2018 Nissan Leaf first drive review

The next-gen Nissan Leaf isn't revolutionary, but maybe that's a good thing

No longer the trend-setter, the 2018 Nissan Leaf loses its luster.
No longer the trend-setter, the 2018 Nissan Leaf loses its luster.
No longer the trend-setter, the 2018 Nissan Leaf loses its luster.

Highs

  • 150 miles of range
  • Exterior styling that flies under the radar
  • Neat e-Pedal braking system

Lows

  • Uninspiring driving dynamics
  • Lack of interior space
  • Lackluster interior design

Two years before the first Tesla Model S rolled off the assembly line, the Nissan Leaf became the first modern all-electric car to be produced and sold in large numbers. The first-generation Leaf went on to become the bestselling electric car in history, but after over six years on sale, this groundbreaker was getting long in the tooth.

The second-generation 2018 Nissan Leaf picks up where its predecessor left off, but the Leaf faces stiffer competition. The Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 have proven that long-range electric cars can be affordable, and other automakers have their own mass-market electric cars waiting in the wings. So can the pioneering Leaf stay relevant?

What’s new

The 2018 Leaf continues on the same basic platform as the previous-generation model, but virtually everything else has changed. The most consequential difference is a new 40-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack (up from 30 kWh in the 2017 Leaf), which afford more range. The 2018 Leaf also boasts more power, dramatically different exterior styling, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist driver aid, and a greater range of connected services than its predecessor.

Trim levels and features

As before, the Leaf comes in three trim levels: S, SV, and SL. The base S model starts at $29,990, which, as Nissan was quick to note, is $690 less than the 2017 model. But the 2018 Leaf comes with the bigger battery pack and more standard equipment.

The list of standard features on the 2018 Nissan Leaf S includes a 7.0-inch display screen, Bluetooth, hands-free text messaging, SiriusXM satellite radio (subscription sold separately), 60/40 split-fold rear seat, autonomous emergency braking, automatic headlights, and Nissan’s “e-Pedal” braking system (more on that later). DC fast charging is an optional extra on this model.

Upgrading to the midrange ($34,300) SV model adds 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 7.0-inch touchscreen display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, NissanConnectEV telematics services, and a DC fast-charging port.

The interior is trimmed in materials that don’t feel up to the Leaf’s price.

For our drive through California’s Napa Valley, Nissan provided us with a top-of-the-line SL model. In addition to the applicable standard features from the lower trim levels, the SL comes standard with LED headlights, leather seats, power driver’s seat, heated front seats and steering wheel, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bose audio system, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, Nissan’s Around View Monitor camera system, and a charge cable that can handle 120-volt Level 1 or 240-volt Level 2 charging.

Our test car was also equipped with the ProPilot Assist driver-assist system, which is part of the optional Technology Package on the SV and SL models.

One of the biggest differences between the new Leaf and the old one is styling. Where the previous-generation Leaf tried hard to advertise its electric powertrain with funky styling, the new model looks pretty much like any other hatchback. The design will probably be less polarizing than its predecessor, but it’s also fairly conservative.

Technology overview

Much of the infotainment setup, including the layout of the 7.0-inch central display’s menus and graphics, appears to carry over from the previous-generation Leaf. Interestingly, Nissan even took a step in the analog direction by adding a conventional speedometer alongside the digital instrument-cluster display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, but you don’t get a WiFi hotspot like the one in the Chevy Bolt EV.

The 2018 Leaf also gets a number of connected features under the NissanConnectEV banner. As with the 2017 model, a smartphone app allows owners to remotely check battery status, start charging, turn on the climate control, and find their car in a crowded parking lot. But Nissan is also adding the ability to set a specific cabin temperature, lock and unlock the doors, beep the horn, and flash the lights. You get a companion smartwatch app and Amazon Alexa connectivity as well.

Charging takes 7.5 hours from a 240-volt Level 2 AC source, and 35 hours from a standard 120-volt household outlet (we wouldn’t bother with that). Normally, getting Level 2 charging means installing a home charging station, but Nissan now offers an optional charging cord that can draw the same amount of power by plugging into a NEMA 14-50 outlet (the kind used for washing machines and other large appliances). We’d recommend checking your household wiring before doing so, just to be safe. The Leaf can also be equipped for DC fast charging, which can provides an 80-percent charge in 40 minutes, Nissan says.

Interior fit and finish

The interior of the 2018 Nissan Leaf feels like that of any other small hatchback. It’s a very basic design trimmed in very basic materials that don’t feel up to the Leaf’s roughly $30,000 base price. But everything feels like it could take a beating over years of daily use.

The 2018 Nissan Leaf is a car for average buyers rather than early adopters.

A bizarre, mouse-like shifter carries over from the previous-generation Leaf, and looks just as silly now as it did in that model. The new steering wheel has a flat bottom, which seems a bit presumptuous in a car with no real sporting intentions. The seats are fairly comfortable, but the driver sits oddly high up, in an SUV-like perch. The steering wheel’s lack of adjustability (it tilts but doesn’t telescope, even in the top SL model) makes it hard to find a driving position that feels right.

