not like my characterizing the system as such; it wanted the assembled journalists and influencers on the drive to be under no false impressions that ProPilot Assist was a not self-driving feature. It’s a combo of adaptive cruise control (which uses radar to keep your speed constant to a car ahead) and lane-keep assist (which uses optical sensors to read lane markers and then the steering to keep you centered within them). Nissan’s product specialists were unambiguous about the fact that you need to keep your hands on the wheel, and they bristled when I made the mistake of asking if the car had a specific driving behavior. (Since it doesn’t drive itself, it has no behavior.)
I made extensive use of ProPilot Assist on our drive route. While the adaptive cruise control will function at any speed up to 90mph (145km/h), the active steering assist is only available above 37mph (60km/h) or when there’s a car ahead. It’s also somewhat picky about detecting lane markers, but, once it has done so, it works at least as well as Audi and Volvo‘s class-leading systems, holding you dead-center in the lane.
Should you ignore the copious instructions not to go hands-free, you’ll be treated to an ever-more insistent series of alerts. At five seconds, a large red icon on the dash appears. By 15 seconds there is a second warning, followed by increasingly frantic audio alerts. Attempt to go hands-free for more than 30 seconds and the car will assume you are incapacitated, slowing to a stop in the lane with the hazard lights on. All of this can be cancelled at any time by moving the steering wheel.
The Leaf UI is extremely good about removing any ambiguity when ProPilot Assist is running (there are also visual and audio notifications when it has detected or lost the lane markers), perhaps more so than any other system I’ve tested recently.
The dreaded connectivity
The Leaf also incorporates plenty of connectivity, a topic which I know enrages much of our audience. Perhaps with good reason; the previous implementation of NissanConnect on the first-gen Leaf was discovered to be surprisingly insecure. Nissan told me that was the result of a man-in-the-middle attack made possible because the system used 2G; now that the new Leaf is on 4G, such attacks should be impossible.
Smartphone and wearable apps (available for both iOS and Android) let you check battery status, turn on climate control, remote lock or unlock the vehicle, start it charging, find its location, or remotely activate the horn and lights. There is also Alexa integration—from Alexa to the vehicle only, via Nissan’s API—that lets you use your Amazon device to perform those tasks.
NissanConnect requires an SV or SL trim level vehicle, but you will probably want one of those because it also means a better infotainment system. This system uses a seven-inch capacitive touch screen and comes with both Android Auto and CarPlay, as well as satellite radio. The infotainment system is unobjectionable—neither class-leading nor frustrating to use.
All in all, the 2018 Nissan Leaf was a remarkably competent car, one that incorporates the company’s experience selling hundreds of thousands of EVs together with the advances in the field that have occurred since 2010. The 40kWh battery pack gives it a range that falls in-between the short-range “compliance cars” (like Fiat’s 500e or the Ford Focus EV) and long-range EVs (Tesla and GM). But it’s competitively priced, and 150 miles of range is going to be more than sufficient for the vast majority of the population. And with the knowledge that a longer-range (but more expensive) Leaf is about a year away, it seems to me that the electric-car segment is only getting stronger and stronger.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin
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