Headroom isn’t overly generous in the front and, thanks to the sloping roofline, it’s downright scarce in the back. The tall-roofed Chevy Bolt EV and BMW i3 offer more headroom, although rear legroom in all three cars is lacking.

Driving performance and MPG

Napa Valley offers plenty of twisty roads, the kind of roads that, quite frankly, you need something other than a Nissan Leaf to really appreciate. This a car built for tackling the daily commute, not an impromptu dash through the twisties.

The 2018 Leaf sends 147 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque to its front wheels, up 40 hp and 49 lb-ft from last year’s model. It’s also more than what you get in a Hyundai Ioniq Electric or Volkswagen e-Golf, but not as much as the Bolt EV. That extra power definitely makes a difference on the road, but we feel like there is still room for improvement. Off the line, you get the instant burst of torque that is characteristic of electric cars, but from there, power is meted out in a very gradual way that seems at odds with the amount of power on tap.

But while the Leaf doesn’t have many tricks when it comes to acceleration, it can do some pretty cool things with braking. Current owners of electric cars know the joys of “one-pedal driving,” using regenerative braking to slow down without pressing the brake pedal. Nissan took the concept one step further with “e-Pedal,” which can brake the car to a complete stop without the driver touching the brake pedal.

e-Pedal combines regenerative braking and the conventional friction brakes, taking some of the guesswork out of how the car will respond when you lift off the accelerator. With the pull of a dashboard tab, e-Pedal will brake the car pretty much as hard as you would need to in most situations. Instead of using both the accelerator and brake pedals to modulate speed, you simply take your foot off the accelerator when you want to slow down. The system can also hold the car while stopped, including on grades up to 30 percent.

2018 Nissan Leaf review
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

On the road, the blending of friction and regenerative braking is seamless. Braking force was more than adequate for normal situations, and easily brought the car to complete stops consistently in a sedate manner. The only real downside is that it’s harder to judge stopping distances without actually applying the brake pedal. We found ourselves stopping well short of stop signs until we got a better feel for the system.

The rest of the driving experience is fairly unremarkable. The suspension is too bouncy to make the Leaf much of a corner carver, but the ride isn’t exactly luxury-car smooth either. It’s what you’d expect from an average car, which is exactly what the Leaf is.

The new 40-kWh battery pack provides an estimated 150 miles of range, compared to 107 miles for the old 30-kWh Leaf. We didn’t have the opportunity to test that claim during our relatively short test drive, but if that figure holds up in the real world it should be more than adequate for most people’s daily needs. The Leaf offers substantially more range than other similarly priced electric cars but it can’t match the 200-plus-mile ranges of the more expensive Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3.

Safety

Our test car was equipped with the optional ProPilot Assist system, which rolled out on the Rogue crossover. The system allows the car to take over acceleration, steering and braking under specific conditions on the highway. It’s basically an adaptive cruise control system with added steering assist.

Nissan is adamant that ProPilot Assist is a driver aid, not a self-driving feature. Sure enough, taking your hands off the steering wheel for just a few seconds triggers a series of warnings, and the car will eventually bring itself to a complete stop if the driver doesn’t put his or her hands back on the wheel.

The design will  be less polarizing than its predecessor.

The system worked as advertised on a short stretch of California’s 101 freeway, keeping the car centered in its lane and adjusting speed in accordance with the vehicles in front. But we were driving on a clear sunny day, on a relatively straight road with clear lane markings. Nissan noted a long list of scenarios where ProPilot Assist won’t work, including faded lane markers, sharp curves, the tail end of traffic jams, and direct sunlight. The system also won’t work when the wipers are set on anything above intermittent. We also found that the system got spooked when passing exit or merge lanes, because of the difference in lane markings.

Given all of that, we’re a bit skeptical about the utility of ProPilot Assist. It only seems to function within a very narrow window, and given that you can’t actually take your hands off the wheel, we’re not sure if the steering-assist function really makes it any better than a more conventional adaptive cruise control system. It is possible to spec the 2018 Leaf with adaptive cruise control, but without ProPilot Assist, and that’s probably the better option.

Other safety tech available on the 2018 Nissan Leaf includes autonomous emergency braking, automatic headlights, Around View Monitor 360-degree camera system, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and lane-keep assist. Since it is a new model, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash-test ratings aren’t available yet.

Conclusion

The first-generation Nissan Leaf was a game changer. It was the first mass-market electric car, and the bestselling electric car in history. The second-generation model isn’t revolutionary at all. It’s just another new car that just happens to be electric.

The new Leaf can’t match the 238-mile range of the Chevrolet Bolt EV, and it’s not as much fun to drive as the Chevy either. Assuming you’re willing to wait, the Tesla Model 3 also offers more range, and that Elon Musk mystique. But the Leaf starts at about $7,000 less than the Bolt EV and $5,000 less than the Model 3, and still offers more range than most other electric cars.

The Leaf is a car for buyers who want the benefits of electric power, but still want the look and feel of an ordinary car. It’s a car for average buyers rather than early adopters. But isn’t that the direction electric cars should be heading?